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Florida Wildlife Refuge First To Help Color Blind Visitors See Its Unique Beauty

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The new colorblind scope at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge overlooks the wetland from the observation tower. (Photo Credit: Chelle Koster Walton)

“Who would’ve thought that my first front-page appearance would be owing to my color blindness?” I asked on Facebook the morning the local daily newspaper carried a top-of-the-page photo with me in it. “And that I’d look like a drowned rat.”

“‘Ding’ Darling Refuge shows its true colors,” the cover story headline read. Right above it, three color blind men and I were registering the view from the observation tower at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, Florida, with entirely different expressions on our faces. Wearing sunglasses fitted with specially engineered lenses by EnChroma to assist people with color-recognition deficiencies to see a more “normal” color scheme, we were looking at the refuge wetland in a whole new light.

‘Ding’ Darling Unveils A Special Viewing Scope For The Color Blind

The refuge was debuting its new spotting scope, also engineered with EnChroma technology, on August 4 as part of its celebration of the first anniversary of the federal Great American Outdoors Act. Refuge staff had invited five color blind participants to test the scope and the eyeglasses, which will be available for color blind visitors to borrow.

“Color blindness obviously has many variables, so sometimes it takes minutes for people to have a reaction,” Supervisory Refuge Ranger Toni Westland told friends and media gathered for the occasion. She distributed the glasses, but would not let us don them until she gave us the go: “So are you ready? One, two, three!”

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The author reacts to seeing “Ding” Darling for the first time in a new light (Photo Credit: “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society-Friends of the Refuge)

In the front-page photo, Mike Terrelle, 69, a retired guidance counselor from Ohio, looks stunned. Charles Lais, 63, a retired doctor from Sanibel, beams a broad smile. Aaron Walton, 31, my son and office manager at the local chamber of commerce, just stared off, smiling. Me? I looked like I was jumping up down saying “Eeeeee!” For despite a downpour of rain and dearth of the typical flock of feeding birds one normally sees from the tower, I, literally, could not believe my eyes. The cloud-muted day did not diminish the sudden complexity or intensity of shades and striations in the water that spread ahead.

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Four color blind testers don their EnChroma glasses to see “Ding” Darling in its true colors (Photo Credit: “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society-Friends of the Refuge)

Then we all had our turn at the scope. By then, 10-year-old Kieran Loerns from Tampa had joined the scene, a little behind schedule, and his spontaneous observations got everyone excited all over again. We chatted among ourselves about seeing pink shades we’d never seen before. Ranger Toni brought out a photo of the refuge’s iconic roseate spoonbill, which we all agreed looked mostly white to us in the past. As birders, Charlie and I were most excited to see what all the “flap” was about for the majestic bird.

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Image manipulation of a roseate spoonbill to normal color vision and color blind vision (Photo Credit: Theresa Baldwin / EnChroma)

The Refuge Helped My Life Of Color Blindness Switch Lanes

My son was a little speechless, continuing to just look around in wonder, later remarking on the difference in our skin tones. His reactions brought me a bubble of happiness more effervescent than even my own. As the son of a color-blind woman, his chances were 100 percent to be born color blind. Did that make me feel a little guilty? Given that my college nursing student roommates once teased me they wouldn’t have children if they were me, yeah, a little.

For a woman to be color blind, as only one in 200 is, it takes two chromosomes. (Men, one of 22 of whom are color blind, only have the one X chromosome required for color blindness).

But I had grown up far from being traumatized by my birth defect. And if it sounds like I’ve given this science lesson before, yes, I have. All through school, because my mother always made sure our teachers were aware and even marked up our geography books’ color-coded maps with a yellow highlighter. I didn’t mind. My family made it fun, a game.

My mother’s father, my father, and my two brothers were all color blind. I remember, at Christmastime, opening presents and going around the room with each of us color blind family members guessing what color the shirt or sweater was.

That’s the spirit I brought Aaron up with. Sure, people would laugh at you, but, as my mother would always say: “We’re laughing with you.” So, we learned to laugh along and even enjoy the limelight, whatever color that is. Green?

Aaron talked to a reporter that day about going clothes shopping together when he was young. And we both laughed. It was heartwarming.

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Chelle Koster Walton

‘Ding’ Darling Takes The Lead For Colorblind Bird And Nature Lovers

The event itself was moving and touching in ways I never expected. First of all, “Ding” Darling is the first national wildlife refuge out of more than 560 in the nation to invest in such a scope to widen its accessibility to color blind visitors. (Given the statistics about color blindness, the refuge, which welcomes nearly a million visitors each year to its Wildlife Drive, would have 42,500 color blind people in the gates annually.)

It’s also the first color-blind viewing scope available to the public in all of Florida. I’m proud of that fact because as a die-hard cheerleader for “Ding” Darling, this is something close to my heart.

Ranger Toni, in her opening comments on how “Ding” Darling came to be at the forefront of this underserved aspect of accessibility, started talking about a friend, a colleague, who introduced her to color blindness. She talked about how she put that friend to good use to check graphics and signs the refuge generated to make sure they were as color blind–friendly as possible. That’s when I realized she was talking about me. I never expected I’d get any credit for this forward-thinking step and for a day that turned out to be truly emotional for all of the color blind people who participated.

I admit, I was skeptical at first. As I told Toni once upon a time: “It’s okay, the world looks beautiful to me.” Now? It looks sharp, like it just got a new paint job. I don’t have to identify birds solely by the shape of their bill and body or their call.

I’ve been seeing colors the same way for more than 60 years, so I understand it will be a process of relearning and appreciating. But for color blind people who love birds and nature, “Ding” Darling made a giant step in welcoming a segment of outdoors-lovers that has long gone under-acknowledged. Who would’ve thought?

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Susan Rydberg / Shutterstock.com

Things To Do At J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge

One of the most-visited refuge’s in the 560-plus system, “Ding,” as fans like to call it, attracts avid birders with about 250 different species of rare and sought-after coastal birds such as the roseate spoonbill, mangrove cuckoo, osprey, reddish egret, seasonal white pelican, pileated woodpecker, and black-necked stilt. Its four-mile Wildlife Drive and spur trails allow visitors to get close to birds and other species such as river otters, alligators, manatees, and bobcats. Visitors can drive, bike, hike, or do a narrated tram tour of the drive. The observation tour has a wheelchair ramp and the new color-blind scope is wheelchair-accessible, as are the trams. The best times to see wildlife are in the morning and at low tide, especially during the fall and winter migration season.

“Ding” Darling’s free Visitor & Education Center introduces families and nature-lovers to refuge habitat and critters with hands-on exhibits and Learning Lavatories that won America’s Best Restroom in 2018. At Tarpon Bay Recreation Area, visitors can tour by kayak, paddleboard, nature boat, and bicycle. The trails at Bailey Tract, also wheelchair-accessible, lead to freshwater habitat for more bird, alligator, and gopher tortoise sightings.

Editor’s Note: Think you might be color blind? Take EnChroma’s test here.

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