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    K I D S
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    Not Just For Kids

    The Albino Code

    “Albino” comes from a Latin word that means “white.” Most people’s skin contains melanin, a pigment that gives skin its color. Dark skin has more melanin than light skin. Some individuals are born with a total absence of melanin. The general term for this condition is albinism. The most common form of albinism in the United States is “oculocutaneous albinism.” This specific type of albinism is what people usually think of when they hear the word “albino” because it provides all of the classic albinism traits.

    Besides unusually fair complexions, these albinos have snowy white or platinum blonde hair. A lack of melanin in their eyes results in photophobia (extreme sensitivity to light) and moderate to severe visual impairment. Many people with this type of albinism are considered legally blind because of their uncorrectable poor vision. It is a myth, however, that albinos always have red or pink eyes. The truth is, pale blue is the most common eye color of humans that have albinism. Besides needing dark sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats as eye protection from bright sunlight, albinos do not have the ability to tan so their skin sunburns easily. Consequently, they must use sunscreen with a high SPF rating and wear UV-resistant clothing.

    Albinism is not a disease but is a rare genetic disorder present from birth. The majority of albino children are born to parents who have normal hair and eye color. Albinism only manifests itself when both mother and father are carriers of the recessive albinism gene. About one in every 17,000 people in the United States have the characteristics of albinism. This condition is found in people of all races and ethnic groups. Albinism has been in the public record since Pliny (AD 23-79) wrote about seeing albinos on the west coast of Africa.

    Children and adults with albinism are often teased and harassed by inconsiderate people. The overwhelmingly negative depictions of albinos in movies (e.g. “The Da Vinci Code,” “End of Days,” “The Matrix Reloaded,” “Lethal Weapon,” “The Princess Bride,” etc.) tend to hurt real albinos by reinforcing the derogatory stigma and making them look like social misfits or evil villains. Some albinism activists prefer to call themselves “persons with albinism” and thus avoid the term “albino” altogether because ignorant people use the word in an insulting way. It would be nice if moviemakers were more accurate in their portrayal of albinos while showing the same sensitivity and respect for people with albinism that they have demonstrated toward others with disabilities.

    Dennis Hurley is a professional actor who happens to have been born with albinism. Two of his three brothers inherited the condition as well. Originally from Hingham, Massachusetts and now living in New York City, Dennis has a degree in acting from Ithaca College. In 2003 he starred in a stage production of “Diamond in the Rough,” the award-winning story of a teenager with albinism. Dennis sent his résumé to the casting director of “The Da Vinci Code” urging him to cast a real albino as Silas, but instead they hired a non-albino who wears a wig and red contact lenses for the role.

    As a result, Dennis decided to produce “The Albino Code,” a short parody of “The Da Vinci Code” that aims to entertain and educate based on the following premise: What if the story of “The Da Vinci Code” could be told from Silas's point of view? And what if Silas were an actual person with albinism? This 12-minute independent film is available on the Internet at It pokes fun at the idea of a red-eyed albino assassin while providing some insight into what having albinism is really like. (Parents, please preview the film before letting your kids watch, as it has some “Saturday Night Live” style humor.)

    Did You Know…? The condition of albinism is known to affect mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. White rabbits, white mice, and white rats are albinos. A white albino alligator was on display earlier this year at the Wildlife World Zoo. Snowflake, the only known albino gorilla, lived at the Barcelona Zoo for almost 40 years until dying of skin cancer. There are even white albino crows. Rare white animals were often considered sacred by ancient peoples. When Native Americans would see a white buffalo, they thought it was supernatural. Unfortunately, animals with albinism lack protective camouflage and their weak eyes make them easy prey for predators, so the survivability rate of albino animals in the wild is quite low.

    Have you ever heard of a white elephant? An albino elephant is grayish white instead of brownish gray. Long ago in the country of Siam (now Thailand), whenever a white elephant was found, it automatically became the property of the king. The white elephant could not be put to work as other elephants were, and it had to be well taken care of and beautifully outfitted. If the king presented someone with a white elephant, the new owner would have to provide the care it was entitled to at his own expense, while getting nothing from it in return. Today, a white elephant refers to an unwanted item that you feel obligated to keep because it was a gift. A white elephant is also a slang term for a business or property that is so costly to operate or maintain that it is impossible to make a profit out of it.

    Recommended Books

    Ghost Boy, by Iain Lawrence.

    Albino Animals, by Kelly Milner Halls.

    Recommended Web Sites (The Albino Code Official Web Site.) (The National Organization of Albinism and Hypopigmentation.) (Albinism article for kids.) (Albinism Fact Sheet.) (Albinism in popular culture.) (Web site devoted to skin conditions and albinism in cinema.) (Fashion photographer Rick Guidotti changes his image to focus on the beauty of people with albinism.)


    These pages are a continuous work in progress.
    Copyright © 2000- by Teri Ann Berg Olsen
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