Color blindness an inconvenience, not a disability

October 11, 2017 — by Howard Tang and Vivien Zhang

Junior Nirav Adunuthula remembered staring at the mosaic of orange and green dots during his ninth-grade Biology class, straining his eyes to recognize the green “5” formed printed on the Ishihara plates. But the longer he looked, the more the two colors blended into each other.

After finishing multiple eye tests, Adunuthula learned he has a mild form of red-green color deficiency, the most common form of color blindness.

Color blindness, also known as Color Vision Deficiency (CVD), is a condition in which a person is unable to see colors under normal light, making it difficult for them to distinguish certain colors.

According to Colblindor, color blindness comes in multiple types and various levels of severity. Red-green color blindness comes in two forms: protan, resulting from abnormal red cone cells, and deutan, resulting from abnormal green cone cells. Blue-yellow color blindness, also known as tritan, is a rarer form of color blindness resulting from abnormal blue cone cells.

While color blindness can be acquired, it is usually genetically inherited. The gene controlling this trait is located on the X-chromosome, making males more likely to inherit CVD. According to Enchroma, some forms of color blindness may affect 1 in 12 men, but only 1 in 200 women.

 

Dealing with the condition

Adunuthula said being colorblind does not affect his daily life much, but sometimes it can hinder his learning because his teachers don’t know about his condition.

“It was pretty frustrating once when Mr. Yim wrote on the board in blue and purple [while trying to explain a math problem] and each color was supposed to signify different important steps, but I couldn't tell the difference,” Adunuthula said.

Adunuthula does not know any other family members with color blindness. On the other hand, all male members of junior David Berkowitz-Sklar’s family are colorblind — his younger brother, father, uncle and both grandparents. With his mild form of protan color blindness, Berkowitz-Sklar feels that his life has not been drastically changed, save for the occasional annoyance, such as identifying a color when drawing or doing other activities with color identification.

He too has had some problems in the past due to his teachers not believing that he was colorblind.

“In P.E. class in seventh grade, we had a quiz on archery in which we had to label the components of the arrow,” Berkowitz-Sklar said. “The green feathers have a specific name and the red one has another name. I mixed up the colors so I got the labeling wrong and got points off even though I technically knew it.”

 

New solutions being made

Although mild forms of color blindness generally do not affect a person’s daily life, stronger forms of color blindness are more debilitating.

Since there is no cure to color blindness, many scientists are researching ways to improve the lives of those who live with it.

One example is the Enchroma glasses, co-invented by Don McPherson and Andrew Schmeder in 2010 by a company that creates special glasses to enhance color vision. McPherson and Schmeder spent a decade perfecting a lens technology that would reveal color as it was meant to be seen — “pure, vibrant and true to life.”

In March, Redwood Middle School core teacher Shannon Aviña organized a fundraiser via GoFundMe to raise money to give fellow core teacher Josh Marks a pair of prescription Enchroma glasses.

Marks is profoundly color blind, meaning that he doesn’t see colors in a normal way like in gray, black and white. He can “see” colors but cannot tell the differences between dark blue and purple, or dirty red and brown.

The drive was successful, but the results have been mixed.

“Unfortunately, because Enchroma glasses are made for red-green colorblindness only, it has not made a profound difference in my life, but it does allow me to enjoy the outdoor scenery much more,” said Marks.

Although the glasses cost $515, the fundraiser ended up collecting a total of $1,375, and Marks received the glasses as a birthday present.

Like most affected students, Marks remembers having many problems while in school.

“I had some teachers who were unsympathetic and were upset when I couldn’t answer basic questions that involved studying data,” Marks said. “As a teacher, I have a hard time seeing the differences between highlighters and ink, which makes grading student annotations difficult.”

To Marks, everyday life is manageable, as he says people with colorblindness learn tricks to get by.

“People often ask me about traffic lights,” Marks said. “I can see they’re different, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that red is on the top and green is on the bottom, right?” Another scientific method developed to help those with CVD is the implantation of a third “eye.”

Artist Neil Harbisson, who was born with an extreme version of color blindness that resulted in grayscale vision, developed a wearable lightweight eyepiece that allowed him to “hear color.” With the help of Digital Futures expert Adam Montandon, he blurred the lines between sight and sound, transposing light frequencies into sound. Harbisson memorized all of the frequencies and decided to permanently attach the sensor to his head, making him the world’s first cyborg.

While there have been many innovative designs in the past few years to mitigate the effects of color blindness, there is still much room for advancement.

Neither Adunuthula nor Berkowitz, the two students affected by the condition, plan on getting Enchroma glasses or a “third eye” anytime soon. They feel that colorblindness is just something they have to live with.

“Being colorblind makes life more comical once in awhile. Isn't actually, at least not for me, a disability,” Berkowitz-Sklar said. “The funny thing about being colorblind is that you can kind of see two different colors at once. Like I'll see green and then my friends will tell me it's orange and then all of a sudden it starts looking a little more orange. So actually it's all all of you non-colorblind people who are missing out.”