A way for colorblind people to see what they’ve been missing

For much of her life, Olivia Castro has viewed the world in dull hues. Green, orange, yellow and brown were often difficult to distinguish from one another; even blue and purple or light pink and gray appeared to be the same color.

By age 2, her parents, Phil and Monica Castro of Atlanta, were pretty sure their little girl was colorblind, a condition she inherited from her father and maternal grandfather.

“I’d tell her to grab the blue or green crayon, and she was consistently wrong,” Monica Castro said recently.

The couple’s suspicions were confirmed when Olivia completed an online screening test for toddlers.

“I took the same test and had the same results,” her father, Phil, said.

Thanks to new glasses developed recently by a group of Berkeley, Calif., scientists, the 12-year-old is finally seeing the world more like it really is to people with normal color vision. In addition to a pair of EnChroma lenses, Olivia also received free frames from Frameri.

Experts say that while there are many forms of colorblindness, the most common forms are congenital or inherited like Olivia’s. Still, Olivia’s condition is almost an anomaly. Only 1 in 200 women are colorblind, compared to 1 in 12 men.

Phil Castro has known since kindergarten that he was colorblind. And the gene was also in Monica Castro’s family.

And so to those who are like Olivia and her father, the world appears dull and washed out. They can’t see many of the colors the rest of us take for granted: the changing colors of leaves in fall, the true colors in a sunset, a pink flower.

Imagine being a little girl who can’t see pink in all its glory.

“Getting dressed is a struggle,” Olivia said. “And at school, if the name of the color is not on the marker, I have to ask my friends.”

Not anymore.

“When I first got the glasses, I was so excited to see the world in a whole new way,” she said. “I was nervous that they wouldn’t work, but when I tried them on, it was awesome to see the dull colors turn bright.”

Getting the signals right

In people with normal color vision, there are three kinds of cones or photopigments that allow them to see the colors of the spectrum, said John S. Werner, an international authority on visual perception and professor of ophthalmology at the University of California, Davis.

Blue operates fairly independently, but Werner said problems arise when the red-green cones overlap too much, a condition that accounts for 99 percent of colorblindness cases. When this happens, it’s harder to discriminate between colors. Their differences are more subtle.

EnChroma’s glasses re-establish the correct balance between signals from the three photopigments in the eye. Once the correct ratios entering the eye are re-established, the neural mechanisms excite, and the correct color can be perceived.

Werner, who is partially colorblind himself, has tried EnChroma’s glasses.

“Red flowers popped out against the green in ways I’d not seen before,” he said. “There was a big difference in the colors. If you have trouble, say with street lights for example, it makes the difference more obvious to you.”

But the glasses, which range in price from $269 to $450, are neither a cure for colorblindness nor do they work for everyone, Werner said. “Some people find them extremely helpful because they allow you to more easily discriminate between many common colors.”

Although backed by science, including studies funded by the National Institutes of Health, insurance companies don’t cover the cost of the glasses.

And while there are other glasses available, they are designed to help people pass color vision screening tests only, so wearers do not actually see the colors correctly.

A way to fulfill a wish

While colorblindness is often considered a mild disability, studies estimate that two-thirds of people with a color vision deficiency see it as a handicap because it limits their occupational, sports or artistic pursuits.

For instance, Werner said the condition could prevent a doctor from becoming a surgeon in some countries or even entering the university in others.

Schoolchildren like Olivia, in particular, may experience frustration because they can’t quickly and accurately identify and interpret color-coded information or can get labeled as “slow learners” due to undiagnosed color vision deficiency.

While in elementary school, Olivia, now a seventh-grader at Chamblee Middle School, realized people saw differently from her.

“A lot of people assume you just see black and white,” she said. “I see things in different shades. If you see purple, I probably see blue. If you see a light pink, I see white or sometimes gray.”

Then last year, Phil Castro stumbled upon a video of people trying on glasses, including a daughter who’d just gifted her father with a pair.

“The change was so dramatic and stark he got emotional,” Phil Castro said.

About the same time Olivia added a pair of glasses to her Christmas wish list, EnChroma received a donation from Clorox allowing the company to provide glasses free to school children.

But there was a catch. Olivia had to submit a video telling the company what she wanted to do when she grew up, if she could invent anything what would it be, and what did she think the future would be like.

That was easy. Olivia’s passion is helping people. To do that, she hopes to become a family and marriage therapist or hospice nurse. And if she could invent anything at all, it would be a vaccine to prevent suffering caused by cancer.

And what does she think the future holds?

“I think there will be lots of new types of technology, and you’ll be able to do things in a faster and new kind of way,” she told them.

On Oct. 10, the Castros got the news. Olivia had been selected to receive a pair of EnChroma’s lenses.

What a difference they made.

The oranges, yellows and reds of fall were suddenly vibrant. The dull blue recycling bin and dull green trash bins popped out.

“Everything looks brighter,” Olivia said. “It was so cool because I didn’t even know some of the colors that were on my phone case. I always thought it was pastel pink, but it was hot pink. Now I get what everybody is talking about.”

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