Colorblindness subtly affects students

By Judd Liebman

John Lee ’12 stared in confusion at the Bunsen burner flame. He said the task was easy for most of his fellow Chemistry Honors classmates: all they had to do was record the color of the flame. But Lee, who is colorblind, could not differentiate the hues of the flame. 

“I know general colors, but I wouldn’t be able to specifically say what it is,” Lee said. “My teacher would just say what it was. It was pretty annoying.”

Eight percent of men and 0.5 percent of women suffer from colorblindness, according to a report published by the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Colorblindness is “an x-linked recessive trait, so you’re going to see it more in males,” ophthalmologist Tali Kolin (Danielle ’08, David ’12) said.

The genetic coding for this deficiency is located on the X chromosome. Males have only one X chromosome compared to females’ two, so men have a higher probability of being affected.

Colorblindness covers somewhat of a spectrum, with the most extreme cases resulting in only black and white vision. Difficulty differentiating brightness or shades is more common.

“[Colorblind people] can’t see colors or the brightness of colors in the usual way,” Kolin said. “It’s not usually complete absence of color. That’s very rare. Colorblindness is usually very subtle. It’s not something that really affects people’s lives.”

Lee had his suspicions confirmed in middle school when he conducted a colorblindness test in science. He is affected by the more common version of colorblindness, meaning that he cannot differentiate red from green, blue from purple or orange from red.

“I can see all of the colors, but even though they are different I see them similarly,” Lee said.

Wesley Friedman ’12 also is color deficient.

“I have a lot of trouble telling the difference between green and red. Also I can’t tell the difference between blue and purple for my life,” he said. “My older brother is also color deficient, and actually my grandpa who is an [eye] surgeon was colorblind,” Friedman said. “Whenever we would go visit my grandpa, he would always do some optical check-ups on us and that’s when I found out I’m colorblind.”

Sometimes, colorblindness can interfere with students’ schoolwork. Both Lee and Friedman took chemistry during their sophomore years and had difficulty during labs or tests that required color recognition, they said. Chemistry teacher Krista McClain said students in Chemistry Honors conducted five such labs and had one test question that was difficult for her students who were color deficient.

“If it were in a lab, typically I would have the partner help them out,” McClain said. “Students work really close together, so I would have [someone] just tell them.”

The extra step did not affect colorblind students’ grades, McClain said.

“It never hurt any of their lab grades or their tests,” McClain said. “I would never let that happen. But they had to tell me. I’m sure it is a little more difficult for them, but I can’t change an entire lab based on one or two kids who unfortunately, can’t read the color, so I try to help them the best that I can.”

Asking for help on a lab or test is not the only time colorblindness affects Lee, he said.

“When I drive, I can’t differentiate the red and yellow lights sometimes so I have to do it intuitively,” Lee said. “That’s kind of annoying. I memorize the places where the [lights are] so it’s fine.”

Friedman said he sometimes chooses the wrong color in art, but it does not present itself as an issue, he said.

“Every once in a while in art I would use purple instead of blue or black,” he said. “I just get laughed at a little bit. It turns into a joke.”