How does color blindness affect one’s life?

While recently visiting my son at college, I immediately noticed something was a bit off. “What, is your hair pink?” I asked. “No, it’s blue,” he said.

For many years I have had this problem, and it’s not my son’s hair color. I’m color blind. No need for a pity party though, because I’m not alone. An estimated 32 million Americans – 8 percent of men and less than 1 percent of women – have some degree of color blindness.

This is not a handicap by any stretch of the imagination. People who are color blind see colors; they just don’t see them as normal-sighted people do.

“Instead of calling it color blindness,’ you could call it color confusion,” says Dr. Andrew Lee, chairman of the department of ophthalmology at Houston Methodist Hospital and a professor of ophthalmology, neurology and neurosurgery at Weill Cornell Medical College. “Sure, it can be a drawback in a few aspects of life but for the most part, color blind people rarely notice the difference.”

Color blind people don’t see life like a black and white TV show. Recognizing pure, deep color is no problem but color blindness tends to smear those millions of in-between shades into a spectrum of just a handful. A color blind person sees about 1 percent of the colors that everyone else can see. The color blind viewer can confuse colors, and some colors may appear washed out.

Do you see a number in each circle? The Ishihara color blindness test is the most well known color vision deficiency test. Click the image to take the test.

To me apples are red, summer leaves are green and the sky is blue. But I probably wouldn’t be much fun on a drive to see fall foliage, or a trip to the paint store. Rainbows? Forget it.

“In most people color blindness is caused by a congenital defect in photoreceptors in the retina of the eye,” explains Lee. “There are other, rarer forms of acquired color blindness that can be caused by injury, illness or a reaction to medications. Any disease of the optic nerve or retina, or rarely even a brain tumor, can bring on acquired color blindness.”

Color blind people figure out simple workarounds to help them function in a multi-colored world. And it helps to have a sympathetic family who corrects the settings on the TV or hangs a matching tie with a freshly pressed shirt.

A color blind person sees about 1% of the colors that everyone else can see Click To Tweet

Color blindness can close some jobs to affected people. Pilots and air traffic controllers must be able to read color-coded instruments or recognize colors that represent different altitudes on a radar screen. Railroad engineers are guided by signal lights of different colors, and laboratory technicians read colors for litmus tests and specimen slides.

Some companies sell corrective glasses or contact lenses to brighten those troublesome colors and a few video game manufacturers are building in modes to substitute icons and shapes for colors. And there are few phone apps that are advertised as filters to show what a color is supposed to look like.

On the medical side, Lee says there really is no medical or surgical correction that can cure congenital color blindness. “Most people adjust, and move on with their lives,” he says. “The human brain has a remarkable capacity to compensate for a deficiency and people often make very clever adjustments to get around color blindness.”

Because the genetic condition most likely began centuries ago, Lee believes humans have dealt with color blindness throughout history. “Humans managed to survive all these thousands of years, so good news – it’s not a serious disadvantage,” he says.

Now, blue hair? That’s a serious disadvantage. Anyway, the joke’s on my son: other people looking at a photo agree his hair looks more green than blue.

Denny Angelle

Denny Angelle

Senior Editor at Houston Methodist
Denny Angelle is a senior editor at Houston Methodist. A former journalist, his work has appeared in a number of publications including Boysí Life, the Houston Chronicle, USA Today and Time.
Denny Angelle

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Denny Angelle

Denny Angelle is a senior editor at Houston Methodist. A former journalist, his work has appeared in a number of publications including Boysí Life, the Houston Chronicle, USA Today and Time.