What else do I see differently?

Artwork by Concetta Antico (used with permission)

In the fourth grade, math teacher Brian Pata made a discovery that changed the way he thought he saw the world – just by looking at a map. However, it wasn’t what the map showed him that transformed what he thought to be true. It was what it didn’t show him.

“We were going over a map in social studies where the rainforest is one color, and the desert is another, and it looked to me like the rainforest was the color that the desert was supposed to be. So then I realized you can’t have a rainforest and a desert that are the same color,” Pata said.

It was then that Pata realized he was color blind.

Pata never went to a doctor or took a test to discover what form of color blindness he had and its severity. All he knows is what he sees, and he doesn’t really mind the view.

“It didn’t change anything because that’s all that I knew,” he said. “It’s not that I saw normal colors when I was born, and then it changed. From day one that’s all that I knew, so it was normal to me.”

The Science Behind It

Pata’s inability to distinguish colors is not a rare defect of the human eye. In fact, it’s quite common in males: Every one in 12 is color blind. Yet only every one in 200 women are as well. This occurs because color blindness is typically a hereditary trait. The gene for color blindness is recessive and only found on the X chromosome. It is much easier for males to receive this gene because they only have one X chromosome; therefore, if that chromosome does carry the gene for color blindness, they automatically have it. Women, on the other hand, have two X chromosomes, so they can only be color blind if both contain the recessive gene for it.

In order to understand how color blindness works, it is important to understand what color is and how the eye perceives it.

Color is the way the eye interprets the reflection of light off of certain objects. We distinguish color by the wavelength of the light. For example, red light has a long wavelength, green a medium wavelength and purple a short one.

The eye detects different colors through light-sensitive cells called cones. Cones are located in the retina–the part of the eye which processes images. There are three types of cone cells, and each perceives a different type of light: red, green or blue. In most people, all three work together to help perceive the whole spectrum of color. But, for those who are color blind, certain cones are faulty and cause the eye to interpret the spectrum of color differently.

A common misconception about people with color blindness is that they cannot see any colors. In actuality, they just see a lesser range.

Take, for example, how Pata sees a sunset. To him, the wide range of colors that form in layers as the sun slowly fades away is just a “yellow kind of drab” that becomes duller the more the sun sets.

“We were going over a map in social studies where the rainforest is one color, and the desert is another, and it looked to me like the rainforest was the color that the desert was supposed to be. So then I realized you can’t have a rainforest and a desert that are the same color.”

Color psychologist Kate Smith explained the phenomenon this way:

“Let’s say there were 10 different types of green and they went from a very clear, bright green to a very dull, almost greyish green. We would see all 10. Somebody who’s color blind would probably only see maybe four or five differences,” Smith said.

According to Smith, of the two main types of color vision deficiency, the most common is red-green color blindness, in which the eye has trouble discerning different shades of red and green.

“It’s not so blatant that green looks red,” Smith said. “It’s that people cannot tell the difference between those in-between colors, like olive green and brown. If it’s a true green they can probably think it’s green or if it’s a bright red, they see some version as red. It’s just not as bright as you would see.”

For Pata, it can be a mix of red and green. Grass appears red in his eyes–not necessarily a “fire-hydrant” red but rather, as green with a dull red over it, like a filter on a picture. Pata said it was the most shocking discovery of his color blindness.

“I didn’t (know) everybody saw the grass as green. I thought it was just red,” Pata said. “I wondered what else there (was). What else did I see differently than everybody on a daily basis? But I don’t know because I don’t walk around with somebody and say, ‘What do you see? What do you see?’ a thousand times a day. So I just go with it until it comes up in conversation, and then I figure it out.”

The Color Blind World

For the most part, Pata said being colorblind isn’t a big problem. He can still go about his day in a relatively normal fashion, but he does occasionally face an obstacle. His biggest happens to be maps.

“To this day, if there is bad weather outside, and the news channels are going through colors of where there’s really bad weather versus mild rain, I can’t tell the difference. Many of those colors just mix together,” Pata said.

Traffic lights are another difficulty, but it’s one Pata quickly overcame. 

“I don’t really see the difference between red and yellow. It’s the same in a traffic light and then the green is very similar to the street lights that light up the street. So I just follow the car in front of me or just go off whatever lit up, top, middle, bottom,” he said.

Pata has found ways to adapt to his color deficiency, like only buying clothes that he knows the colors of, or matching them to the American flag. There are little limitations such as using only black and blue markers for class, never cooking meat and realizing he can never be a pilot.

He said, “It really (isn’t) something that I see as debilitating. It just is what it is. I know it’s different, but so (what if) I can’t read a map? I don’t care. That’s not changing. It would be nice, but it’s still going to rain or have a tornado, (and) just because I can’t see where it is doesn’t change what’s going on.”

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About the Author

Naomi Reibold