What do colour blind people see?

There are almost three million colour blind people in the UK - that is enough to fill Wembley stadium more than 30 times.

The NHS describes colour vision deficiency as when someone finds it difficult to identify and distinguish between certain colours.

It is a common genetic condition but, is often poorly understood by trichromats (people with normal colour vision).

We asked politics professor Dr Oliver Daddow and footballer Nick Bignall, who both have colour vision deficiency, about their experience of being colour blind.

There are many tests available to measure colour vision defects but the most common is the Ishihara Plate test

In a colour vision deficiency test you are asked to identify the number or symbol inside the circle.

‘My mum thought I was Picasso’

Dr Daddow, a politics professor at The University of Nottingham, is what he called moderate-to-severe green deficient.

He can see green but it’s a very dull version and this can lead to difficulty seeing other colours too.

He found out he was colour blind when we was in primary school:

“I was maybe six or seven, I was painting the sky purple, whatever that is, I was painting tree trunks green, and the grass as brown. My mum thought I was Picasso, but unfortunately it’s wasn’t quite that good,” he said.

Dr Daddow’s mum labelled his coloured pencils to help him, but as he got older he found challenges in other subjects:

“Physics I really struggled with, like testing how to rewire plugs. I couldn’t tell the colours apart, so I was shorting loads of plugs in physics all the time.

He also struggled in Chemistry when trying to read litmus paper dipped in acid. Litmus paper is an indicator that can be red or blue. Red litmus turns blue in alkalis, while blue litmus turns red in acids.

“I’d be told off for saying brown,” said Dr Daddow.

“Anything involving graphs, coloured pie charts, bar charts - couldn’t do any of that,” he said.

Autumn can be frustrating when, to Dr Daddow, the reds and greens just look like rusty brown

'If you’re only relying on colour alone, you’re in trouble'

Now, Dr Daddow makes sure most of his research is text-based since graphs and bar charts aren’t always accessible for him.

His said election time is a challenge, since data is often presented with colours to represent the different political parties and, unless they have secondary labeling, he cannot use them.

Thanks to his expertise, he can identify the main parties and work from there, but "for people who don’t know much about politics, 90% of the charts I look at just aren’t accessible.”

'If you’re only relying on colour alone to convey meaning, you’re in trouble," he said.

Choosing a ripe banana in the morning can be difficult when you're green deficient

‘A lot of coaches didn’t take it into consideration’

Nick Bignall is a semi-professional footballer who plays for Bracknell Town. He also has colour vision deficiency.

There are a few combinations he finds difficult to separate: reds and browns from yellows and oranges, and any colours that are close are hard to differentiate.

He was diagnosed with colour vision deficiency in primary school. He remembers he would pick up the brown pencil thinking it was red.

Growing up, Nick came up with strategies to help him at school - for example, knowing to get a second opinion on certain colours.

But when he started playing football he encountered some difficulties.

For people who are colour blind, it can be difficult to differentiate between kits that are close in colour

“A lot of coaches didn’t take it into consideration, it’s not that they weren’t bothered about it, they just weren’t aware it was an issue.

“They would go into the bib bag and throw out yellows and oranges and lime greens, and I would be thinking in my head, I don’t know which one’s which.

“It was an issue that I kept quiet for a while. Looking back I probably thought it was because I didn’t want to stand out - it can be quite daunting to mention as a kid that there’s an issue or say to the group, ‘I’m struggling here’,” he said.

The science bit

  • Do all colour blind people see the same thing?

No.

We all see colour through special cells in our eyes called cones. We have three types of cones which absorb red, blue or green light.

These three cones work together for us to see the full visible spectrum. But, in colour blindness, one cone cell type doesn’t function properly. This means that people with colour vision deficiency cannot see the full visible spectrum, and instead see many colours the same.

What colour blind people see depends upon the type and severity of their condition.

Many different colour combinations can cause confusion. The most common problems are distinguishing between reds, greens, browns, yellows and oranges, and between blues, purples, and dark pink, but it varies from case to case.

  • Can some people only see in black and white?

Yes, but it’s extremely rare.

There is a type of colour blindness where people can see no colour at all, this is called monochromacy, or achromatopsia. People with monochromatic vision see in different shades of grey ranging from black to white, like an old television set.

But monochromacy is extremely rare and occurs only in approximately 1 in 33,000 people.

  • Are men more likely to be colour blind than women?

Yes, but women can be colour blind too.

Although colour blindness can arise as a side effect of some diseases, in the vast majority of cases it is inherited - caused by a genetic fault passed on to a child by their parents.

Colour blindness is carried on the X-chromosome. Men only have one X chromosome, but women have two. A woman therefore must inherit colour blindness on both X-chromosomes to be colour blind, which means it’s less likely.

Around one in 12 men inherit red/green colour blindness but only one in 200 women.

Any advice?

There is currently no cure for inherited colour blindness, so it’s all about finding the right coping strategies.

“With any impairment, visible or not, it’s the time and the energy you take just to try and keep up with everyone else,” said Dr Daddow.

He said the best thing to do is to be open and ask for help when you need it and that, even if you feel like a burden, you have to speak up or people won’t know to help out.

Nick said he wishes he had asked his parents, his coach and his friends for help when he was struggling at training.

“Let your friends know. One of the fears for me was being different, and being seen as a bit weaker or something like that.

“Other kids might make fun of you, they might not, by telling an adult it can be dealt with a lot easier,” he said.

Dancing with dyslexia: How dance helps me express myself
Why do we yawn? And four other bodily functions explained
'How maths scored me a job in fantasy football'