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What People Who are Colorblind (and Their Doctors) Want You to Know

What People Who are Colorblind (and Their Doctors) Want You to Know

By Anna Medaris Miller

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. 

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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.   

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3. You can make it easier on your colorblind friends.   

If you’re going to ask a colorblind person on a date, steer clear from sunset cruises and fall foliage tours. “When I look at the autumn leaves, I don’t see what all these people are talking about,” says Gifford, who sees mainly browns and yellows when the rest of us see reds and oranges, too. Similarly, a sunset may appear all one color, and a rainbow tends to come off as stripes of yellow and blue, Gifford says. 

It’s not just natural wonders that affect the daily lives of people who are colorblind, experts say. Everything from subway system maps to charts in PowerPoint presentations can be difficult to decipher. Hotel doors that light up green when the key fits and some news networks’ “approval meters” during election season also make the list of colorblind people’s pet peeves. 

The good news is that increased awareness can make for a more colorblind friendly world. For example, researchers, pollsters and web designers can steer clear of the red-green color scheme and opt for more easily distinguishable combos such as blue and green or blue and red instead, suggests the National Association for the Advancement of Colorblind People

4. It’s not always harmless.

While most color vision deficits pose minor annoyances, others can be more risky. Some people with colorblindness, for example, don’t notice when their kids are sunburned or can’t recognize when they’re served an undercooked steak. Others are discouraged or barred from certain careers like becoming a pilot. “I get letters every day from people who wish they weren’t colorblind,” Neitz says. 

When acquired, colorblindness can signal a more severe medical condition, such as a macular disease or optic nerve damage, says Wadih Zein​, an ophthalmologist and spokesperson for the National Eye Institute. “When a person notices a new onset of a deficit, that is something that definitely calls for a clinical assessment,” he says. “And early diagnosis can be extremely important in these cases and sometimes can be life-saving.” 

Read: 13 Foods That Do Your Eyes Good

5. To them, it’s normal.   

Many people with colorblindness underestimate the severity of their condition because they don’t know what they’re missing, Neitz says. “A colorblind person is walking around saying, ‘I see lots of colors,’” but in reality, he or she is seeing about 10,000 shades of a few colors while the rest of us can see close to a million shades of many colors, he says. “It’s hard for a colorblind person [to understand] that they’re only seeing 1 percent of the colors that everybody else sees.” 

But for most people with colorblindness, the condition isn’t a deficit but a trait such as being left-handed or having red hair. Just take it from 9-year-old Rochman-Romdalvik: “Some people who aren’t colorblind think it’s a big deal to be colorblind,” he says. “They don’t really know that it’s actually not such a big deal once you get used to it.”