Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Colour Blindness: Figuring It Out

It's not uncommon - especially among males (8% of the male population in fact).  Yet it's not something many of us think about or know much about.  And that's not a big deal. . . for most of us.  Unless you are a teacher (in which case you should know and you should care).  Or are colour deficient (I think that sounds much nicer than colour "blind" - more accurate too).  Or have a colour deficient child.

And I am a teacher.  And I am a parent of (at least) one colour deficient child - we will have to wait until our new arrival is a little older to find out what his vision is like.  And I am frustrated at the lack of information and resources out there for parents of colour blind children.  I know it's not life-threatening and I know that most people with less-than-optimal colour vision develop excellent coping techniques and many achieve great things.  But how do I facilitate that for my son? How do I support the students who may not even realize that they see the world differently from others?

I am frustrated that when I google "colour blind children" and other combinations of those words, I get articles and blogs about teaching children to ignore race.  Ummm. . . that's nice and all. . . but colour blindness is a thing that real people live with every day, not a hashtag.  While there are some excellent resources out there, they are few and far between.  So I decided to use my resources and share a bit of my research and experiences on this blog.  I will be writing a series of posts on the topic over the next little while and will update with further posts when I have more to share.  If you are also parenting a colour deficient child, are colour blind yourself, are a teacher (because, whether you know it or not, you've taught and will teach colour blind students), or know people who fit any of these criteria, please feel free to read, share and comment.  I don't think enough of us are talking.

So my first post is entitled "Figuring It Out" because, obviously, the first step to addressing issues with colour is determining that there are, in fact, issues with colour.

Family History:
In my next post (here!), I'll get into the genetics connected with red-green colour blindness (I need to refresh myself on high school Biology first) but, in short, if there are any colour blind men in the mom's family, that may result in colour blind children.  It isn't a guarantee (unless mom, herself, is colour blind - in which case her sons will certainly be colour blind and her daughters have a decent chance as well), but it should be an indicator that this is something to be conscious of.

In my case, my father is colour blind as are two three (oops!) of his brothers.  Colour blindness, and strategies for coping with it, have been a way of life in my home since I can remember.  While my father is excellent at determining which colours go together (based on depth and hue), he often struggles with determining exactly what colour he is looking at - is that sweater a gray-green or a lovely heathered purple? He actually bought a pair of pants that he thought was a great deal. . . until my mom let him know they were pink instead of the gray he saw when he looked at them.  Until I moved out, I remember helping my dad select the tie he should wear with the shirt and jacket he had already chosen.  He could usually make good choices. . . but just needed the extra set of eyes to make sure he wasn't committing a fashion faux pas.

Needless to say, when I learned how colour blindness is passed along in families, I knew that if I had a son, this would be something to look out for.

The Clues:
My son is a voracious learner.  At 3 years old, he is fascinated by dinosaurs, fossils and how things work.  We'll read a story about how the earth's revolution around its axis causes day and night. . . the next evening, he's telling us that we're moving away from the sun and it will be nighttime soon.  He knows many shapes.  He sings various songs - some "kid" ones and a selection from the radio.  He can count to 20 (excluding a few numbers in the teens that he just doesn't like, and with the addition of "frelve").  He is mostly accurate while singing the ABC song and understands that letters make up the words in his story books (although he can't identify the letters themselves).

I don't share this to brag.  I share this so that you understand why the alarm bells were clanging when, despite our gentle teaching and colour-related games and patterning, he just didn't seem to get colour.  It was not uncommon to ask "what colour is this?" and have him pause and then seemingly pick one at random.  Asking him to match blocks of the same colour was just as likely to result in piles of green/yellow and red/purple as in discrete piles of just one colour.  He just didn't get it and was quickly losing interest in these types of games.

But blue.  He nails blue.  Every.  Time.  It's his favourite colour!

Some other signs that you may encounter (we didn't, possibly because of how young our son is) include:
  • smelling food before eating it (and reluctance to try new foods) - it's hard to find a meal appetizing if you're missing the colourful aspects of it
  • lack of interest or attention span in colouring in worksheets or games with a focus on colour
  • using the "wrong" colour (purple leaves, green faces, etc.)
  • excellent sense of smell and night vision (compensation?)
  • sensitivity to bright lights
  • complaining about head or eye aches when looking at something green on a red background or vice versa
  • denial of an issue with colour

We knew that we needed to get him checked out.

Next Steps:
Since I wear glasses and/or contact lenses, I have an eye doctor that I see.  She also examined my son's eyes when he was about 8 months old to ensure that they were healthy (I didn't even know that was a thing but I'm glad I found out about it).  So we had someone to turn to.  If I didn't have an optometrist, I would have asked my family doctor for her advice. . . it probably would have been to see an optometrist.

For adults, there are a range of tests that can be used to determine colour deficiencies.  For young children, it is a little more difficult.  I'm sure you've heard of the Ishihara Plate test? Well, maybe not by name, but it's this one:

There are many plates with various colours and numbers but generally, if you have normal colour vision, you should be able to read the numbers (can you?).  If you can't, you may have an issue with colour (although there are many people with normal colour vision who still have issues with this test apparently).

Now, obviously, a 3 year old is not going to be able to read these numbers off the page whether he can see them or not, so the children's version of the test uses shapes.  Our optometrist showed him a page with a circle, square and triangle on it and asked what the shapes were.  Satisfied that he could identify them by name (because if he couldn't, what's the point?), she moved on to the plates.  On each page, she asked what he could see.  She sometimes asked him to point to the shapes to ensure that he was, in fact, seeing them and not just caught up in "playing the game".  He loved every second of it!

The results were pretty clear:  he does have a red-green colour deficiency just like his grandpa.  And now we know.  And now we're learning and adjusting the way we deal with colour in our house.  And we know to let his teacher know so when he starts preschool next week, his difficulties with colour don't suggest other issues (with his development or with his attitude).

My dad doesn't remember consciousness of his vision being a thing.  It probably wasn't, in the 1960s.  But I like to think that we've become a bit more thoughtful and considerate about the various challenges that our children and students may face by 2015.  At least I hope so!

So welcome to our adventure and exploration of what it means to be colour blind and how we can best support our son while helping him to develop strategies to cope with his colour deficiencies.  I hope this isn't a one-way soap box but a conversation starter.  Please feel free to continue that discussion in the comments, in your own homes and communities, wherever you choose!

Here are some excellent resources to get started on exploring colour blindness:


  1. This is really interesting. I'm not sure if we have any colour blindness -- except our acceptance other people's races, of course ;) -- in our genes, but this information is great to have as our son is 17 months old. Great post.

  2. Hi Meghan, I don't think I knew your dad was colour blind, but your old aunt here has lived the same story. My dad was diagnosed as "profoundly colour blind", he saw very little of any colour. I as his daughter have passed this on to your male cousins. Same scenario, the boys were very bright yet could not nail colours. I did alot of research and put together a display, borrowed a colour blindness chart from an optometrist and went to their school. We had a class presentation with a little geared-to-age presentation of eye anatomy, discussion and questions, then they tried to find the numbers in the chart. A few went home with a note if they showed difficulty. We found grade 1 they experienced a bit of teasing so that was when I went in. The teachers were receptive and the kids were great, became very helpful after that. We have learned coping strategies over the years, they are second nature now and thankfully no big challenges have slowed us down! Squeeze the boys for me! xo

    1. Great ideas and info! I didn't know your boys were colour blind as well. Thanks for sharing :)

  3. Interesting blog...I was the only one of the five brothers that didn't have this issue but this is good to know when Erin & Hannah have kids. Did you know that we have cousins on Grandma's side of the family that have this vision deficiency also?

    1. I did not know that about the cousins although it makes sense given how the genetics work. You lucked out, eh? Thanks for stopping by :)