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Tacoma teen sees new kind of rainbow

Eli Robinson, 13, enjoys seeing stark differences in colors for the first time Friday as he looks around a gallery at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma. The colorblind teen is wearing newly developed glasses that counter a common form of colorblindness.
Eli Robinson, 13, enjoys seeing stark differences in colors for the first time Friday as he looks around a gallery at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma. The colorblind teen is wearing newly developed glasses that counter a common form of colorblindness. phaley@thenewstribune.com

Eli Robinson was nervous.

He was nervous about the newspaper, TV and radio reporters surrounding him last week at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma.

The 13-year-old was nervous about all the eyes looking his way.

But mostly he was nervous that what the small crowd had gathered for would be a bust.

“He keeps saying, ‘What if I don’t see anything?’ ” said his mother, Mary Boone.

Eli, who is colorblind, was about to try a new technology that purports to allow people like him to see color for the first time.

Like many males, Eli inherited colorblindness, or color vision deficiency, from his maternal grandfather.

According to the National Institutes of Health’s National Eye Institute website, “As many as 8 percent of men and 0.5 percent of women with Northern European ancestry have the common form of red-green color blindness.”

People with colorblindness have the same visual acuity as the general population — they are not blind. But they cannot perceive some colors with the same vibrancy as people without colorblindness do. A red brick wall can appear brown for instance.

Colorblind individuals once were barred from military service. Later it was learned that colorblind individuals are less fooled by camouflage. But even today they are ineligible for certain jobs for which color detection is crucial.

Colorblindness varies from person to person. Red-green, the most common and the kind Eli has, makes it difficult or impossible for people to distinguish red from green.

“Red, brown and green mesh together,” Eli said. “Blue and purple are the same thing.” Unable to see the red component of purple, Eli sees the color as blue.

Though he’s too young to drive, traffic lights are particularly vexing.

“At nighttime I can’t see the outline of the lights, so sometimes I get them mixed up,” Eli said.

At school, Eli can’t use different colors to highlight assignments when required, so instead he underlines work with his own set of custom lines.

“I’ve learned to cope with it,” he said.

NEW SHADES

The technology that promises to partially correct colorblindness, and what brought Eli to the glass museum on Friday, came in a pair of simple sunglasses. They are made by the EnChroma company of Berkeley, California.

No electronics are involved in the glasses. Instead, similar to polarizing lenses, the glasses filter out certain wavelengths of light.

Common colorblindness occurs when color entering the eyes is partially or incorrectly transmitted to the optic nerve because of defective photoreceptor cells called cones. The EnChroma glasses are made to partially correct the color transmission.

The company calls the process “chromatic contrast enhancement” and it purports to make colors “pop” with extra vibrancy.

More severe forms of colorblindness make the world appear practically black and white. The glasses affect only the milder versions of the condition. One has to see some color to see more of it.

The glasses are pricey — $349 to $439 on the EnChroma website. The effect lasts only as long as the glasses are worn and is stronger in bright light.

“I’ve seen videos and heard stuff about them really helping people and opening up their world,” Eli said.

The glasses were free for Eli after he won them in a contest sponsored by EnChroma and Clorox. In the video he submitted, he related how his work as a soccer referee was impaired by his color deficiency. Players’ jerseys can blend together, as do field markings.

Colorblind football fans all over the nation got a taste of Eli’s frustration during an NFL game Nov. 12 between the Buffalo Bills and the New York Jets. The teams were wearing solid red and green “color rush” uniforms provided by Nike.

For colorblind viewers, the Jets in green and the Bills in red were rendered into one big indistinguishable brownish team.

Since the game, the NFL has admitted it didn’t test the uniforms for colorblindness but will do so in the future.

Based on a large number of videos posted to YouTube, the glasses have an effect, often emotional, on their users. Wearers often are speechless at the ability to see new colors. Others break down in tears when seeing new colors in their children’s eyes.

Still, it’s impossible to say whether they are seeing the same colors as noncolorblind people are seeing.

The glasses have their skeptics.

Jay Neitz, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Washington and a researcher on color vision, said the glasses are probably not giving their wearers any new color sensations.

The glasses filter color wavelengths at differing intensities, he said. Color vision is the ability to see different wavelengths independent of intensity.

“Of course they may see lots of shifts in brightness, so the world will look quite different, and since a person might suddenly see two things as different that always looked the same before it would be easy for him/her to feel like something marvelous had happened to their vision,” Neitz said.

SEEING COLORS

Boone, Eli’s mother, arranged to have Eli try on the glasses at the art museum because it offered a large number of colorful displays.

Museum staff members were ready to lead Eli on a tour of galleries and behind-the-scene working spaces in the hot shop.

He was trying to keep his hopes tempered.

“I’ve been like this my whole life,” he said moments before taking the glasses out of their box. “I really don’t know what I’m missing out on.”

With his sister Eve shooting video and all eyes upon him, Eli put on the glasses and turned to look at a colorful glass window in the museum’s lobby.

He noticed an immediate difference.

“I don’t know what to call that color,” Eli said, pointing to a violet hue.

“That’s purple,” responded Katie Phelps, a curatorial assistant at the glass museum.

“I’m going to have to relearn every color now,” Eli said.

He wandered through a display of work by glass artist Dale Chihuly. But a large display of color swatches gave him pause.

“Is this red?” he asked, pointing at a brilliant red.

He carefully assessed another color until finally arriving at green, the same hue he painted his bedroom at home, according to Boone.

“My room is this?,” Eli said looking at emerald green. “I thought it was gray.”

After a trip to the Chihuly Bridge of Glass, Eli said he didn’t want to take the glasses off.

“I am realizing how colorless his world has been up to now,” Boone said.

Even before he put on the glasses, Eli had a list of things he wanted to see: sunsets, tulip fields and rainbows.

There’s one other thing the teen might want to add to that “must-see” list: his own green eyes.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor

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