Colors and Blindness

It’s been brought up a few times in the past how my parents learned I was blind because it’s humorous. I know this because when I tell the story in person people always laugh. I guess imagining four-year-old me slamming her head repeatedly into a coffee table is just hilarious that way. For obvious reasons, physical comedy is one of those things I just don’t understand, but to be honest I find the story funny, too, because it’s just the type of ludicrous that convinces me I live in a sitcom. Also, I don’t remember the coffee table [insert head trauma joke here], which acts as a sort of buffer of detachment for me.

Stories like that, I have come to realize, are important not just because they make people laugh at my lack of grace or even because they might “loosen up” to the concept of disabilities, but because they make blindness relatable. Even the least clumsy of us can think of a time where they’ve inadvertently injured themselves on something unseen.

That’s the thing with being born blind that I find both fascinating and relentlessly difficult: relating to “normal” vision. I’ve always seen the way that I do — a world absent of color, depth-perception, and distance vision. One of my favorite things is listening to someone describe a sunset. My father has a particular talent with conveying the breathtaking beauty in astonishing detail. Except as interesting and vivid a picture he creates in his description there’s a point where he might as well be speaking to me in another language because I literally have no understanding of colors.

Growing up I loved to color. As a very little kid I remember having those big crayons that are easier for little hands to grasp and use. There were eight: red, yellow, blue, black, green, brown, orange, and purple. I remember them so well because they were among the first words I ever learned to read and this was so important because the black and brown both looked the same to me. Even the blue crayon itself appeared the same, but I knew when I used it that it didn’t look the same as the coloring I did with those other two crayons. I didn’t really understand why those two crayons had different names when they looked the same to me, but I did know that tree trunks were brown and not black so that seemed a good enough differentiation to my little kid mind.

For some reason enjoyment of coloring is interpreted by adults on almost a continuum of skill so after several years trying to keep my giant crayons working inside the lines I graduated up to the regular sized crayons and that inevitably led to the 64 crayon box. If everyone has their own version of an Unsolvable Puzzle in their life, the 64 crayon box is mine.1 Do you know that there are seven crayons in that box with red or some combination of red in their names? I do because to this day I still don’t understand why there is a red-orange crayon and an orange-red crayon. And what the heck is brick red anyway? I mean, bricks come in all different colors!2

Anyway, getting back to the point, suddenly coloring was so very different. Before the 64-box came into my life I only had two crayons that gave me a bit of confusion and required some extra attention to use. When I went through my new big box of crayons and grouped the ones that looked the same I suddenly had more than half the box in a pile of “black-ish.” And, as I already explained, the labels were far less helpful than my trusty 8-pack. I remember I reorganized the crayons from their original setup where they are grouped by color into something that made more sense to me. Essentially I put my eight trusty friends in the front and just dumped the rest back in the box. When I was feeling particularly adventurous I might sneak out a “new” color to draw with, but when the coloring books were spread before me I only ever picked up a different color if someone handed it to me as a suggestion.

So, you’re probably wondering why I didn’t just ask someone why there were a bunch of repeated, baffling crayons in my new box. Well, for one, I grew up in that strange time when children were taught some amount of manners so telling my parents their gift basically sucked wasn’t remotely a possibility. But more to the point, I didn’t realize I was confused by the crayons. I knew what colors were or at least I thought I did. I mean, we went over them in school and I knew the names of them and various facts like grass is green. Anyway, it became a moot point because it was around this time that I became interested in other art forms like origami and sculpting and making anatomically incorrect horses out of clay for 4-H didn’t require knowing what the heck magenta was.

However, I’m pretty sure if I had tried to explain all that back then it would have been met with bewildered confusion because it happens constantly now when I try to explain it! Here’s an example:

Person: You know you have two different colored socks on?

Me: No. Why, what colors are they?

Person: Well, one is blue and the other is green.

Me: Interesting. They look gray to me.

Person: Well, they aren’t. *indicating each sock* This one is blue and that one is green!

Me:*baffled* Okay then.3

What happens is basically a communication breakdown. The person here is trying to politely convey that my socks don’t match by pointing out their colors and I’m Just Not Getting It. Unfortunately for me that isn’t an excuse because even the most intellectually deficient person on the planet understands what blue and green are. We know that we all have to be taught our colors, but we learn about them at such a young age and after we’ve already had a lengthy visual understanding of them that they are such an ingrained part of our psyche we literally can’t comprehend how someone doesn’t understand them. So, no I didn’t just miss a few days of kindergarten and somehow my teachers managed to forget to check if I got that particular lesson. I’m color blind. I literally do not perceive colors; I physically can’t.

Complete colorblindness is an accurate description for me, but it’s difficult to explain in a way that’s understandable to others because the absence of color and the ability to perceive it are independent of one another. Semantics aside, it’s also a far more rare type of colorblindness than is generally bandied about. Red-green colorblindness is the most common and essentially is the inability to distinguish between the two, which is due, at least in part, because these colors are perceived in hues of yellow, orange, and beige. So, often when I say I’m colorblind it’s understood as I’m seeing some psychedelic version of whats actually there when in fact I’m just not seeing the actual color at all. Yes, I know I said my socks were gray above, but in all honesty I don’t really understand what gray is any more than blue or green!4

What’s really confusing to try and explain is that I don’t live in some drab world of blacks-and-grays. I know this because I can tell the difference between a black-and-white film where things tend to melt together in a sea of monotone blobs and reality where there is a vibrant array of contrast. It’s at this point that I lose any ability to really explain the differences because I don’t understand them any better than any other person. If I could transplant my vision into someone else head they would perceive the way I see completely differently than I do simply because they have an understanding of color perception and would be aware of the absence thereof. The same goes the other way, without an understanding of it, I can’t really paint a picture of the way I see.

What will really bake your noodle is that I have some affinity for the color red. Physically I can’t perceive it, but I can almost always pick out brighter reds — they look, well, warmer — and as yet I can provide absolutely no reason as to why that is. So, while I may never have another anecdotal story to help bridge the understanding of my particular form of colorblindness, I can at least say without guilt that red is my favorite color.

Incidentally, I’ve been told it’s my color. ;-)

  1. Yes, I know there are even bigger crayon boxes out there; that’s beside the point.
  2. It’s also a matter of contention for me, since I’m on the subject, that orange doesn’t smell anything like an orange.
  3. This used to happen so often that for the longest time I only wore white socks because even if they weren’t the same socks, they matched and people didn’t feel a need to point out my mismatched socks to me. And then eventually I found that boring and also keeping white socks white is virtually impossible so I started wearing socks with all kinds of funky designs on them and they almost never match.
  4. Gray to me is everything that isn’t white or black and that’s way too much variety to be what is actually gray.

Comments

  1. This was very interesting. Thank you for sharing your experience! I am glad you had a Daddy who was good at describing the sunset. He sounds like a great man.

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