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Art students give gift of color to color-blind classmate

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Tim Smith (right) became emotional Thursday as his classmates at Lesley University presented him with glasses that correct his color blindness.Jim Davis

CAMBRIDGE — Throughout college, Tim Smith never let his color blindness get the best of him.

Instead of concentrating on adding vibrant hues to his animation projects, the Lesley University College of Art and Design student focused on perfecting character details, creating intricate landscapes, and ensuring fluid motion.

But with graduation fast approaching this month, the 24-year-old senior began to fear the challenge of securing a job in a field that requires working with bright colors on a computer screen.

Those concerns vanished Thursday as Smith stood on stage at the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square, at the start of the school's senior animation show. His classmates surprised him with a gift: a special pair of glasses that help correct color blindess.

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"I'm overwhelmed, excited, and just — I don't know," said Smith, almost speechless after slipping on his new pair of black-rimmed specs.

Smith has what's commonly referred to as "red-green" color blindness, which primarily affects males and prevents people from differentiating colors.

According to the National Eye Institute, red-green color blindness is hereditary, and caused by the loss or limited function of cones in the eye that are sensitive to red or green light.

For Smith, reds and greens look similar. It's hard for him to distinguish between purple and blue, orange and yellow.

Because of that, Smith has relied on the guidance of friends and teachers to help him tell certain colors apart when working on his art projects. Or he has opted for different combinations of grays and avoided using the unidentifiable colors all together.

"It was kind of a struggle, actually," he said. "But I took control of it, and just made it my thing."

Smith had considered purchasing, once he graduated, a pair of the specialty EnChroma glasses like the ones his peers surprised him with Thursday. But thanks to the kindness of the 14 close-knit seniors in his major, who pooled together hundreds of dollars, he can shift his attention away from saving his money and instead focus on his budding animation career.

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The students chose a pair of glasses from the California-based company that work best both indoors and when looking at a computer screen. The company explains on its website that the lenses in the glasses help colors appear brighter and more saturated.

"People report that their color discrimination is faster and more accurate," according to EnChroma.

EnChroma markets its products as "assistive devices," and cautions users that they're not a cure for color blindness. The company says that results vary depending on how severe an individual's color blindness is.

The idea to surprise Smith with the glasses was hatched by classmate Aiden Budnick, and swiftly embraced by the rest of the soon-to-be graduates.

The group started a private Facebook page to organize themselves. They then chipped in the cash for the glasses, and concocted a plan to present Smith with the gift in front of friends and family at the theater during the senior animation show, a display of their final projects.

One by one, while standing on stage at the start of the event, the students slipped on pairs of black-framed glasses in what appeared to be a group gag. When it came time for Smith to put on his pair, students informed him that his glasses had a special purpose.

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Smith's jaw dropped.

"I felt like I was going to fall over," said Budnick about seeing Smith's reaction. "It was pretty emotional."

Jacqueline Donnelly, who was standing next to Smith on stage, could hear the shock in his voice.

"He kept repeating to himself, 'Really? Really, you guys?'" she said. "I wanted to just hug him on the spot."

Brandon Strathmann, Smith's animation professor, said Smith is one of his most-improved students. With his EnChroma glasses and continued practice, Strathmann said, Smith would likely excel even further.

"I see good things for him," said Strathmann, who was blown away by his students' actions.

The glasses didn't work immediately, because Smith's eyes had not yet adjusted to them. So he didn't get to view the animation projects featured at the event in full color.

But by Friday morning, he was viewing the world around him differently.

"The glasses are working so well," he said in a follow-up interview. "I took them off for a second to clean them, and noticed right away that the world around me was a lot duller than I remember. I almost jumped out of my seat! I put the glasses back on and noticed everything was so vibrant and more colorful than ever before."

The sky was bluer. And the grass? It seemed greener, he said.

"I almost cried, I was so happy," said Smith. "It was like seeing the world in a whole new perspective for the first time."


Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.

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