Imagine yourself wandering through a blooming garden during the spring or watching a vibrant sun rising over the horizon on a beach. Now picture both of these images without any color.
For Belmont Freshman Dustin Nelson, this simple black and white picture is a reality.
When he was 15, Nelson was diagnosed with achromatopsia, a form of colorblindness. As a result, he is unable to see any color other than shades of black, white and gray.
“I just see what normal people see but devoid of colors. It can be genetic, but my doctors don’t think it is,” said Nelson.
“The easiest way for me to describe to people how I see is black and white movies, because that’s the only way that you can picture visually what I see.”
Originally from Texas and being home-schooled most of his life, Belmont is Nelson’s first experience on a school campus. For him, everyday tasks such as driving and even dressing for class can prove to be a challenge.
“I’ve had some bad experiences in the past where either a friend or a girlfriend would buy me clothes. I don’t really wear clothes with graphics on them a lot, I just wear solid color shirts. I wouldn’t be able to tell, so I’d go into my closet and pull out what I think is a gray shirt and it ends up that I’m wearing bright green or something weird. It’s not fun. Especially when you’re trying to coordinate everything else to look similar.”
In order to combat this problem, he has organized a closet comprised of mostly dark, solid colors.
“Being in a college setting, people are wearing weird stuff all the time. I feel like wearing what I wear normally is weird compared to other people, because I only wear black, white and gray.”
Since his diagnosis, Nelson has developed a system for figuring out some basic colors around him by identifying similar hues on other recognizable objects nearby. For example, a bottle with the word ‘orange’ written on it might appear to share the same hue as the color of the sun in a photograph.
“It’s taken so much practice to be able to do that. I didn’t even know they had other colors of roses- I thought they were all red. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and see something where I have no idea what color it is, and absolutely no way of figuring it out. Certain shades can look really similar, some are identical. So it’s really hard to tell- almost impossible,” said Nelson. So far, he’s improved his ability to identify similar hues, but he guesses the color correctly about as often as he gets it wrong.
Over the years, Nelson has learned to accommodate his colorblindness but expects no special treatment from those around him. He has memorized the location of each color on a stoplight so that he can drive, and when writing down assignments he makes sure to use a color of pen that he can see later.
“People do treat me differently- they shouldn’t. Really it’s the same with any kind of disability. People attempt to accommodate you, when I don’t need that and I don’t want that. If I don’t think that I have a problem, then I don’t want other people thinking that I have a problem,” said Nelson.
“People tend to use that as an excuse or use it as a reason why you’re so good at something or so bad at something. It needs to be just about you. Nothing else.”
Being colorblind since birth, Nelson admits that his inability to perceive color often creates a feeling of isolation. Many students simply forget about his colorblindness, while others refuse to believe him. However, he has learned to embrace the isolation he sometimes feels as being a part of his identity.
“The kind of emotion that I project onto things when I see them, things that resonate with me, don’t usually make sense to people. My favorite time of year is always the winter… when there’s really heavy snow on the ground and all the trees are devoid of leaves, I feel like that brings everybody else closer to me, people see what I see more during that time of year than any other time of year. That’s emotionally relieving,” said Nelson.
“You know how you see pictures of places like the Grand Canyon, or mountains- any kind of breathtaking visual or anything like that just isn’t like that for me. Everywhere looks depressing all the time. It’s depressing outside everyday. Imagine for you what it would be like on a really overcast day. Indoors, outdoors- everything looks drab all the time.”
Being a commercial guitar major, and having an interest in music that dates back to his childhood, Nelson uses his creativity to compensate for the lack of color in his life. He uses his colorblindness as inspiration for the songs he writes, and he enjoys discovering new music he can relate to across a wide range of genres.
As far as adapting to a life without color, Nelson is optimistic and views his condition as part of who he is.
“It’s my identity. It’s not everything I am, but it’s a big part of it. If there was a way that I could experience it [color] temporarily, then I would be OK with that. Just to see things as what they’re meant to look like,” said Nelson.
“I don’t feel like it’s really taken away anything from my life. There’s still things that I miss out on seeing but I just see it as a different experience. It makes me unique.”
This article was written by Rachael Foley.
PHOTO: Gracie Helms