What People Who are Colorblind (and Their Doctors) Want You to Know
If you’ve seen “The Giver,” you’ve gotten a glimpse of what it might be like to live in a black and white world. What it’s not like? Being colorblind. “Sometimes people think, because of the way the word is, that I can’t see anything where there’s a color,” says Ivan Oransky, a medical journalist in New York who’s colorblind. “I see something – it’s just not what you’re seeing.”
While there are many variations, colorblindness – also known as “color vision deficiency” – affects about 1 in 12 men and 1 in 230 women, and usually refers to a genetic condition that makes it difficult to tell the difference between red and green, says Jay Neitz, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Washington who studies color vision. Shades of those colors can be confusing, too, because most colorblind people’s eyes don’t pick up the red in orange, for example, or the green in turquoise. To them, orange might appear yellow, turquoise can come off as blue, or they all may seem more like shades of gray.
That’s because colorblind people’s eyes don’t have the receptors, or cones, that sense red, green or both, Neitz says. Just like black and white, with red and green, “one doesn’t exist without the other,” he says. Here’s what else people who are colorblind – and the doctors who study the condition – want you to know:
1. They hate the “what color is this? what color is that?” game.
Whenever someone new finds out that Alex Glaser, a medical resident in Philadelphia, is red-green colorblind, the response is always the same: “They’ll find something that is red or green and say, ‘What color is this?’ or ‘Can you see this?’” For Andrew Gifford, a development editor in the District of Columbia, the game is the same. “That will just go on and on,” he says. “I hate it.”
Not only is the “game” no fun, but it’s also beside the point for people who are colorblind. The challenge for most isn’t seeing objects or naming colors, per se, but differentiating between certain hues, especially when they’re side by side. For a test more illustrative of the deficit, try asking someone who’s colorblind to arrange red and green M&Ms in alternating order – a task similar to what Neitz does in his lab.
2. They find clever ways to compensate.
Colorblind people aren’t dumb: If you ask them what color a red delicious apple is, they know the “right” answer is “red” – even if it looks more like gray to them. Similarly, they know a traffic light is red at the top and green on the bottom, and that their favorite “blue” shirt is purple to the rest of us. “You train yourself to know what a color is because people have told you so many times,” Oransky says.
For Maddox Rochman-Romdalvik, a rising fourth-grader in San Francisco, reading skills – not color vision – allowed him to choose the “right” crayon when coloring in school. “He managed to get by for quite a while, and none of the teachers really noted anything,” says his mom, Sue Rochman.
Sometimes, such workarounds can be to colorblind people’s advantage. Oransky’s father, a pediatrician who was also colorblind, for example, aced a pathology exam in medical school because he had memorized the cells’ morphology – or where certain structures were in relation to each other – while his classmates relied on color-coded stains. When professors switched the colors for the exam, his peers panicked. Oransky’s father got an A.