One of the questions I get asked most is, “So, do blind people just see black?” or the related question, “Do you see anything besides black?”
The short answer is that blindness is a spectrum, from total absence of light to the ability to read print letters under some circumstances. Along with this, some of us can’t answer these questions very well, because we don’t know what the heck “black” looks like.
Today I want to talk about my experience of color, and how those experiences were formed in the absence of reliable color vision. Next week, I will share some comments from others with varying levels of color vision, to show the range of experiences people have.
My vision has been stable throughout my life, and consists of “light perception” and occasional “light projection.” This means that I am aware of the presence of lights and can judge their position and relative intensity (such as pointing at the sun, and detecting when it ducks behind a cloud). I can also detect an object’s motion at close range, and can (sometimes) tell if a light-reflective object is in front of me. However, for the most part, color is absent from these perceptions. My awareness of a light’s or object’s presence is usually a binary; the image either is there, or it’s not. Any two lights will look basically the same to me, aside from perhaps a difference in brightness.
There is one rare exception to this rule. Once when I was little, my dad shined a flashlight in my eyes, and I instantly detected something different about the light. I felt a pleasant warm sensation in my eyes, reminiscent of the taste of a curry or other pleasantly spicy “warm” dish, which I had never experienced before. My dad told me this was the color red. A quarter-century later, I got the same warm visual sensation when gazing upon the red ornaments on my in-laws’ Christmas tree, although try as I might, I could not detect the complementary green ornaments. Despite this tiny pocket of red-color vision, I can’t tell if you’re wearing a red sweater; it seems to be limited only to bright lights.
So, without any ability to identify the colors of things, how did I learn about colors?
My early color learning was purely memorization. Roses are red; the sky and ocean are blue; grass is green; snow is white; etc. I didn’t understand what these color labels meant, but this was important knowledge, as it allowed me to understand sighted people’s conversations, and color descriptions in books. I also memorized facts about color combinations; mixing red and yellow paint yields orange, for example, while blue plus yellow makes green. Again, it didn’t really make sense to me, but it was interesting information.
My color understanding took a big leap when I learned about the electromagnetic spectrum in eighth-grade science class. I learned that colors correspond to varying wavelengths of light. Red is the longest, slowest wavelength, while violet (purple) is the shortest, fastest one. Importantly, I was able to map this on to my understanding of sound: color is analogous to pitch, with reds and oranges resembling the lowest notes on the piano, while blues and violets correspond to the highest notes, and yellows and greens sit in the middle.
I also learned that white includes all the colors in equal proportion. This, I might imagine, could resemble a melodic blending of all the possible pitches, although I’m not sure how people get the “smooth” sensation of seeing something that is purely white.
But, then, what is black?
Black objects reflect no light, I was taught. So, logic would suggest that if a black object reflects no light back to the eye, and what we see is based on reflected light, then black objects must be invisible. But, clearly, this is not the case. Entire books are printed in black ink, and sighted people can read the black text without issue. And, I knew that when I wore my black dresses, people could see that I was clothed.
I literally completed a Ph.D. in psychology without really understanding what black looks like. A partial answer finally came during a discussion about something unrelated on Facebook, about two years ago. I asked how people can read books written in black ink if black things don’t reflect any light. An acquaintance of mine (who is partially blind, has color vision, and happens to be a childcare provider-so I guess she knows how to explain things to naïve adults as well as children) told me it’s like the indentations made by a cookie cutter. Black appears as a pattern of absences against a contrasting white (or, perhaps, bright-colored) background, like the visual version of carving out a tactile heart shape in a slab of clay. Just as you can’t get the indentations without the clay, you can’t get black without a contrasting color. Totally blind people, then, definitely don’t see black; and in fact, the ability to see black must rely on the presence of enough color vision to detect contrasts between foreground and bakcground. Being totally blind, then, is more like what we see with our elbows or the backs of our heads.
The concept of color still amazes me, almost like an extraterrestrial phenomenon. It’s something that has clear emotional and practical import for most of my fellow humans, but with the exception of red Christmas lights, is something I can only understand in the abstract. I still have limited understanding of which colors should or shouldn’t be paired together in fashion choices. I get the sense that it’s OK to pair similar colors, and that anything can be paired with black, white, and some shades of gray or brown. For the most part, I’ve managed to bypass the issue by choosing “neutral-colored” bottoms, wearing one-piece dresses, or getting advice on specific outfits from people who can see. This is an area of knowledge I hope to expand on, so I can become more intentional with my color choices.
As I conclude this post, I want to emphasize that there are as many experiences of color as there are blind people. For example, I know several blind people who are quite fashion-conscious, and some who have strong emotional associations with certain colors. Many of us have experienced changes in our color vision over our lives, which influence our thoughts and feelings about color.
Do you have some degree of blindness or vision loss, and an interesting experience with color? Tell us in the comments, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.