January 19, 2013

A clearer understanding of color blindness

Parents have been asking me some colorful questions recently about color blindness. 

Color blindness does not mean a person is blind. It is really a deficiency in color vision that may range from a slight difficulty in telling the difference between shades of color to not being able to identify any color at all. This is due to a problem with certain cells in the person’s retina (the back of the eye) needed to see color. Most color-blind children can still note differences in pure primary colors, just not the different shades. 

Eight percent of males and less than 1 percent of females are color blind. The most common problem is distinguishing reds and greens. The issue is usually present at birth, although the problem can worsen with aging.

How is it diagnosed? You may notice that your child, once they learn their colors, has a hard time telling the difference between red, green, brown and grey, or they may have difficulty learning their colors. They may color with unusual choices of crayon — for example, Santa may be in a brown suit, rather than red. This may go undetected until your child starts school and the teacher notices problems with colors.

If this occurs, your child’s doctor may test them to confirm the problem by asking your child to identify a series of circles filled with colored dots forming a number against a background of other colored dots. People who are color blind cannot see some of the numbers that are easily seen by those who are not color blind.

If the problem is identified, you should tell your child’s teacher and try to label colors in pictures with words or symbols that can help cue a child with color recognition. Unfortunately, there is not a cure for color blindness, but you and your child should not despair. Children who are color blind need to be reassured that this will not affect their ability to learn and do well in school, or hamper their ability to have a successful career as an adult. This way, color blindness does not hamper their self-esteem.

Hopefully tips such as these will allow you and your child to see more clearly when it comes to knowing more about color blindness.

Dr. Lewis First is chief of Pediatrics at Vermont Children’s Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.




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