Chasing Rainbows This is What it Looks Like to be Colorblind

    Colorblindness can make it feel like you are constantly being played by the outside world in subtle and irritating ways.

    I was trying to find the best dates by looking at Kayak’s low fare calendar when I booked a Kayak flight. Are there any problems?

    Sorry, that’s how it looks to me. It’s probably more like this.

    Chrome Dev Tools opened, I changed the cheap fare colors to something that I could see and finally booked my flight. A few weeks later, it’s time to go to the airport. The parking structure was equipped with colored lights that help you find empty spots. So they claim. They all look exactly the same to my eyes.

    Although it took me longer to find a spot, I finally did. While I waited at the gate, I might use my phone to kill time. Why is there this picture of a regular chili pepper at Reddit’s top? Or this leaf? Oh, right.

    Some people find colorblindness a major liability that can shut down their career opportunities. If you are unable to distinguish colors in vital instruments, signals or tissue samples, it can be difficult to be a pilot, train conductor or pathologist. It can also affect their ability to perform their daily jobs. This could be for example, for surveyors who spot flags, doctors who examine skin conditions, and electricians searching out colored wires.

    For me, however, it’s just a series of lifelong, unnecessarily complicated interactions that proves the world wasn’t made for me.

    There are an estimated 350 million colorblind people in the world. About 8 percent of men, roughly 1 in 12, have some form of color vision deficiency. (It’s hereditary, so figures will vary from region to region.) My mom’s color vision is even worse than mine, which is very unusual: only about 0.5 percent of women globally are colorblind, about 1 in 200.

    People who aren’t colorblind have had many conversations with me about my colorblindness. (Pro tip: When you meet someone who is colorblind, do not point at things repeatedly and ask them what their color is. They seem to find it difficult to visualize the idea of colorblindness.

    Contrary to what many believe, I can see all colors. My world is not a black-and white movie. Achromatopsia (or total colorblindness) is rarer, and affects about 1 in 3000 people. (Unless you were born in the South Pacific on the Pingelap Atoll, where 10% of the population has inherited this gene.

    Ninety nine percent of colorblinds, including me, are affected by a red-green form of colorblindness. Deuteranopia is the most common type. It’s a genetic mutation that reduces the ability of my eyes to absorb light.

    Some hues of red and green look similar, so they tend to blend together into a muddy brown. Some colors can appear very similar, such as shades of purple, blue, bright orange, green, and even pink and grey. Different colors can be confused by people with colorblindness.

    I see peanut butter toast and avocado toast as the same thing at first glance, unless there are other context clues such texture or toppings.

    This is apparently very nauseating. This is my life.

    Red and green are complementary colors that contrast one another on a color wheel. They’ve become the default colours for designers who want to represent opposites. True and false, high or low, stop and go, stop and go, and so forth.

    These are the colors that people with color vision impairments most often mix up, which is a bit of a problem.

    I wish that every designer understood this concept and would choose to use red or blue as opposing colors. However, I know this won’t happen because the cultural meaning of these colors is too deeply ingrained.

    I’m constantly asked if I’ve tried EnChroma glasses, the corrective glasses made famous in a series of viral videos in which colorblind people try them on and spontaneously start sobbing at the wonder of seeing grass for the first time.

    Their corrective lenses are not able to fix colorblindness, despite all the hype. The corrective lenses correct it by increasing contrast and saturation, changing the color palette to something visible, but can’t actually help you see colors that you are physically blind. The reviews are uneven with some saying they love them, while others reporting that they only darken or tint their eyes.

    They are not an option for me. EnChroma has colorblind lenses for prescription glasses, but my prescription is so strong that I cannot use them.

    Furthermore, why should colorblind people need to buy expensive glasses to function in the world ? Designers could make small changes that can make a big difference for many people.

    This is the worst thing about accessibility issues: they are very easily avoidable.

    Design, in both the digital and physical realms, should not be based solely on color. One simple test: Would your work still be usable if it was converted to grayscale?

    Use a tool such as ColorBrewer to help you find a colorblind-safe pallet so that you don’t accidentally create a map looking like this. It looks like the American Midwest is right in the middle the Purge.

    There are many colorblindness simulators available, both commercial and free. These simulators are even built into Google Chrome and Photoshop, Illustrator, among others. However, none of these represent my vision.

    Although these simulators can be useful, relying on them alone is not a good way to ensure accessibility. If you have any doubts, labeling, icons or textures for each meaningful color in your design will make it more accessible to all people, regardless their ability to perceive it.

    The last time I wrote about my colorblindness was 12 years ago . The good news is that things are getting better. More and more, I’m seeing apps and games add colorblind modes or shift their palettes to be more friendly to the colorblind.

    It was extremely difficult for colorblinds to use Among Us when it launched in 2018. Each character model is identical, and can only be distinguished by its color. The colors would be used by players to identify each other player in voice chat. “Green is sus,” might someone say — But which one?

    “Green is sus,” might someone say — But which one is green?

    Additionally, wiring tasks in the game, where players must connect wires of the same colour to their terminals, required normal vision to complete. It was just trial-and-error for me. From the moment I began to play, I felt excluded.

    After years of complaints, developers finally added symbols to the wires in the late 2020s. In June 2022, a new update offered the possibility to display color names on characters.

    Compare that to Wordle. This viral sensation was created by Josh Wardle in 2021 as a love letter. On day one, the game came with a colorblind mode. I find the default colors difficult to see but the colorblind support made them immediately visible.

    Wardle was asked what inspired him to create the feature. Wardle replied that he thought it was a simple way to make more people feel included. However, he quickly admitted that he could have done more. “That being said, had accessibility issues that I wasn’t aware of, which I regret.” ( shipped with a colorblind mode but it was not usable by blind players. People sharing their results inundated screen readers with unusable colored emoji names.

    Accessibility in design can be described as empathy. It’s a way of trying to see the world from someone else’s perspective.

    It’s fitting that designing for accessibility doesn’t have to be black and white. You don’t need one feature, it’s a broad spectrum of features as varied as the people you are designing for.

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