It shouldn’t be a disadvantage to be colour blind in education

One in twelve boys/men and one in two hundred girls/women have a form of colour vision deficiency (CVD). In Britain this means that there are approximately three million colour blind people (about 4.5% of the entire population), most of whom are male. To put this into context, on average one child in every classroom is colour blind. It is important to note that students with other Special Educational Needs are just as likely to also be colour blind as everyone else in the general population, so accessing for colour blindness can potentially make coping with other SEN easier. So why is it that the issues and problems faced by children with CVD are rarely considered in education and the majority of pupils with CVD remain undiagnosed and unassisted in classrooms?

Many children struggle because they, their parents and their teachers are unaware they are colour blind. As we know, not all issues faced by children or adults are visible or noticeable and this is often the case with CVD. When I discuss colour blindness issues with teachers the vast majority don’t know if they have children in their class with a form of CVD. I attended the Tes SEN Show recently I couldn’t find anyone talking about this issue, there appeared to be no information on the difficulties faced by children with CVD in education. I noticed how badly designed many of the resources supplied into schools are for those with CVD. There is a severe lack of awareness of this condition and the impact it can have on a child’s education and mental health.

The UK Government recognises that colour blindness can be a Special Educational Need and a disability and schools have an obligation to identify and support their colour blind pupils, but there is little or no advice or support given to schools, teachers and parents. It is my understanding that teachers are rarely given any training on the issue of colour blindness or upon how to treat colour blind children in a school environment. Children are often left to struggle in the classroom. In one instance I gave a map to a school and mentioned it was colour blind friendly only to be asked by a teacher how they should use it!

Most cases of CVD arise from a defect in the red or green cone cells in our eyes, but it is important to note that colour blindness can affect many colour combinations and not just red and green. So how can you spot the possible signs of CVD in lessons?

Signs of CVD in young children:

  • Difficulty matching and sorting colours
  • Inappropriate colour choices in their work or artwork eg. red leaves, brown Father Christmas, purple sky or rivers
  • Misunderstanding instructions where colour is involved eg. Maths worksheet
  • Reluctant to participate in activities involving colour processing
  • Needing more time or assistance to process information using colour eg. graphs and pie charts

The two pictures below show how someone with normal vision sees an illustration used in a lesson and then how it is seen through the eyes of someone with the protanopia (red-green) form of colour blindness.

Normal colour vision
Colour blind simulation ©Colour blind Awareness

You can clearly see that the colours cannot be easily distinguished, they just don’t work, so a child with CVD will not understand why they get something wrong or get a different answer to their peers, they will be confused, not do as well as they should and this could reduce their self-esteem.

It is essential teachers of all age groups are made aware, as so much of early Years’ learning is based on primary colours. Colours are used everywhere in graphs, pie charts, maps and diagrams in lessons, bibs on the sports ground and other activities that use red and green signs for example. They may seem the natural colours to use, bright and colourful, but they are potentially a nightmare for colour blind children. Most of the problems faced can be addressed with some awareness of the issues and a little thought. Here are a few strategies that can be used:

  • Label colour-orientated equipment with the colour names eg. Pencils
  • Don’t just use colour to make teaching points, use shapes, underline text etc.
  • Avoid using colour alone to access a child’s understanding
  • Check text books and work sheets are colour blind friendly
  • Check websites and Apps used are colour blind friendly
  • Students with CVD should be seated in good natural light
  • Careful consideration when using coloured pens on whiteboards

Some initial time should be made for adjustment and maybe some expense getting the right resources, procedures and planning in place for a CVD friendly classroom, but thereafter the preparation time will be the same.

Colour blind children can face discrimination in GCSE and A Level examinations too. My understanding is that even in 2019 several exam papers had sections which were inaccessible to students with CVD and so could have impacted on their grades. Colour blindness can also affect career choice. Students may find it difficult or impossible to follow their dreams when a job cannot be pursued because they have never been diagnosed. So when they fail an Army medical or don’t meet the colour vision standards to become a pilot it can be heart breaking.

Children can easily be tested for CVD, but for some reason it isn’t compulsory when children have their eyes tested on the NHS and is not screened for at school entry. I believe opticians will test if you ask, but we shouldn’t have to. Surely kids should be tested automatically and as early as possible.

Knowing that a child has a form of CVD obviously helps so individual needs can be assessed, but it shouldn’t end there. Surely it isn’t just the teacher’s problem to deal with, in many cases problems can be avoided before the lesson or activity takes place. Designers and manufacturers of products, suppliers into schools and those making the purchases need to be aware and take responsibility. A common misunderstanding is that CVD needs to be dealt with separately. One supplier said to me “I cannot afford to print two versions of the same product” another “we will make something specifically if requested”. It isn’t about having one resource for students with CVD and another for everyone else. Resources should be fully inclusive and work for all children. No one likes to be thought of as different, especially a child.

Colour Vision Deficiency should be on every SEN Professional’s radar so they can make sure all teachers are aware, have some training, check resources and equipment are fully inclusive and put pressure on suppliers to provide suitable colour blind friendly products. Those of us involved in designing maps or artwork for activities to be used in education, publishing or any public environment must consider CVD and make it part of the design brief. Design software allows us to check artwork for different forms of colour blindness, so no excuses. It isn’t always that straight forward to make the changes, but we are talking about the fundamental tools used in a child’s education and that has to make it worthwhile.

I hope this helps explain why having colour blind friendly maps and resources is so important and raises awareness of the problems children with CVD face, particularly in education.                                                                

Alan Grimwade BSc FRGS
Managing Director
Cosmographics