Princeton University professor Thomas Conlan of the East Asian Studies and History department spoke last week at an event hosted by the Office of Disability Services in their AccessAbility Center. His presentation was titled: In the Eye of the Beholder: On the Experience of "Colorblindness." In his presentation, Professor Conlan discussed his lived experience as a “Luminist” in a world he describes as overly “Colorist.”
Definition of Colorist
Professor Conlan describes people with full color perception as being obsessed with color and too reliant on a single spectrum of the visual experience. Throughout the presentation Prof. Conlan displayed images that juxtaposed various types of color perception and the audience insisted he describe the colors as he perceived him. Each time, he replied:
Color doesn’t matter to me the same way it does to you.
Definition of Luminist
In his presentation, Professor Conlan reviewed the causes of colorblindness to be a matter of the cones in the eye having some form of deficit in their ability to perceive color. Prof. Conlan postulates that the rods in his eyes, as an attribute of this cone deficiency, became more productive and instructive to forming the cognitive model of his surroundings. And far from a disability, this difference in perception can be a strength. During his presentation Prof. Conlan displayed a piece of pottery which he described as intricately composed and beautiful. To the Colorist, it seemed rather dull, grayish, and functional. To the Luminist, the piece was bursting with tonal values. Prof. Conlan also described how his ability in color perception has aided him in his career, for example by being able to detect instantly subtle differences in the ink from a 14th century Japanese scroll in which sections had been amended from its original state.
Theoretical Model of Disability
At the conclusion of the presentation Professor Conlan was asked:
If you could take a pill that would provide full color perception, would you take it?
If such a pill existed I'd find a way to reverse engineer it and make all the Colorists of the world become Luminists!
While Professor Conlan’s response was tongue-and-cheek, it also exposed a fundamental observation that people in certain spectrums and categories of disability to do not view their spectrum of ability as a being "anything less than," rather they hold firmly the belief that they can be "something more than."
In addition to the question above, Professor Conlan was also asked if he had tried EnChroma glasses meant to correct colorblindness. He replied that he had tried them and found that they did indeed provide perception of red hues that would otherwise be unavailable to him. However, instead of it making him a convert, Conlan described his new red experience as being over the top and tacky in comparison to the richness of grays, blues, and yellows that he can perceive with his heightened abilities without the “corrective” glasses.
Color from the Web Accessibility Perspective
In the field of web accessibility we have a success criterion contained in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) that can help us design for both the Colorist and Luminist. The WCAG standard SC 1.4.1 Use of Color stipulates that we cannot rely on color alone to communicate information. When we rely on color alone to describe instructions or user controls in an interface, we run the risk of alienating people with color differences.
Can you spot the text input that has an error in this image?
Perhaps some Luminists can perceive the subtle difference in green and red, but the image is set to simulate the color perception of Protanopia where it would be difficult to discern red and green colors from one another thus making the interface unusable.
How about now?
In this example, we kept the colors the same but we added iconography as well. In this way, we didn’t rely on color alone as we added a visually redundant decoding device in the associated icon to discern the user interface. This success criterion is meant to ensure the greatest number of people, with the greatest variations in abilities can perceive and operate digital content.
On a moonlit night, Professor Conlan perceives his surroundings comparably to that of a Colorist at twilight. Due in part to his rods carrying more of load in his cognitive mapping and perceptions of tonal value, he possesses a visual perception few in the world get to experience. In the Colorist world, Professor Conlan is deemed to have a disability and inability to see colors vividly. From the Luminist’s perspective, he lives in a world that misses out on beautiful facets of the visual experience. This is a lesson that is repeated in other areas of disability studies as well. There is no such thing as “normal.” When we design with this concept in mind, we can create rich experiences open to people of many different abilities.