My wife took the first opportunity after we were securely married to inform me that I could no longer wear that
tie with that shirt. She knew what I had only suspected: I was colorblind.
Actually, I’m color-deficient. I suffer from a mild pro-tanomaly, which means that certain shades of red are
invisible to me. I often don’t know whether what I’m seeing is blue or purple. Beiges, ivories, pinks, tans, and
some light greens are ambiguous. I see differences between them – sometimes as degrees of intensity rather than hue
– but not the same differences you see if you’re normally sighted. Magenta, mauve, and puce are just funny names to
me; I would call them by some name that eliminates their subtlety – purple, probably.
For me, colorblindness is a mild nuisance. I hate to shop for clothes because I can’t be confident unless I’m buying
blue, yellow, or white. (A friend of mine once came home with, to his wife’s horror, a pink suit. He thought it was
a nice tan.) And there’s the inevitable question about traffic lights. Answer: red’s usually at the top, green at
the bottom. Even when they’re not identifiable by position – the ones in Austin are sideways – I have no trouble
distinguishing them because the intensity of the two lights is sharply different. The red and yellow lights look
similar, but there’s no danger of my running red lights because I think they’re green.
So subjective a topic as color vision is hard to discuss, not only because I can’t tell you what I’m not seeing, but
because less research has been done on color blindness than on more dramatic and deleterious visual defects. The
tests for colorblindness are simple – dot-patterns in which the normally sighted see figures that the
color-deficient miss – but they are not routinely administered, as are tests for myopia or astigmatism. A few
countries screen for colorblindness in licensing drivers, and there are a few professions in which the test is
administered to applicants because color-deficiency can be hazardous: flying airplanes or working on color-coded
electrical circuits, for example.
Eight percent of the population, the great majority of them male, suffers from some form of colorblindness. Only
.003 percent are totally colorblind, seeing the world in shades of gray. Most colorblind people are trichromats:
They see the three primary colors (red, green, and blue) but have trouble with one of them. About five percent of
the population is deutera-nomalous (green-deficient). My fellow protans (red-deficient) are about one percent of the
population. Dichromatism (total absence of perception in one of the primary color ranges) is rarer. Blue-blind-ness
or blue-deficiency is rarer still, and is often the result of disease rather than heredity.
Inherited color blindness is a sex-linked characteristic. It can’t appear in a woman unless her father is colorblind
and her mother is either colorblind or a carrier of the gene for colorblindness.
The supply of medical research tends to follow demand, and since most colorblind people find the defect easy to live
with, there’s not been much demand for treatment. The treatment that exists – a corrective contact lens developed in
the mid-Sixties – is not widely known even in the profession. One colorblind Dallasite heard the lens discussed on
the “Today” television show and immediately called an optometrist. The optometrist had never heard of it.
Ben Breard, owner of the Afterimage photography gallery in the Quadrangle, is an enthusiastic proponent of the lens,
called “X-Chrom” by its manufacturer. He was fitted with it by Dr. Margie York, a professor of ophthalmology at the
UT Health Science Center in Dallas. “It’s incredible what it opens up to you,” Breard says. “I put mine on and
walked outside and for the first time I could really see the phosphorescent paint on the fire lanes. The needle on
the speedometer jumped out at me. Tail lights on cars were four or five times more brilliant. Things like billboards
and the roofs of franchise places and Gulf station signs popped out. I went into a children’s clothing store and the
pinks and oranges just knocked me over. Pyracantha berries were just glowing – without the lens I didn’t even know
they were there.”
The X-Chrom lens is nothing more than a red-tinted contact lens worn on only one eye. It enables trichromats with
red or green deficiencies to see colors normally, and it increases the range that dichromats with red-green
blindness can see. It’s a little hard to explain why wearing one red contact lens works this way, but it seems to be
the result of “retinal rivalry.” The retina is the light-receiving membrane on the inner surface of the eyeball.
Since accurate vision depends on the coordination of the eyes, each retina strives to compensate for the other one.
The X-Chrom lens admits only red light, so the eye not covered by the lens works overtime processing the other rays
of the spectrum. As a consequence, colors become more vivid. Something of the effect of the lens can be achieved if
you hold a piece of colored glass over your right eye for a minute. When you take the glass away, the right eye will
see colors more or less normally, but the left eye, which has been uncovered, will continue to see things as
if they were tinted the color of the glass. The retinas had been striving to compensate for the discrepancy between
With a photographer’s red filter, Breard demonstrated for me something of the effect of the X-Chrom lens. Holding it
over one eye, I could see more easily the reds in color photographs in his gallery. They vibrated against their
backgrounds as if on another plane than the surface of the photograph. Outside in the Quadrangle courtyards, red
flowers blazed, the letters in a Theatre Three poster danced, and store windows came alive wth a razzle-dazzle of
Christmas reds and greens. This sensational effect, Breard says, eventually goes away. According to Dr. York, the
vibration and the three-dimensional effect result from light rays striking the retinas at different angles; the
brain eventually resolves the discrepancy and becomes accustomed to placing reds in a plane with other colors.
Breard persuaded two Dallas photographers to try the X-Chrom lens. (It’s striking that a gallery owner and two
photographers, visually oriented in their professions, are colorblind. Another colorblind person of my acquaintance
is an art collector and member of the museum board. My totally unscientific theory is that color deficiency may
create a compensatory, greater-than-average interest in the visual arts.) One photographer swore Breard to secrecy;
he’s afraid his business might suffer if other people knew of his colorblindness. I talked to the other one, whose
name I’ll withhold. His initial experiences with full color vision were as exciting as Breard’s, but he has decided
that the disadvantages of the lens outweigh its advantages, and he no longer uses it. “Partly it’s a social thing,”
he says. “There’s no way to get around being self-conscious if you’re wearing a single red contact lens. My eyes are
blue, and the difference between the covered and the uncovered eye was pretty obvious. People would look at me
He also found the lens darkened other colors, such as blue, more than he wanted. It caused eyestrain, and was not
only useless but a hindrance in his darkroom, so he had to put up with the nuisance of popping it in and out when he
was doing studio work. Finally he abandoned the lens, though he occasionally holds a red filter over one eye when he
wants to check a color combination.
Dr. York says many people have trouble getting used to the lens because it can only be fitted in the old hard
plastic lens material. (The Food and Drug Administration prohibits tinting soft contact lenses on the theory that
the porous plastic of which they are made may allow the dyes to seep out.) Wearing a single hard lens may be too
much to bear unless the professional or aesthetic rewards outweigh the pain. It is possible to achieve a similar
effect with a red spectacle lens, Dr. York admits, but because so much light comes in between the eyeglass and the
eye, it is not as successful as the contact lens.
I haven’t made up my mind about the X-Chrom yet, but if you see someonewearing half a pair of red sunglasses
andgrooving on a Coca-Cola sign, pleasedon’t laugh. It’s probably me.