This afternoon I went downstairs for an afternoon break and was perusing the posters on the poster board. Sometimes people are doing research and they get funding so it’s good to see if you qualify so that you can get a little extra dosh. Sometimes people can’t offer any incentive but the good that is you being apart of their research. I don’t usually take time to participate in the second type, though I try to convince myself sometimes if it looks like particularly important stuff. Today I found a dotted circle, the kind that I instantly recognised from the time we all got taken out of class in primary school, one-by-one, to get a free eye test. I was excited to tell my parents that I was colourblind. Not because that was good in itself, but that I felt validated that someone finally knew something of me that I always knew but did not yet have the framework within which to express it. I felt again that same excitement today, eagerly texting the student to demonstrate my interest in participating in her research on the experiences of colourblind people.
I thought, also, that it would be good to write a wee post to share with the world and gather my thoughts before turning up for a research interview and realising I have little to say. If I were more diligent, I would get around to reading what other people have said about their experiences, and dig into some popular science around it. Alas, I am not diligent, so I present here my experiences as I know them, minimally unsullied by extra conceptual frameworks. Unfortunately, I could not tell you what type I am. I can only give you vague assertions around what colours I have difficulty seeing. (This could probably be easily remedied by doing a free online test but I can’t be bothered right now, lol).
I have a faint recollection of one of my first frustrations with colourblindness, though I’m not sure if I actually recall it or if I have created a memory from what I’ve been told. But the feelings of frustration remain, so I must have remembered something of it. When I was at my Nana’s house, I either could not tell Nana (or Mum?) what colour the numbers were on the microwave, or I couldn’t see them at all. I would have been anywhere between four and seven. Anyway, neither Nana nor Mum believed me–whatever it was that I said–and it was only after I got the word from the specialist lady at school (warm fuzzy times!) that they could retrospectively regain my trust in matters microwavial.
Post-diagnosis, other frustrations continued. There was bullying. My younger brother took advantage of my disability and called me stupid when I couldn’t tell what colour something was, for example, if I were to refer to a purple car as blue. Even though it hurt at the time and I hated him for it, I can understand it now because I was such an arse to him and he was younger than me. We both capitalised on anything socially undesirable, however minor, of the other’s. In high school, when I started making some friends outside of our typical friend group, a couple of guys would say, “Go hang out with your other friends, colourblind!” That sounds really weird, and it was. They certainly weren’t being serious. I think they thought it’d be a funny and random thing to say. It did hurt though. Finally, I remember the oddest time when one of my friends said that I wasn’t even colourblind because he knew someone who was dyslexic and colourblind together. They’d get the bright green bus mixed up with the bright red one. I never had that trouble so I had nothing to complain about. That really sucks for that guy, but I reserve the right to politely reject my friend’s claim, keeping in mind that this friend was not himself colourblind, nor dyslexic.
There were other frustrations too. When people found out I was colourblind (usually from me accidentally misnaming an object), they would be fascinated and want to test me. “What colour’s this? What colour’s that?” I’d disappoint them when I often got all of their questions correct, usually with some good guesswork! In high school this sometimes elicited the response, “Oh, you’re not really colourblind.” Sometimes this had led me to secretly ask someone in the know what colour something was before talking about it aloud. But the problem with people who know you’re colourblind is that they’ll unwittingly take advantage of your colourblindness to affirm something that even people with typical vision would debate, for example, whether you call a particular sunset orange (me and some people) or red (some other people) or yellow (other people yet again). All might be true, as it is a matter of linguistics and not sight, but it automatically becomes a matter of sight. You’re wrong because you’re colourblind, even though you hadn’t asked whether you were right or wrong. And both people are actually right anyway. Another time I remember we were looking at different stars and people would talk about red ones and white ones and blue ones. It seems little, and it was, but I can’t shake the feeling of having missed out then. They all look the same colour to me, and they’re so small that I can’t quite know what colour that might be!
One particularly interesting frustration is the use of the word colourblind to denote a particular form of racism. For many, those who say that blacks and whites have equal opportunities in the States (and elsewhere, for example), are colourblind. That is, they “don’t see colour.” They don’t see that which is otherwise obvious to an oppressed people group, which is that the odds are clearly stacked against them. I have no problem with this analysis. Indeed, it’s more important than what I’m writing about here. But I don’t think the wording is helpful at all. It makes use of a person’s disability (and there are much more major forms of colourblindness than mine, as my high school friend graciously reminded me) to characterise something undesirable. Unfortunately, as far as I know, regardless of the term’s origin, it is most at home on the left, people who might otherwise know better. If they didn’t know, that’s fine with me, someone who once made a habit of calling everything “lame.” But now is the time to find a replacement term.
A more comical frustration for me, perhaps because it doesn’t really happen in a social context, is the difficulty I’ve had gaming sometimes. For example, when playing Age of Empires II, which I played a lot as a kid, I always found it difficult to distinguish yellow and green players on the mini-map, as well as both of these from gold mining spots. This problem was the worst on a campaign(s?) where you had to play as a yellow or green player, and you’d be attacked by or attacking the other colour and not be able to distinguish your own guys from the enemy’s. Recently, when Pokemon Go came out, I couldn’t tell if I’d swiped a PokeStop or not, which changed from blue to purple when swiped, because the colour change was too subtle for me. Another funny one is the men’s toilets outside my office. There are two cubicles with red or green to indicate whether engaged or vacant, except they don’t have the writing, just the colour. Because I do better with colours close-up, I have to walk right up to the closed cubicle door (which is always closed, vacant or no) and inspect the lock.
The thing that I’ve only just realised in the last couple years is that my colourblindness is located in a world beyond the literal workings of my vision. It’s never my eyes alone that tell me the colour (wrong or right) of an object. This is the same with people who have typical vision. That is, I cannot tell you how my eyes see the sky because my brain has already told me, from myriad stories and interactions, etc, that the sky is blue. I don’t know if I see it or ever saw it as purple. Healthy grass is green and not brown. But I can’t tell you if that’s my eyes or my brain. And unless I see objects in new contexts or objects I have never seen before, I cannot say where my eye starts and my brain finishes.
As you can see, my experiences with colourblindness haven’t been the end of my world. They have led me to mild frustration and sadness sometimes, and I think it is right to acknowledge them. They are little compared with the experiences of those with more major impairments, not least those with more major vision impairments. Indeed, they have allowed me a greater understanding of myself and others. I hope you learned something, and feel free to ask questions and share your experiences (colourblind or otherwise) in the comments.