Red Fish Hue Fish

West students share their experiences of being colorblind and address misconceptions that may arise.

What color is the sky? The grass? A stop sign? Colors that are typically vivid may not always appear as such to those who are colorblind. People with colorblindness often can’t distinguish between certain colors, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they see the world in black and white.

While some colorblind people do only see in black and white, it is not the case for most. Instead, colorblindness prevents many from distinguishing specific colors due to the conditions of the light-detecting cells in the retina — the nerve tissue in the back of the eye. The two types of cells that detect light and color are called rods and cones, respectively. Three types of cone cells each sense a different color: red, green and blue. When one of these types of cones malfunctions or is absent, colorblindness is the result. 

Nora Stier ’24 found out she is red-green colorblind at an eye appointment for glasses. 

“I offhandedly mentioned that my dad is colorblind, and so [my eye doctor] was like, ‘We should test her just in case, you know? It’s probably not going to happen,’” Stier said. “Then she gave me the little booklet and looked at me funny, and she’s like, ‘You’re definitely colorblind.’” 

Ian Wells ’24 realized he was red-green colorblind early in his childhood due to his older brother’s prior diagnosis.

“[One day], my brother made a rainbow [in class] that was brown and black and all these wrong colors. [Then] the teacher called my mom and was like, ‘You know, I like my rainbows right,’” Wells said. 

Shortly after his older brother was diagnosed, Wells was taken in for an eye exam.

“I thought I did really well, but I got absolutely [everything wrong],” Wells said.

Colorblindness often goes unnoticed; Stier notes part of the reason is because there is no easy way to describe the world she sees compared to others. 

You’re seeing color differently than other people but you’ve always seen color that way, and there’s no internal way of measuring the way you see color to someone else,” Stier said.

“You’re seeing color differently than other people but you’ve always seen color that way, and there’s no internal way of measuring the way you see color to someone else” 

— Nora Stier '24

Rachel Swack ’23 has color deficiency, which prevents her from distinguishing between shades of color, as opposed to not being able to see certain colors at all.

“Everyone [is] just like, ‘Oh, you can’t see color.’ I’m like, ‘No, I can see every color. I [just] can’t see shades,’” Swack said.

Wells has had similar experiences with not seeing certain colors others take for granted.

“I had to learn where the red and green on a traffic light [are],” Wells said. “I [also] get confused … if a stop sign has a green background. I was driving in a neighborhood one time and there were a ton of stop signs, and they all had a tree behind them. I had to stare at the edge of the road because I could not see the stop signs.”

Apart from driving, Wells’ colorblindness prevents him from doing things that he used to love.

“It’s annoying, but it’s not something I can’t live around. It just sucks to not be able to do stuff I enjoy,” Wells said. 

Swack’s color deficiency has influenced one of her hobbies in a unique way.

“I scuba dive, which as you get deeper, colors disappear. I guess for me, they just disappear quickly,” Swack said. “As you get further down in the water, the light doesn’t reach [you]. Because [of] the way color reacts with light, one of the last colors [people] see is red, but I don’t see red as well as I see blue and purple. Everything just ends up being gray if I get super deep.”

Although colorblindness impacts specific hobbies, it also affects ordinary tasks many people are unaware of. 

“I really used to enjoy painting, coloring and just art in general. I just avoid all painting and coloring now because I always get all the colors wrong,” Wells said. 

Though his colorblindness inhibits some aspects of his life, Wells doesn’t think it substantially affects his daily routine. Moreover, Stier believes being colorblind raises her appreciation for little things that otherwise go unnoticed.

“Now that I’ve been diagnosed, I’m more cognizant of using pencils, coloring pencils and crayons,” Stier said. “I remember not wanting to use anything that wasn’t labeled. Because then I would draw with it, and it’d be a completely different color than what I expected.” 

In addition to the challenges that come with colorblindness, Wells has observed people’s reactions when they find out he’s colorblind. 

“Every single time I tell somebody I’m colorblind, I get the same question,” Wells said. “They point at something and immediately go, ‘What color is this?’” 

Though it sometimes bothers him, Wells thinks these repetitive responses can be positive because they help spread awareness. 

“It’s mostly just [a] lack of knowledge. Either [people think I] see the world in black and white or they think there’s only one type of colorblindness when there’s a wide range,” Wells said. 

Stier has experienced similar reactions, and she hopes that she can help educate people on the different types of colorblindness. 

“[A common misconception is] that colorblindness means that you can’t see color at all. Which in some cases, that’s a thing, but in the vast majority of people colorblindness is not that they can’t see color or that they can’t determine color,” Stier said. “You know what the colors are, you just don’t see the color the same way as other people see them. And then there’s always that little bit of dissonance between the way you try to explain how you see color and how other people are interpreting their own experiences of color.”