Joining the colorful world

EnChroma glasses are a first of their kind treatment for colorblind people. Williston Optometry is one of two practices in Vermont offering the glasses.

Breakthrough in colorblind treatment buoys Williston family

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

Kevin Stephens has never anticipated a fall foliage season with such excitement.

The Williston father confirmed his colorblindness about 20 years ago with a test at an optometrist’s office. For him, and his 7-year-old son who is also colorblind, the yellow, orange and red leaves fully sighted New Englanders enjoy in October appear green and brown.

But on Monday, Stephens picked up a pair of prescription EnChroma glasses from Dr. Thomas Clark at Williston Optometry. The glasses are a first of their kind, the result of three National Institutes of Health research grants and 10 years of product development. They are billed not as a cure for colorblindness, but as an enhancer of color saturation and distinction. Stephens originally tried them on in June.

And while the company promotes videos of overwhelmingly emotional reactions from colorblind people donning the glasses for the first time, Stephens’ experience was more subdued. It took about five minutes for him to adjust. Then the colors started to pop.

On Monday, he tried on a pair with his custom prescription and had the same experience. Colors that had once been muted became fully saturated. Now, when his wife points out an especially vibrant patch of leaves this fall, he will finally get the full experience.

“I’m really looking forward to the fall,” he said. “A lot of times I felt like I was missing out.”

According to EnChroma, the California company that developed the glasses, colorblindness affects 8 percent of men and .05 percent of women — about 30,000 people in Vermont. Stephens said he once tried a contact lens from a different company that claimed to improve color vision, but didn’t like the effect.

“There were no options before this, it’s as simple as that,” said Clark, the owner of Williston Optometry. “People just lived with it.”

For Stephens, a computer programmer, that meant problems discerning certain red and green indicators on his computer screen and dealing with road signs that appeared to blend into the background and traffic lights that were difficult to distinguish.

“All the colors are darker and more obvious to me, and I can see things I couldn’t normally see,” Stephens said Tuesday.

His son, Cooper, kept the pair he tried on in June and used them during the Williston Fourth of July fireworks.

“People don’t realize what they are missing,” said Kelly Quinlan, an optician at Williston Optometry. “Now, if I know someone is colorblind, I can introduce the lens to them. It’s really fascinating to watch and hear them explain what they are seeing.”

Williston Optometry is one of two eye care practices in Vermont to offer EnChroma glasses and the only in Chittenden County.