Group picture of students in a class

The Challenge of Living with Color Blindness

Dec 01. 2017

Most color blindness is genetic. Around 80 percent of people with color vision deficiencies are male. Many people aren't even aware they have the condition until they start to compare how they see color with someone else.

So, what is it like to live with color vision deficiency? How do you cope with day-to-day tasks that involve color recognition?

“The first thing to understand is what color vision deficiency is and isn’t,” said Dr. Paul Harris, who practices at the Southern College of Optometry in Memphis, Tennessee.

“Usually, color blindness is considered a red-green problem, but that’s not entirely correct. People with color deficiencies often confuse red and green because of an inability to identify one or the other. There are three types of color blindness - red, green or blue/yellow, although the latter is rare.”
Dr. Paul Harris, Southern College of Optometry

“We know that most color vision deficiencies are inherited. They come along with the gene that determines male or female. Usually, color blindness is considered a red-green problem, but that's not entirely correct. People with color deficiencies often confuse red and green because of an inability to identify one or the other. There are three types of color blindness - red, green or blue/yellow, although the latter is rare.”

“For example, a person who has a problem detecting red has something wrong with the sensory parts at the back of the retina that would pick up the red. Those people can see green just fine –can label different greens and even see the richness of greens. But when a red comes along, the different shades of red get confused with the greens.”

An eye of a person with CVD seeing a very little difference between red and green

People with CVD see a very little difference between red and green

“Another myth is that you either have a color deficiency or you don't. But color vision problems come in all shades of gray! While most cases are due to sensory receptors not reporting correctly, in extremely rare cases the receptors aren't there at all.”

Sydney-based Mark Green discovered he was color vision deficient when he was young. However, even now, he does not know to what degree; although he knows it must be quite severe.

“I was around 7 or 8. Everyone at school had a test with circles and numbers. I couldn’t see them!”

Mark’s parents were not surprised to hear the diagnosis – his father and older brother had the same condition, and more rarely, so did his sister.

Dr. Harris says definitive diagnostic tests aren't available until children are older - maybe 5 or 6 years of age.

“It really becomes important when, for example, someone begins to drive. We can teach them compensatory mechanisms to identify red and green lights by paying attention to the standard configurations.”

“Before that, the importance of identifying color deficiencies largely depends on their schoolwork and the type of assignments they do. Later in life, color vision deficiencies may affect career choices - flying planes will be difficult or not advisable for some.”

“In general, it’s not the patients who are shocked by the diagnosis, it’s their parents. They want to know why their child didn’t complain?”

Dr. Harris is passionate about understanding the "why" of the visual process.

“How do you explain to another person how to experience color? Can you explain the color black or the color blue? It's all about perception. The person has always seen this way, so they consider it normal,” he said.

Mark agrees. “My friends ask me how do I know grass is green? How do I know it isn’t? I can distinguish colors when they are on their own. It’s when they are together I can get mixed up.”

“On a snooker table when red and brown balls are placed together I can’t tell the difference. My friends obviously like to play against me for money!”

Mark is a sales manager and believes being color vision deficient is not too much of a problem at work these days, except for charts. “Someone might point to a green slice of a pie chart – but they all look brown to me.”

Mark’s wife, Stacey Green, an advertising operations manager, thinks it might be more of a challenge than he lets on.

A male student standing surrounded by classmates

People with CVD have trouble identifying colored shirts

“We first met in the same office and he used to walk around with a horrendously-colored shirt; a washed-out, sort of teal shade. I thought he had terrible fashion sense,” she said.

“When we finally started dating, I asked him about the shirt – he thought it was light blue. So that went straight in the bin.”

Stacey says Mark is grateful that she can now check his wardrobe.

“He will show me two shirts and ask which one is right for a meeting. I’ll suggest the purple one, but he comes down wearing the blue.”

The couple have a 3-year-old son and certainly plan to have him tested when the time is right; but they are not overly concerned. They know from Mark’s experience that it’s a manageable challenge.

For the record, the irony of having ‘Green’ as their surname is not lost on Mark or Stacey.

  •   “This article was first published as an advertisement feature on WSJ.com and was created by WSJ Custom Studios, on behalf of Samsung Electronics.”