Colorblind Teens Experience a World of Color Through Color Correcting Glasses

Patient Expert

Ryan and Garrett Allardyce are 16-year-old identical twins who live in Toronto. They are active teens involved in drama and baseball — and Garrett has his own YouTube channel. They are both colorblind, or as it is more accurately known, red-green color vision deficient (CVD).

In explaining the condition, their optometrist said to think of their eyes as having paint cans where some of the cans aren’t quite full, Andrew Allardyce, the twins’ father told me. Although this is not a technical description, it explains how they don’t experience the full range or intensity of color that people who are not color deficient do.

Red-green CVD occurs in 10 percent of men and 1 percent of women. There are two kinds of cells in the eye, rods and cones, with the latter being responsible for detecting color.

“There is a paucity of cones of that type, not a lack of it,” explains Mark Changizi, Ph.D., who has done research on colorblindness, in an interview with HealthCentral. He’s developed a pair of glasses to help with CVD; but first, more from the twins.

What it’s like to have CVD

Ryan and Garrett explain what’s like to have CVD:

“We’ve gotten into arguments about something being one color or another color before, and we kind of had an idea from very early on,” Ryan explains.

“We’d have trouble distinguishing where one [color] ended and the other began,” he continues, “[and] eventually we heard that there’s actually a term for this where we think we’re seeing colors correctly, but maybe we’re not.”

Although both can identify bright colors correctly, “the one that stands out for me are blue and purple and red and green,” Garrett says.

Both boys are managing quite well in the daily life, although they have come up against challenges in school. Maps are a particular challenge.

“Sometimes there are subtle color differences that we might think of the same colors,” says Garrett.

Not all of their friends know that they have CVD, but those that do “don’t really judge us for that,” Ryan says. Their main annoyance is when people keep asking them to identify different colors.

So naturally, we played that game! I’d purchased some brightly colored candies (Skittles and jellybeans) and the boys tried to identify colors. As they had explained, bright colors were less of a problem, but they did have trouble distinguishing between certain shades, such as red and pink and blue and purple.

Although CVD has not presented a significant challenge to Ryan and Garrett in their life as high school students, it does limit their career choices. Because CVD causes them to not be able to see the full range of color, “which could impact them if they wanted to be a pilot or firefighter,” their dad explained.

The impact of color-correcting classes

Another field not readily open to the twins: medicine. But about 10 years ago, Dr. Changizi performed research on why we see color.

“The kind of red-green color vision we have is peculiar, and it is exactly the peculiarity you need to see blood under the skin of other primates,” he says. “My hypothesis at the time was that coloration was actually for seeing emotion and health in the skin of other primates.”

He coined the term health blindness to explain the problem experienced by medical professionals who have CVD, as they are unable to assess skin tone. This impacts their ability to tell whether the patient is getting enough oxygen, for example. They also struggle to know if patients have rashes, and they are unable to find veins.

This can make them a danger to patients who are in urgent need of surgery. “Color deficient medical personnel are really missing their key sense in the acute diagnosis of a patient,” Dr. Changizi told me.

So he and his colleague Tim Barber developed the VINO Optics color correcting classes to enhance “color vision and your ability to see health states and veins,” he explained. These glasses were designed to help paramedics and nurses do their job better.

During the demo period, he discovered that the glasses were proving helpful for individuals with CVD. He remembers people saying, “fine and dandy about what you said about the vein finding, but can you just stop for a moment; I can see colors all around!” After about six months or so, they decided to sell the glasses for those who are color deficient in the general population, as well.

Ryan and Garrett try color-correcting glasses

Garrett and Ryan wearing VINO glasses by Lene Andersen

Garrett and Ryan wearing VINO glasses. Credit: Lene Andersen

We provided the twins with a pair each of the VINO Optics color correcting glasses. They were excited to try them on. Here are their reactions with the glasses on:

“They make some of the colors pop out more,” Garrett says. “They do a good job in terms of distinguishing colors.”

The twins were excited to see that the glasses made colors more vibrant. They each said that the glasses made colors easier to tell apart. It was an adjustment for them to see colors in a different way, and there was some back-and-forth about which types of colors they like better with and without the glasses.

“I like the blue jellybean more,” Ryan says, holding up the blue candy, “[and] it tastes better, too.”

Both were excited that they got to keep the glasses and wore them on their way to a baseball game.

Dr. Changizi told me that developing the glasses has been a great experience. “Many [people] are so happy to see the flowers and art in a way they haven’t been able to see before,” he says. “And then there’s the other 10 percent in the medical community who can now continue forward in their career.”

With 10,000 pairs sold, he has very much enjoyed doing “something that is useful and helping patients and medical personnel.”

See more helpful articles:

6 Ways to Protect Your Eyes and Maintain Good Vision

How Foods Fortify Vision

Common Causes of Vision Problems