Why I might tell people I’m colorblind

Color blindness is surprisingly common. 1 in 12 guys, 1 in 200 ladies, and of course on top of that all the people that have problems seeing anything. And those who are older and start to get cataracts, or have weird side effects from medications, or have had brain injury, or …. or…

Do you know anyone who is colorblind? Most people don’t advertise it. The chances are there was at least one kid in your elementary school class with it too. And in every class and any workplace with thirty or more people working there. So you should have met easily hundreds. How many people do you know that have actually told you? I have only met a handful. One of my coworkers was an extreme red-green, yet I’d never have known if he didn’t tell me. At that point I had known him for a few years, and I thought his clothing colors always matched.

Of the same category, I had been with my other half for probably a decade before he mentioned about his color perception issues with me. Or it came accidentally after I had shown him one of the simulations of how the world looks like to those who are deutan or protan, as that looked so radically different from what the colors of this world looks like to me. There was a picture of colored pencils in the article I showed. He didn’t see a difference between the simulated or color adjusted picture and the normal one. That felt weird. When I later then found a cool app to look around me, called Chromatic vision simulator (a free app, available for both ios and android), I pointed at things excitedly and tried to learn to see the differences in what kind of tones would look like what. The app also showed how tritans (the inappropriately named blue-yellow colorblindness) see the world, and I showed him that… I tried to figure if he was a deutan or a protan, so pick the one that looks like the normal view to you. Both deutan and protan looked like the normal view to him, whereas to his view the tritan view looked nearly like grayscale. Which was even weirder, as that’s what everything looks like, give or take a little bit of what I would call yellow tone to it. So how had we been together for a decade and not noticed how different our colors look? To me his color sense has always been balanced, and we’d both figure if something would be roughly green or red or a pleasant tone or an ugly tone. Now how can all my colors look grayscale to him while only blues should look gray or black? I still haven’t figured it out. And we’re still an excellent fit.

Here are some good background reads on colorblindness. How people with colorblindness see the world. There are good pictures of many kinds, simulated with the different color deficiencies, and there are also a lot of really interesting comments on those pages. Why menswear need a note on color, but it should also be said about womenswear. Because there are ladies as well that are colorblind, or regular blind, or just need help figuring out what that dot or square with some kind of dark color or light color is trying to be. Blue or black? As opposed to that white that might be neon green. How to design for colorblindness is another good article with good advice for anyone working in design, ux, or accessibility related fields. (Also make it work in grayscale, in high contrast, and with screenreaders)

Most colorblind people are men. I am not. And as the colors I see or don’t see puts me to atypical tritan, it brings a fresh perspective to things. I don’t of course go around advertising to everyone I meet that I have issues with color perception, but it’s always a good consideration for the background. I love when I meet someone else that doesn’t see colors the standard way, and it’s nice to learn what the world looks like to them. What colors are easy to you, which ones are confusing? As a lady in a new environment I can always use the color thing to my advantage if I don’t want to talk about any other sight or accessibility issues. A menu that has blue on black or black on blue (like in the old Windows dos prompt)? Sorry, I can’t see any of that. Never could, even when my eyes had more of a HD image. Black and green or black and yellow would work. On giant print and so on. I might sometimes just tell people white and gray and small print aren’t very friendly on their restaurant’s menu because not everyone can read them.

I try to dress with comfort and some style. If I were shopping in a physical store, I would probably ask for some help to find items, and to have someone describe the colors to me. Online that can be easier. When a clothing store has a good description about the shape and cut and fabric and measurements of the clothes, and the colors are clearly described (ideally in plain language, like “light blue” works much better than “periwinkle sunset”). If the website said the shirt was purple, it will be purple to me, even if it looked like lavender (grayish pink) or some sort of pink. As most or many of my clothes are gray or black, there aren’t really any terrible color clashes that I’m wary of making. I do avoid mixing ten shades of the same color though as I suspect some of them will not match. Green for example. Teal I imagine is blueish green, and I like it. I also love yellowgreens (I don’t really know how to describe those colors, other than that they look like those to me, and I’m a tritan), and have some “peanut butter green” or brownish or army type of greens. I wouldn’t mix those all together in the same outfit. But I sometimes mix and match in the mortal sin category of colors (at least in Italy): darker blues and blacks. That is a color combo that is ok in some cultures, but at least in Italy is seen as a mortal sin. I’ve learned to not care. If I don’t see the difference between blues and blacks, why not mix those boldly and let the others be uncomfortable with it? I might wear “tritan black and white” on the same outfit, so something with dark blue and yellowgreen. And in a few lovely occasions I’ve met people working with accessibility fields who’ve then recognized my color issues a mile away. Tritan. Like cataract colors. It actually felt pretty lovely.

A typical problem someone who grew up growing colorblind would be shame as others don’t understand some colors look identical to you. Or, better, you don’t perceive some tones so based on what you can see there is no difference. Red doesn’t look like green, but it’s more like what red and green seem are the same kind of brown. Which you learn to interpret it being green (“grass is green, trees are green”). Or “sky is blue”, even if that looks like gray and so on. So when other kids shame you for coloring the tree trunk with green and grass brown, or using black or gray to color the blue in your flag, you’ll learn to copy others and try to pass. And avoid in clothing colors that are clearly clashy, unfashionable or apparently inappropriate for your gender, and never tell people because you’ll only get the same dumb looks and “what color shirt am I wearing?” (“shirt colored” should work). If your color perception skills change over your lifetime, so if your blues disappear because of cataracts or prescription drugs, you might be more angry and frustrated with it, as your world used to have more color. Did my world have always these colors when it was a bit more high definition? I don’t quite know, and it doesn’t really bug me. I notice anytime I’m checking on descriptions of graphs the readers always describe the colors quite differently from what they might look like to me, but that’s ok. If it’s a project where the tones can be changed digitally I might try to guess how they would look in grayscale and add a recommendation to change one color darker or lighter. True colorblindness, that is seeing the world in grayscale or without any colors is rare; achromatopsy occurs in 1/30,000 people. But making digital apps and graphics work in grayscale is the universal way to make them colorblind proof. So it doesn’t matter if someone is a deutan, protan, tritan or just black and white.

So sometimes I might just tell it to people. 🙂

Colors that look similar: blues and blacks or grays. Also white can look like some yellows or neon yellowgreen. Pink or orange? No clue. Lavender is sort of grayish pink. Colors that don’t look pleasant to me: browns, light oranges, pinks, blues. Beige looks like grayish orange. And while red and green look different to me in digital world, meaning I can tell them apart usually, many products are difficult to use when the shape of the icon is the same. Skype for example was really difficult to use to answer calls, as there were two icons of which I could not see or read the text and could not remember which of them was trying to represent green and which red. So hit the left or right button to answer? I would systematically hit the wrong button, resulting in many unintentionally rejected calls until they changed the product to behave like regular voice calls. And as the link about designing for colorblindness lists many other colors that don’t work (red and black etc), there is clearly a lot to do to make the world colorblind usable and friendlier.

How can I tell the color of something? I use one of the many color ID apps on my phone. Sometimes not because knowing what something looks like is vital but for curiosity. So a wall that I thought looked light brown might turn to be lightish grayish blue. I avoid describing things with the color as the primary identifier. And of course, I’ll avoid getting hit by cars of any color, especially as my descriptions would usually be at best “light colored” or “dark colored”.


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