Thursday, August 22, 2013

"A" is for "Apple." Apples are Red.

My son is colorblind (deuteranopic).  I am not.  The past two years as I've identified his handicap and helped him to cope with it has been an odyssey in understanding for me (sometimes worth a giggle).  But after much research, I've come to the realization... as a trichromatic, I can see what he sees, but there is no tool, no image, no amount of teaching that can show him what I see.  The understanding is purely one-sided.  That makes me sad.

I first diagnosed my son myself, at the end of first grade.  Mini-me is/was an amazing artist, even then, and rightfully proud of his ability.  One day, he showed me a picture and beamed, "It is an exact portrait of my stuffed lion."

"An exact portrait?" I asked, just to be sure.  "But it's green."

"My lion is green."

"Is it?"

He showed me.  His stuffed lion was... well, lion-tan.  You know the color, if you're not colorblind.  Yet he insisted that they were exactly the same.  Other than color, they were.  It was a fabulous likeness, for a six-year-old to have drawn.

That was my first trip to the crayon box, and our first quiz.  It turned out, my little man was told repeatedly that a color he sees as tan was called "green."  When coloring grass, he checked the label on the crayon, since he was always told grass was green (the first time I became aware that colorblinds will "cheat" in order to pass as "normal").  But nobody ever told him a lion was tan.  Thus, when choosing "lion colored" he chose the closest crayon to his vision-- what everyone told him was green.  Tan.  Green.

Poor little tyke, I thought.  Must be tough.  But he could already read, which I assumed meant he could make allowances for his disability.  So he can't see green?  He knows what's supposed to be green.  It only affects his art, I thought, and it only affects him when he can't read (or understand) the name on the crayon label.  I still giggle when I remember how his little fist would shoot up into the air and he would shout across the room, "MOMMY!  WHAT COLOR IS THIS?!?"  Of course it was aqua, forest, turquoise, or some other nonsensical word that incorporated "green" as an actual element.  Sometimes it would be a shade of yellow, brown or gold-- colors I realize now that he sees instead of green.  "Green" is just a word to him, but he recognizes it means a lot more to us trichromatics.

During the summer between first and second grades, an eye doctor confirmed my "diagnosis" and told me, "He has a colorblindness of some sort, in some degree, and yes, red-green blindness is the most common."  He was less than helpful, except to confirm my suspicions.  Armed with an "official" diagnosis, I mentioned it to his second grade teacher who assured me that "color recognition just isn't an issue beyond kindergarten or first grade."

Oh, the hubris of the trichromatic...

By the end of first grade and the standardized testing, Mini-me's teacher had forgotten our discussion.  It's not really her fault: testing from the previous year didn't emphasize or use colors as tools as much.  The new curriculum is trichromacy-biased.  "I wish you'd told me," she lamented.  I did, I did, I did taw a puddytat...

Never mind.  So Mini-me wasn't invited to speak at Harvard as a seven-year-old.  We're both over that. But in light of the changes in education and testing, I took it upon myself to research his condition... and I'm no longer giggling.  At the end of the below "dissertation" I've written for his third grade teacher, you'll find some links.  Look for yourself.  I can't even imagine seeing the world as he sees it: as a mixture of vomit and a little blue ink.  Yeach.  But there are different levels of dichromacy (some are just a deficiency while others are a complete lack).  I've challenged my little artist to color the world for me.  I've asked him to draw a picture of something we can both see with our own eyes (for instance, my garden in the back yard) without looking at the names on the crayons.  I've asked him to simply choose his colors based on what he sees and not on what he's been told.  With this exercise, I hope to have a more complete understanding of the degree of his colorblindness.  Maybe it isn't as bad as I think.  I'll include these portraits as I receive them.

But for my part... Here is the research paper I've compiled and plan to give to Mini-me's teacher, hoping to raise her awareness (and yes, all of us prideful trichromoptics).

"A" is for "Apple."  Apples Are Red.
(Teaching and the Colorblind Child.)


Most people are unaware of color blindness' impact on a child's education.  In the U.S. (and most countries), it isn't considered a special need or disability.

The sad truth is that the colors used extensively to make learning and testing easier for a "normal" child will actually handicap a colorblind child.  Attempting to use colors as tools will make him seem less proficient than his actual abilities, in addition to frustrating and possibly ostracizing him.

Color is such a natural part of human development that we don't even realize how extensively we use it and rely on it in our lives.  It isn't simply a case of making certain a colorblind person doesn't mismatch his socks.  Color vision deficit is a handicap not only in education but in some professions and it is of utmost importance that teachers recognize how and why even especially intelligent colorblind children may not excel in a typical classroom environment without some minor assistance.

What is color blindness?

"Normal" vision is trichromatic.  The majority of human beings perceive three primary colors: red, yellow and blue.  The human eye can differentiate shades such as oranges, greens and purples because we receive the full light spectrum.

True color blindness may be considered monochromacy (achromatopsia, seeing no colors at all, only shades of grey).  This condition is very rare.

The typical case of "colorblindness" is actually dichromacy.  The dichromatic eye sees only two primary colors.  The ability to see color is a function of the three different types of "cones" in the eye, and not a matter of the brain's ability to decipher incoming information.  The dichromatic eye lacks (or in mild cases has a limited number of) one type of cone associated with the "missing" color.  The colorblind is not retarded or lazy.  No amount of "practice" will change his vision.

Because most colors aren't actually primary, but instead incorporate shades of all three, this spectrum deficit removes an important element in how our world looks to the dichromatic.  Color range is severely limited and different shades are changed drastically.

This missing color isn't invisible to a colorblind person, although it may seem so if the color is printed on a background that also incorporates the spectrum he cannot see or the color he mistakes it for.  For instance, yellow chalk used on a green chalkboard is invisible ink to the colorblind child, who most often sees green as tan or yellow in his reduced spectrum.  A colorblind person does actually see a color where there is color in most cases and not just grey.  Some instances where he might see grey, however, are "washed out" or pastel colors.

Eight percent of the male population and .5 percent of the female population in Westernized countries are dichromatic to some degree.  It's more common than you think.

Some people diagnosed with color blindness can (with effort) differentiate because the levels of deficiency range from mild to severe, but no matter the range, colorblind people still do not perceive these colors in the same way as a person with "normal" vision sees them.

Types of Dichromatic Color Blindness.

There are three main types of common color blindness: deuteranopia, protanopia and tritanopia.

·          Deuteranopia (green deficiency) and protanopia (red deficiency).  Because the range of colors perceived (and confused) by these two conditions is so very similar, both are lumped into the category "red/green colorblindness" which is the most common form. 
Imagine a world where some mad artist reduced everything you see with   an old-fashioned sepia filter.  Remember the old tin-types?  They tried to add a bit of color after the fact, but it was all faded and dirtied with    mustard yellow.  This is what the red/green-colorblind sees day-to-day.            He can see blue (though "off" colors of blue may have a brown or greyish      hue) and the rest is a nasty smear of brown and yellow.  You even look    yellow to a deuteranopic.  While it might be fun as an artistic filter in your          scrapbook, it's a serious downer when somebody asks you to color        Maryland green on a map when your red, green and yellow crayons look brown, gold and yellow.

·          Tritanopia (blue deficiency).  In this case, yellow (depending on the darkness) may be seen as pink, and green will be seen as yellow.  Red, green, yellow crayons may be distinguished as red/pink/grey.

In all colorblindness, pastel colors may appear as grey and are more difficult to differentiate.

Why it's often difficult to identify colorblind people.

Early in life, colorblind children recognize that they are different.  There is something wrong with them.  They cannot see what other people see.  Color vision deficiency isn't a mental deficiency.  Often, these children are incredibly smart.  Rather than admit they don't understand, they adapt to their handicap by the time they learn to read.

·      Labeling.  Labels are the number one crutch for colorblind children attempting to pass as "normal."  When asked to identify a colored crayon, they will read the label.  In the reverse, labeling is also the most important tool a teacher can give to a student asked to complete assignments requiring color-coding (for instance, coloring states on a map, or using red and green to identify groupings).  Kids teach themselves to check labels.  Teachers can assist colorblind students by making certain they can choose the expected colors to complete the assignment by labeling any colored tool or diagram with the appropriate color word.
·      Association.  When we teach our "normal" kids to identify colors, what do we do?  We tell them, "Grass is green.  Apples are red."  The same goes for color selection in art.  Colorblind children can't necessarily see the differences in colors for themselves, but they listen, they associate, and when they color their grass, they look for the crayon labeled "green."
·      Denial.  Colorblind kids know there's something different about how they see colors, but they will often hide it.  They recognize their deficit by inference but since they don't know what "normal" is (never having seen the normal range) they just cope and don't draw attention to their confusion.  Since there aren't many lessons in color association past kindergarten, a teacher will not be aware of any problem.  There are problems and he may do poorly on an assignment from time to time, but many times poor performance may be written off by teacher and student as poor understanding of the lesson.  This is the danger, however: if he assumes his answer was wrong rather than color perception, he may get the answer wrong on future assignments that don't use color, just because he doesn't realize he had it right all along.  He second-guesses his understanding.

Why is it important for a teacher to understand color blindness?

Color-coding plays a key role in education, especially before grade two, but it continues even in upper level courses.   Often, color-recognition is an important (but unrecognized) tool in standardized testing and with recent changes to curriculum, it plays an even more vital role.  It's easy to forget that some children will be handicapped during these lessons and testing, because the color is as plain as the nose on our faces... noses that (to them) are yellow and not apricot, brown or rosy.  Otherwise brilliant children will score poorly when handed "tools" that all look the same and asked to use them appropriately.  They see their classmates using these tools easily, and if they can't find alternatives they become easily frustrated or just muddle through with substandard results.  They often won't tell the teacher what's wrong.  They're too used to ignoring the problem because their problem is ignored by others as insignificant.

Color blindness is not insignificant and when color is involved in any way with a lesson or activity, a colorblind child can not perform on the same level as a trichromatic child without help.  It is physically impossible, no matter how self-sufficient, smart and proficient at hiding his disability the colorblind child might be.

What can teachers do to help?

It only takes discipline in the "mindset" to make yourself aware of colors, no matter how trivial the use seems to you.  Awareness and one extra minute of teacher preparedness can make a world of difference to a colorblind child's education.

·      Where written words are involved, either use black ink, or photocopy a colored lesson in black and white for the colorblind child so he can differentiate shades and eliminate color confusion.  (This will also help you as the teacher to identify what might confuse him by showing you the similarity of darkness/lightness in the lesson.)

·      Avoid green and red when possible.  Never use yellow on green.  Never alternate yellow and green for highlighting different aspects in a single lesson.  Likewise red and brown or green and brown.

·      Visually scan for keywords in texts or on worksheets before lessons, to make certain they are highlighted with bold, underline or italics: words emphasized with color may not register as important to the colorblind child, and this is the purpose of highlighting keywords.  If the text uses color, take a few moments during verbal discussion to stress them, or point them out independently to the colorblind child after the lesson is done but before the assignment is due.  Allow him to underline/circle in his text or on his assignment so he doesn't miss colored keywords.

·      Make sure if the colorblind child is asked to use colors to identify concepts (for instance, using red to associate fact families, or green to identify a continent) that the child remembers to check a label on his color (and that labels are present) before completing the assignment.

·      On testing, label the colors on example problems if it requires color.  A smart colorblind child can distinguish between darkness of shades, even if the colors look the same to him.  The inability to distinguish isn't an indication of intelligence, however.  The degree of colorblindness can still present a handicap.

·      Label the colors on diagrams and separate with bold, black lines.  Bar graphs and pie charts, especially, use color.  If the lines between the colors on a pie chart don't boldly separate the colored slices, two colors side-by-side can look like one, large slice to the colorblind child. 

·      Never consider this "cheating" or telling him the answer.  Don't tell him the answer, but do recognize that without your help he just can't perform what's expected of him, any more than you could complete an assignment where the directions ask you to color nouns yellow and you're given three crayons: mustard, gold and daffodil.  How can you get the right answer when they're all shades of yellow?  To make certain he knows which color is which before completing the assignment is not giving him the answer to the actual problems.

·      If color-coding is used for navigation (for instance, color-coded hallways or lines on the floor leading to "specials" classrooms, nurse's office and cafeteria) make certain green and yellow lines do not intersect and that there is a clear difference in the darkness between red and green lines.  Including numbering or lettering systems along with the colors will assist colorblind students.

·      Many teachers color-code their classroom activity zones.  Including the actual names or adding numbers to the zones (or, of course, labeling with the color name) will help colorblind students to settle in sooner.

·      Remember, a colorblind child might even misidentify colors he can actually see, because he's used to second-guessing his world.  Because he sees green and tan as the same color, he may pick up the green crayon to color skin or the tan crayon to color grass.  He sees tan, regardless.  It is easy to trick a colorblind child because if you pick up the tan crayon and ask him what color it is, he assumes it is one he can't see.  He will automatically call it "green" not because he sees green, but because it is the color-name he comes to associate with tan.

References and support sites:

Colour Blind Awareness (the below comparisons were taken from this site and can be viewed in their original, there).

Trichromatic (normal) vision

The same image, with deuteranopic (green colorblind) vision

The trichromatic ("normal") world.

The dichromatic (colorblind) world.

My own examples



  1. Check out the work of Dr Mark Changizi. There may be help in the near future.

  2. which work? (link). i'm so proud of mini-me's victory in art. still think he can show us trichromes a thing of two ;)

  3. I'm skeptical. Putting green lenses over the eyes of a person who can't perceive green doesn't seem like an effective cure. Without the cones, green is just yellow, and it would make no more difference to them than putting on a pair of regular amber lenses. It's possible that the people who said he "cured" their color blindness are less deficient than they thought, and the green lenses enhanced the cones they actually have by making every shade of green more intense. There are different levels of color blindness, after all, many of them mild. But if a person is completely unable to tell the difference between shades of green and shades of yellow, I would suspect it would make no difference.

    It would be interesting to try, though :)

  4. Oh, for anyone interested, link found here