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This post was created by Karen Levine, the author of the new book, All About Color Blindness: A Guide to CVD for Kids (and Grown-ups too). TestingColorVision.com has no financial interest in this book but loved that Karen had the same overall mission as TCV, to help children who have color vision deficiencies. She has her own website that can be located here: www.KarenRaeLevine.com.
CVD: A Mother’s Journey
When my son Andrew was four years old his pre-school teacher told me that he was having trouble understanding simple patterns. I was already concerned that he couldn’t always identify colors correctly. Were these signs of a learning disability, or was it something else?
“Do you think he could be colorblind?” I asked.
Her eyebrows went up. “Now that you mention it, that could be it.”
Our pediatrician didn’t have a color vision test, and referred me to an optometrist. The optometrist showed my four-year-old a book of “bubble” pictures, each containing the image of a number. These numbers would apparently not be visible to the colorblind. I could see that Andrew was worried and anxious during the questioning. I told the doctor that I wasn’t sure if Andrew couldn’t see it, or if he just didn’t know his numbers well enough. His reply was, “What are you worried about, Mother, there’s nothing you can do about it.” (Did he just call me Mother?)
I made sure the next optometrist had a test suitable for Andrew. This time Andrew was more at ease. The doctor established a good rapport with Andrew, and showed him pictures that used shapes instead of numbers. When they were finished, the doctor informed me that Andrew was red-green color deficient, or colorblind. As I was trying to remember all the questions I wanted to ask, he was saying, “It doesn’t matter. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
I was relieved to know that Andrew had a seemingly minor vision problem, and not a learning deficit but I wasn’t sure it didn’t matter. From my experience with my two older children, colors were an integral part of the early education curriculum. I wanted to know if Andrew would be at a disadvantage when he started kindergarten. I wanted to know how he saw the world.
I began to learn more about color blindness. Traveling through libraries, bookstores and the Internet, I tried to extract practical information from the maze of scientific books and articles. Very few publications were written in layman’s terms, addressing the day-to-day issues of the colorblind.
A Different View of the World
I grew up with a colorblind father. My mother helped him match his clothes. He was restricted from choosing paint colors. And he occasionally needed some immediate assistance in determining the color of a traffic light. But those obstacles seemed to pale in comparison to the extremely color-oriented world that Andrew was going to face in kindergarten.
So what did Andrew see?
First of all, the term colorblind is misleading. It is extremely rare for someone to be unable to see any colors at all. A more accurate term is Color Vision Deficiency, or CVD.
Andrew is red-green deficient, which is the most common form of CVD. But there are varying degrees, and each individual’s experience is different. To some, red or green may not be visible at all, or may appear black. To others, only lighter shades of red and green fade to browns and tans. Poor lighting and glare also reduce color perception.
Andrew can usually recognize a vibrant red or green but not lighter or duller hues. For instance, he can tell you the fire truck is red, but if you ask him to draw a picture of it, he could easily choose a brown crayon. Andrew made me a Valentine with a beautiful heart colored with forest green. He drew a pickle with a brown crayon. Sometimes those rosy faces he loves to draw are actually lime green. If you don’t know your child is colorblind, this kind of artwork can be puzzling.
It is very difficult for those with a red deficiency to identify colors that contain a blend of red. Because they can’t see the red component of purple, they will see it as blue. (Some see purple as gray or white.) Orange is also tricky, and will be confused with yellow or gold. Andrew told me the “very hungry caterpillar” ate through five lemons, rather than five oranges.
Contrast is a problem when weak colors are adjacent. To Andrew, red on green looks like brown on brown, and he will have trouble distinguishing the shapes. Once, when I pointed out some red berries on a bush, Andrew said, “What berries?” Similarly, he could have trouble seeing orange on yellow, purple on blue, or tan on green or red.
Coping at Home
The most important goal for me, and for any parent I think, is to have a happy, confident child. I was never concerned that CVD itself would be extremely limiting for Andrew. However, I did recognize that it had the potential to do some serious damage to his self-confidence. How many times already was he told he was wrong when he chose a color, or completed a pattern, or moved to a space on a game board? It might not seem catastrophic to an adult, but to a child these repeated situations can be disturbing.
A colorblind child has no frame of reference to say, “Maybe I can’t see that color,” or “Maybe those are different colors that look the same to me.” A child’s natural reaction would be, “I must not be smart enough to know that.”
The solution was awareness. I told Andrew matter-of-factly that he had a special way of seeing colors. It wasn’t bad; it was just different. I told him that if he was ever confused about colors, he could just say so, and ask for help. I let Andrew know that there were many people who were colorblind, including his grandfather. When the family was together, we talked about it casually. Andrew’s older brother and sister asked him questions about it. Andrew was happy that they thought it was “really cool.”
It was important that we kept the discussion light. Andrew was put at ease because we treated as an interesting circumstance, and not as an earth-shattering condition.
The Bigger Picture
I was just reaching around to pat myself on the back, when I realized that it wasn’t enough. What about all the other students in the school, or even in the district? It was my experience that young children were rarely tested for color vision and educators were unaware of CVD and its consequences in the classroom.
I contacted the assistant superintendent of the school district. I gave her a package of information, and outlined a plan to add a color vision test to the kindergarten screening. It was received enthusiastically and implemented the very same year.
The district purchased a test called Color Vision Testing Made Easy developed by Terrace Waggoner, OD. PTA volunteers, who were already organized to help screen for amblyopia (lazy eye) administered the color vision test to 264 children. The test was easy and stress-free. Most of the nine pictures we showed had a shape that even the colorblind children could see. Our reaction after each of the nine cards we presented was always “Good job!”
Ten out of 124 boys “failed” the test. One out of the 140 girls also “failed.” That’s eleven children who, I hoped, will be kept from losing any degree of confidence because of color “mistakes.” Our next step will be to step up some official channel to make sure parents and teachers are informed, and the limitations of the colorblind children are recognized.
The screening process also initiated discussions, and increased awareness. I spoke to parents, teachers, principals and administrators. Their reaction to this “new” information about color blindness was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone agreed that there needed to be some intervention and special consideration for colorblind children, especially in the early grades.
Bigger Picture to Picture Book
I had done my best in my own elementary school district. I didn’t know how I could possibly reach out to more students, but I had an idea. I started writing stories that would help kids, parents and teachers understand CVD. Oh how naïve I was about the publishing industry! Even after earning an MFA in Creative Writing, and knowing I had an important product, publishers were wary of its marketability.
Just as I knew that optometrist was wrong when he told me “it didn’t matter,” I knew the publishers were wrong when they intimated that no one would care. So I hired an illustrator and produced and published the book myself. All About Color Blindness: A Guide to CVD for Kids (and Grown-ups too) is a 32-page full-color picture book that tells the story of a boy who struggles in Kindergarten because of his color vision deficiency. Along the way, Corey learns coping skills and keeps a positive attitude. The second portion, approved by the nation’s top CVD scientists, explains the basics of CVD. My prior years as an engineer and as a mom helped me learn the science and also explain it on a fourth grade level. And let’s face it, even parents and teachers would rather learn from a picture book than a manual.
I wish All About Color Blindness had been available to help those eleven children in the district the first year we instituted pre-K color vision screening, and also to all the children, every year since, who got a heads-up from those generous PTA volunteers who tested them for CVD. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that everything happens in its own time.
There is a picture of the front cover book below. The book can be found for purchase here: All About Color Blindness: A Guide to CVD for Kids.
Seeing into the Future
So many years later, my amazing son Andrew is a senior in high school. He’s been hurdling color obstacles throughout his life and he always will be. But he’s developed a good set of coping skills. CVD certainly hasn’t interfered with his love of video games. I asked him if he ever had trouble with Chemistry experiments and he implied it was a matter of course to depend on a lab partner. I asked him if he told his Chemistry teacher about his color vision and he said, “No.” He probably didn’t want to deal with the queries that would entail or pronounce himself “different” from everyone else. Even though so many of Andrew’s classmates share the same condition, I believe there’s still a stigma involved with CVD and this, of course, is due to a lack of awareness.
As an adult, Andrew’s career choices will be limited, and it’s important that he knows it from the start. He probably can’t be a house painter, a geologist or a pilot. On the other hand, there is still a world of opportunity. Among the many professions I know the colorblind have had are: salesperson, engineer, computer programmer, journalist, principal, and teacher (including an art teacher!). One woman told me her father worked for a cosmetics company. Apparently, he could tell the shades of lipstick better than anyone. People with CVD, because they aren’t distracted by the color information, have a unique ability to distinguish camouflage. Some famous colorblind people are Paul Newman, Bing Crosby, Matt Lauer and football star Vinnie Testaverde. And I’m sure there are many, many more.
Parent’s Color Vision Checklist
If you suspect that your child is colorblind:
- Have him or her evaluated by a professional. Before you make the appointment, make sure the office has a color vision test, and that it is appropriate for your child. If your child is not confident with numbers, there are tests that use shapes instead.
If your child is colorblind:
- Don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t matter.
- Make sure the teachers know. Start with a letter to the classroom teacher, explaining your child’s problem colors. Then follow up with a conference. Don’t forget to make contact with the art, music and gym teachers, and perhaps a reading teacher or occupational therapist if you use one. Remember, approaching a teacher as a partner is more effective than making demands. Look around the classroom and give examples. Offer to help.
- Communicate with your child honestly and matter-of-factly. Keep a sense of humor. It’s not the end of the world. It’s just a different view of it.
Welcome to TestingColorVision.com’s (TCV) blog. There will be two main people who write for TCV’s blog; Dr. Terrace Waggoner and myself, T.J. Waggoner. We will write about anything and everything colorblind related. Sometimes we may post interesting articles that came out and other times we may just write about personal experiences we may have had. In this post, I will give a little background information on Dr. Terrace Waggoner and myself. Plus, I will describe how colorblind people see the world.
Dr. Terrace Waggoner is a world-renowned color vision expert. He has developed several products that are used to test for color vision deficiencies, some of which include: Color Vision Testing Made Easy, Ishihara Compatible Pseudoisochromatic Plate Color Vision Test (PIPIC), and the newly introduced, Waggoner PIPHRR computerized test featured on TestingColorVision.com. For more information on Dr. Waggoner please visit his LinkedIn profile here.
As for myself, I’m T.J. Waggoner and I am the son of Dr. Terrace Waggoner and the reason he became a color vision expert. I have a color vision deficiency and was diagnosed as a severe deutan (green) and a moderate protan (red) by the Waggoner PIPHRR used on this website. I am 25 years old and graduated in the last two years, with a Masters of Business Administration and a Masters of Industrial/Organizational Psychology from the University of West Florida. Interesting fact, I can honestly say that I have taken the most color vision tests in the whole world. More professional information about me, or lack thereof (let’s be honest, I’m only 25), can be found on my LinkedIn profile here.
Now we’re done with the background stuff. Let’s dig into what you’re interested in. There are always two questions that immediately come up when someone finds out that you’re colorblind. What color is this, which is never asked just once but approximately a dozen times while pointing to different objects. The next question is; what do colorblind people see? You can view a few images of how colorblind people see the world by clicking here. I think the best way to explain how people with color vision deficiencies see is by using an analogy.
There are three cones in our eyes that maximize at different wavelengths; 420 nanometers (blue), 530 nm (green), and 560 nm (red). Let’s pretend that we take a paint palette and we have these three colors on it. When colors enter our eyes, the cones act like a painter mixing different paints together to create the perception of color using the blue, green, and red colors. Everyone in the world who is not colorblind has the same exact three colors and when mixed in the same exact proportions it makes the same exact color.
People who are trichromats (type of color vision deficiency) have three types cones but one or two of the cones are altered. These people’s paint palette has three colors on it, but one or two of the colors are closer in resemblance than someone who has normal color vision. For instance, their green (530 nm) will have more of a red tint than it should, which means the cone maximizes at a different wavelength than 530 nm. Maybe it maximizes at 545 nm instead, which is why a colorblind person will often confuse green and red.
People who are dichromats only have two types of cones, this means they only have two colored paints on their paint palette. The people with this type of color vision deficiency can only mix two paints together to create the colors they perceive. As you can imagine, this type of color vision deficiency is more severe than being a trichromat.
If you happen to know any other good analogies on how to explain color vision deficiencies, let’s hear it. Please comment on this blog post and if we think it’s a good description we’ll post it. If you have any topics you would like to like see discussed please let us know.
Have a wonderful day,
T.J. Waggoner and the TCV team