Education Opinion

Confessions of a Deuteranope: Coping With a Color-Coded World

By Elmer M. Blistein — November 26, 1986 8 min read

This age is enlightened, or so we have been told. We are particularly sensitive to the needs of people with physical handicaps and disabilities, and we should be. Ramps are available in most public and many private buildings, and curbstones have been altered so that wheelchair-bound people may have improved access. Some parking spaces are reserved for those who have difficulty walking so that they may park conveniently close to their destinations. Some television programs are closed-captioned, and some public speeches are signed for those with hearing disabilities. There are some “talking books” and some large-print books and magazines for those who are visually handicapped. So far, I have dealt with “most” and “some"; now, I must deal with “no.” No provision has been made--so far as I am aware--for people with my minor but irritating handicap.

I first became conscious of it when I was in the pre-primary grade. No, do not call it kindergarten; this was a time so close to the end of the First World War that cole slaw was still called liberty cabbage. At any rate, there I was in pre-primary and I drew a tree. I colored the trunk green. I colored the leaves brown. The other children all laughed. Color me embarrassed and hurt. I suppose I would have discovered earlier that I was partially color-blind, perhaps in nursery school, if such institutions of learning existed when and where I grew up. But they didn’t, so I was a tad of some five summers before I discovered that I was “different.”

At first my family and I assumed that I was not color-blind, but merely color-ignorant. I had made it very easy for them to assume that I was ignorant in areas other than color vision, so their assumption was valid. They drilled me from time to time in colors and the names of colors. I scored very well on yellows, as long as they were bright yellows, but I flunked reds (frequently confusing them with greens or browns), and I did very poorly on blues. I never could distinguish between purple and blue, so perhaps that’s why I get the blues when it rains, or even when it doesn’t. But since I had flunked nap and sandbox, no one seemed particularly surprised or disturbed at this new failure, this new ignorance.

I managed to get through the first six grades without my handicap retarding my progress too much. Of course, I once made a relief map of the United States, and the teacher observed quizzically that she had never before realized the Gulf of Mexico was purple and that the plains states were maroon, but the shapes were right even if the colors left something to be desired. I coped with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland “and the different branches of Arithmetic--Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision,” not to mention Fractures of the Simple and Complex varieties, without being overly handicapped by my lack of precise color vision.

I did have some trouble with art classes, to be sure, but those were the days when Art Deco was in and, while I couldn’t handle the bold colors too well, black and white were my strong suits. I learned to play cards because the black suits were always black to me and whatever wasn’t black was the other color, red I think. So I passed through the middle grades with some uneasiness, but with only minor calamities, not major disasters.

In secondary school, confusion set in, and confusion became even more confounded as I learned to read John Milton and I tried to learn something about chemistry. I could understand Milton, but chemistry was something else again. The textbook didn’t bother me, but the laboratory experiments promised nothing but trouble. Fortunately, the laboratory table space was limited, so each student worked with a partner. My partner was not color-blind. We both passed. Monumental ignorance had triumphed once again.

Also in secondary school, I began to imagine myself a natty dresser, a fancy dan, a poor man’s Beau Brummell. In that day and age, fashion and Esquire dictated that a young man’s socks and ties should match. My mother had an exquisite color sense, and aided me immeasurably by lining up my ties on the rack: black, brown, blue, maroon, and green. She also arranged my socks in the same order. Good of her, I hear you say? Well, perhaps it was the least she could do. Colorblindness is about 10 times as common in men as it is in women. About 4 percent of all men are color-blind. Women pass it on to their male offspring as they pass on baldness and hemophilia, but they rarely suffer these handicaps themselves, and rarely do they pass them on to their female offspring.

Mother tried to help; I wish I could say the same of my father. In many ways he was a pixy or, at least, he had a pixilated sense of humor. I had a natural tan gabardine suit. Everybody had a natural tan or olive gabardine suit in those days. I thought that a gray gabardine suit would make me stand out just a little, not too much, for decorum was essential. I obtained a bolt of gray gabardine cloth, showed it to Father, and asked if he didn’t think it was a handsome gray. His answer was ambiguous, although I didn’t realize it at the time: “Gray?” he said. “Yes, the cloth is very handsome.” Yes, you’ve guessed it. The cloth was green. The suit made from it was green. I found that out the second time I wore it. The young man who told me how much he liked my “new green suit” received it as a gift. He wore it and he wore it and he wore it. No good deed should remain unpunished.

After secondary school, I finally arrived at man’s estate and matriculated at Brown University. In my freshman year, I took Psychology 1-2. The professors in the course were Ed Kemp in the first semester and Walter Hunter in the second. The section man in both semesters was Parker Johnson. He deserved a better fate and later achieved one. During one of the section meetings he administered the Ishihara color- vision test to us. He told us that it was commonly called the Japanese dot test. Our answers determined scientifically what our color vision was. Each student was shown large circles containing many varicolored smaller circles. The student was asked what number he saw in the large circle. If you saw one particular number formed by the smaller circles, your color vision was normal; if you saw another, or no number at all, you might be suffering from protanopia, tritanopia, achromatopsia, or deuteranopia. Every student in the section--save one--had normal color vision. I was the odd man. I was, Parker Johnson informed me, a classic deuteranope. Unlike my pre-primary classmates, my Psych 1-2 classmates didn’t laugh at me. I was an object of curiosity, but not an object of scorn.

Once I knew that I was a deuteranope, I felt better about my handicap. If you can pin a label on something, you almost have it licked. Of course, I couldn’t join the Navy or Air Corps during World War II. Those two branches seemed to feel that color vision was very important, but perhaps the fact that I was extremely myopic had some bearing on the case. The Army didn’t seem to care, and it took me. Later, when my Army unit was attached to the IX Air Corps, I discovered that the Air Corps had probably made a mistake. Because I was a deuteranope, camouflage really didn’t exist for me. I could easily and readily descry the guns and planes beneath the camouflage nets.

But most often I have been impaired because of my handicap. Everything seems to be color-coded these days. Join the green wire to the red wire and attach the joint to the blue wire and your stereo system will work fine. Sure it will, but how many fuses do you have to blow, how many circuit breakers do you have to trip before you holler “help” and also “uncle”? I am fortunate that I have reached an agreement with my greengrocer. He doesn’t tell me how to teach Shakespeare and I don’t tell him how to select my fruits and vegetables. Now I get ripe tomatoes and ripe peaches and ripe melons and ripe plums. No longer do my comestibles have to ripen on the window sill of the south window in my kitchen.

And there was a time when many municipalities brightened dangerous intersections with sodium-vapor lamps. I stopped at almost every comer in those days. I’m delighted that the Connecticut Turnpike no longer has toll booths. I didn’t mind the tolls; I did mind not knowing whether the light was red or green until I saw the cone blocking the lane. When traffic lights are vertical, I have no problem. Red is at the top and green is at the bottom, but on Park Avenue in New York City several years ago, traffic lights were horizontal, not vertical, and I took cabs.

I wondered from time to time if perhaps I would grow out of my deuteranopia. People do grow out of things, you know. I saw no evidence that I had, but I thought I’d go and get myself tested again. So, a little while ago, I returned to Brown University’s psychology department and asked Professor Billy Wooten if, perhaps, he could retest me. He agreed. He started by giving me the Ishihara test. As I called out the numbers, he nodded and said, “Uh-huh, uh-huh.” Then he gave me the Munsell color test, sometimes called the hundred- hue test. I arranged discs according to the colors I saw, and he nodded and said, “Db-huh, uh-huh” some more. Finally, he introduced me to a machine that looked as if it belonged in a medieval torture chamber, if high technology and electricity had been available to medieval torturers. This was, I was told, an anomaloscope. Professor Wooten put the machine and me through our paces. He then stepped back, held out his hand, and said, “Congratulations, sir, you are a classic deuteranope.” Well, I may not be classy, but at least twice in my life I have been classic.

So I have learned--I think--to cope with my handicap, or at least I thought I had. But now something else has happened. A new game has swept the country. It is called “Trivial Pursuit,” but the adjective should be diabolical. The board and the tokens are divided into six colors: yellow, green, brown, pink, orange, and blue, or so I’ve been told. The only color I can see clearly is the yellow. The green and blue look identical to me, and I see little difference between the brown and pink, between pink and orange. No problem, you say; the other players will help you. I suppose so, but I am not Blanche DuBois. At my age and at my advanced state of decay, I do not wish to depend on the kindness of strangers--or, indeed, on the kindness of competitive friends.

A version of this article appeared in the November 26, 1986 edition of Education Week