The colors were so vibrant, so crisp, so alive that it was hard to turn away.

Joe Whetstine stood in his backyard and just marveled at what he was seeing for the first time. The 47-year-old Franklin resident had been born colorblind. Shades of red, blue, green and purple did not show up well in his vision, giving the world a brownish hue.

But with a special pair of glasses from the Johnson County Public Library, he was finally seeing the full colors of the trees, grass, flowers and bushes.

“I just stood there for an hour, looking around and taking this all in,” he said. “I hadn’t seen this for 47 years, and there was a lot that I now know I’ve missed.”

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Whetstine is one of many Johnson County residents who have taken advantage of the library system’s newest tool. Four pairs of EnChroma glasses, specially made to help sharpen light and colors for people who are colorblind, can be checked out at the branches.

The glasses have been in constant use since becoming available in late April. Colorblind patrons have formed a waiting list to use the glasses, eager for the chance to check a pair out for two weeks.

“This is a brand new experience for a lot of them, and that’s kind of what the library is about: connecting them with experiences they’ve never had before,” said Elyssa Everling, adult reference librarian for the Johnson County Public Library Trafalgar branch.

An estimated 300 million people throughout the world are color blind. The condition is more prevalent in men, though in rare cases women are afflicted as well.

People who are color blind are not actually blind to color, but have a deficiency seeing certain shades. To see color, light enters the eye and activates three photopigments sensitive to the visible spectrum of green, blue and red.

People with normal color vision have overlapping red and green photopigments. In the color blind, that overlap is greater and causes different hues to become indistinguishable, according to the EnChroma website.

The EnChroma glasses were inspired by existing technology used by doctors to protect their eyes from lasers during surgery. The lenses in the glasses remove small slices of light where red and green receptors overlap the most, allowing people to see enhanced color, differentiate between hues and enjoy sharper detail.

Whetstine suffers from colorblindness that makes all colors difficult to separate. In particular, he has trouble distinguishing between blue and purple. He has stories about picking out clothing, thinking it’s one shade only to find out from his friends that it is a bright purple or some other accidental color.

“I see color, but I don’t see the right colors most of the time,” he said. “I’ve worn some shirts that make people look at me like I’m crazy.”

Whetstine heard about the glasses from a friend, who had seen a YouTube video about the glasses. He had asked his optometrist about EnChroma in January, but his doctor had never heard of them before.

When Johnson County Public Library officials contacted area optometrists about finding colorblind patients to try the glasses, they were connected with Whetstine.

“My first thought after not seeing the right color for 47 years was, ‘I’d love that,'” he said.

Everling, who is also the accessibility librarian for Johnson County Public Library, was the one who helped the library system acquire the glasses. Library director Lisa Lintner had discussed them at a meeting, and Everling thought it would be a beneficial tool to offer patrons.

The library encouraged its staff to design programming that would make a difference throughout the county, and apply for mini-grants from the library system. Everling proposed purchasing the EnChroma glasses.

“I challenged them to think outside the box and be creative about how (the library) could offer services or resources that might impact the lives of our residents,” Lintner said. “The EnChroma glasses were one of 23 proposals chosen by a small panel of community members to make Johnson County a better place to live, work, play and learn.

The EnChroma Receptor glasses, the type that the library bought, typically cost $349, which makes them cost prohibitive for many colorblind individuals to buy on their own. But if the library branches had pairs that people could check out, it would allow them to try the glasses before making a purchase, Everling said.

“They’re changing people’s lives,” Whetstine said. “For them to go out and purchase these glasses, and make them available for people, to get them to see color. They’re giving people the opportunity to try the glasses to see if they work for them.”

In early July, Whetstine met Everling at the library’s Trafalgar branch and slipped the glasses on. The first thing he noticed were the balloons hanging throughout the library.

“It was amazing. I can sum it up in one word,” he said. “I could see this red, I could see this purple, I could see this blue. And before I couldn’t.”

Colors that he had never noticed before were so vivid that he had to be careful when using the glasses. Not only do different colors become more distinct while he wears the glasses, but he has noticed that everything is brighter when he has them on.

“Normally, I drive down the road, and everything looks brown: The grass looks brown, the bushes look brown. I don’t see the flowers and different colors,” he said. “Now, I drive down the road, and it’s like, wow, everything is so beautiful.”

Every branch in the Johnson County Public Library system has a pair of the glasses, which patrons can check out for two weeks at a time. They can take the glasses home with them to use in their everyday lives.

The model that the library ordered can be worn over prescription glasses, making them useful to a wide variety of people suffering from colorblindness, Everling said.

“They can take them to places where there is color, like gardens or festivals, things like that,” she said. “We want them to be able to experience color.”

The glasses became available to library patrons in early May. Since that time, the optical tools have been regularly checked out, to the point that a waiting list has formed at all four branches.

Since checking out the glasses, Whetstine has scarcely taken them off. He knows what he’s missing when he takes them off. The experience has been so positive that Whetstine plans to purchase his own pair to use all the time.

He is particularly excited to see the changing of the seasons, and wants to spend as much time as possible taking in the autumn leaves in Brown County.

“My parents used to take me and my brother and sister down to Brown County every fall. Everyone was always looking at the reds and yellows and all the colors. I always thought it was all brown,” he said. “So that will be incredible.”

At a glance

EnChroma glasses

What: Special eyewear that helps people who are colorblind see colors that their eyes otherwise couldn’t recognize.

How does normal color vision work?

Color vision is based on light entering the eye, and activating three photopigments sensitive to the blue, green and red parts of the visible spectrum. In a normal eye, the green and red photopigments overlap. The absorption of light in the right ratios by the three photopigments is critical to color perception.

What happens when someone is colorblind?

For some people, the overlap between green and red is more pronounced, making it almost impossible to see distinct hues.

How does EnChroma help?

The glasses removes small slices of light where the red and green cones overlap the most. This re-establishes a more accurate ratio of light entering the three photopigments so that color blind people enjoy a more normal spectral response.

What is the result?

Color blind people experience enhanced color, improved ability to differentiate hues of colors, and better depth and detail perception.

Who does it work for?

The glasses are not a cure for being colorblind, and work for about 80 percent of people with red-green colorblindness.

— Information from EnChroma.com

Check Them Out

A pair of EnChroma glasses are available at each branch of the Johnson County Public Library.

Patrons can check out the glasses for two weeks at a time.

To check out a pair, go online at pageafterpage.org ans search EnChroma, or go to one of the branch locations:

  • 530 Tracy Road, Suite 250, New Whiteland
  • 401 State St., Franklin
  • 424 S. Tower St., Trafalgar
  • 1664 Library Blvd., Greenwood
Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.