For 16-year-old Noah Vittengl, who is just beginning to drive, being able to tell a red light from a green light is rather important.
“It’s been difficult trying to figure out what light is what and what color is what,” the Blue Springs high school student said Wednesday.
A few minutes later, Vittengl was witnessing the world with colors a lot closer to what most people see, with the help of special eyeglass lenses that correct deficiencies that make some people colorblind.
“It’s awesome,” he said with a big grin. “Everything just seems more vibrant and clear. Before, the colors were kind of like a blur and not necessarily big and bright. Now it’s like, whoa!”
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Vittengl and two other colorblind men got a more accurate picture of the everyday world when they were each given a free, promotional pair of the special eyeglasses at the Brill Eye Center in Mission. Brill has been offering the technology, known as EnChroma, for about six months and is the only practice in four states to do so.
“This is an innovation that is really making a difference in people’s lives,” said Raymond J. Brill of the eye center. “Whether it’s for safety, like with stoplights, or for aesthetics, like looking at flowers and artwork, or just for everyday life, like looking at food and being able to tell whether the steak is rare or not.”
The technology used by EnChroma, a company based in Berkeley, Calif., was developed in 2010 with funding from the National Institutes of Health. Eyeglasses with EnChroma cost about $269 to $349. They can also be made with prescription lenses. The lenses are effective for about four out of five people with red-green color vision deficiency. They are not a cure for colorblindness.
Being colorblind is a hereditary condition that affects the cones in the eye that perceive color. It is far more common among men, affecting about one in 12. About one in 200 women is affected, but those women will pass the trait to their sons. It is estimated there are about 90,000 colorblind people in the Kansas City area.
To them, the produce section of a supermarket, the arrangements in a flower shop and the magic of a rainbow are dull and drab. They’re used to it because they were born with it. It’s normal until they make the discovery, usually in childhood, that there is more to the world than what they perceive.
Ryan January, a 37-year-old IT professional from Olathe, was in the third grade and was helping his mother decorate cupcakes for a class treat. His job was to sort candy bits by color.
“She kept getting more and more frustrated throughout the evening,” January recalled. Soon afterward, they went to the optometrist.
Austin Mitchell-Goering, a 22-year-old junior at the University of Kansas originally from Baltimore, was in middle school art class and drawing with crayons.
“I’d always get the blue and purple confused, so I would always have to ask the person next to me,” he said. “I scratched a little mark into the purple one so I wouldn’t use that for the sky anymore.”
Mitchell-Goering plays on the KU lacrosse team. Sometimes the boundary lines are red on a green surface. That can be a problem for someone who is colorblind.
On Wednesday afternoon, Mitchell-Goering and January also got to see the world as most people do.
“I can see differences in the grass,” Mitchell-Goering said. “There’s, like, live grass and dead grass. Now I can differentiate everything.”
January looked around and described a slow, subtle effect, like someone turning up the color saturation knob. The painted yellow lines in the street, which looked faded before, now popped off the ground.
“The sky is a much more vibrant blue,” he said. “The (blue) building in the background here just keeps getting brighter and brighter. It’s strange. It feels great.”