Approximately 400,000 children in UK schools are affected by some level of colour blindness and the majority aren’t receiving any help. Kathryn Albany-Ward, who recently discovered her 8 year-old son Ross is colour blind, outlines the difficulties these children can face in the classroom.
“Little Red Riding Hood”, “Bluebeard”, “Ten Green Bottles” – colour is an integral part of a child’s learning from a very young age, but what if your child can’t actually see the colours? About 5% of the population is born colour blind, yet there is no official government recognition of colour blindness as a Special Educational Need, no routine testing and no formal training for teachers on how to recognise and assist colour blind pupils in their care. Children with a colour vision deficiency are clearly disadvantaged within a ‘normal’ classroom environment since colour is a key educational instrument but, for the moment at least, it is left to parents to identify if their child is colour blind and to raise the issue with their child’s school. 1 in 12 boys are colour blind so one of them could be yours!
When my son moved to a new school recently, I was vaguely aware that he had some problems seeing colours correctly. Once in the supermarket I had asked him to fetch me a bottle of sky blue fabric conditioner and he returned to the trolley with the lilac version. We had a little chat about the fact that I didn’t have time for messing about that day, but he was very insistent that he had brought the right bottle. I should have believed him but I knew nothing then about colour blindness and anyway thought, like most people, that colour blind people mixed up red and green. So, we put the matter behind us, carried on with our shopping and almost forgot all about it.
I am ashamed to say that I ignored what I then considered to be a slight issue. Although I knew that my uncle was colour blind I had never thought our son could be. He appeared to have had no problems learning his colours – when he was at nursery he knew fire engines are red, grass is green and so on. He had been in nursery from 6 months old and at school for two years but no-one had even hinted that he might be colour blind. Like most parents we had wrongly assumed that all children are still tested for colour blindness at school entry and never gave the matter any thought.
Before Ross started his new school we had to provide him with a pencil case and stationery. We chose a bright red pencil case so that it would stand out, or so I thought. I had no idea it looks ‘brown’ and does not stand out at all (although if you ask Ross what colour it is he will of course, because he has been told, tell you it is bright red– he wouldn’t want you to think he is stupid!). We bought a full set of colouring pencils and I still didn’t realise that like most colour blind people he can only accurately identify 5 out of the set of 24!
Ross’s condition might not yet have come to light had it not been for the reversible maroon/olive green rugby shirt he wears at his new school and the fact that he happened to mention that he never knew who was in his team for games. After some detailed questioning I discovered that the reason for this was because, although he knew each side of the shirt had a different colour, he couldn’t actually tell the difference.
Once I realised that there was a serious issue I headed straight for the computer but found hardly any websites about colour blindness and almost nothing for parents looking for information. (I have now rectified this and produced www.colourblindawareness.org for parents and teachers). However, I did find several websites which allowed me to ‘see’ the world through my son’s eyes and what I saw shocked me.
Once I could ‘see’ Ross’s world I understood how difficult it will be for him to be colour blind in modern life. I realised that in school he would struggle to understand much of the information presented to him on worksheets, in textbooks, or on the computer. I then considered his future schooling. How would he cope with chemistry, biology, geography, physics and obviously art. Which jobs would he be unable to do? What about exams? How could he read litmus paper, do chemistry titrations, read coloured maps, graphs, pie charts or diagrams?
I asked for information from the school but was surprised to discover there was nothing they could give me and actually I was already better informed than they were. I was disappointed so contacted the Department of Children Schools and Families, only to find that there is no Government policy and the condition is not considered to be a Special Educational Need – even if a child has no colour vision whatsoever! I couldn’t believe it – there is no formal obligation on schools to consider the needs of colour blind children even though colour blindness is a condition which affects 400,000 pupils! Even worse, I found that teachers are taught nothing about colour blindness and generally do not know how to properly support their colour blind pupils, although statistically there will be one colour blind child (1 in 12 boys and 1 in 200 girls) in every (mixed, maintained sector) classroom. No wonder boys are not achieving as well as girls in school today!
Fortunately there is plenty willing schools and parents can do to assist. Some enlightened schools have issued guidance for teachers and some have also instigated their own screening programmes. Headington Preparatory School, an all-girls school in Oxford, doesn’t even have any colour blind pupils, but nevertheless the Head, Andrea Bartlett, has ensured that all her staff are fully aware of how to support colour blind students in the classroom. Not only that, she has introduced colour blindness teaching into PSHE lessons to ensure that the girls know what to look out for if they have colour blind children of their own.
Schools which have introduced pupils to the world of the colour blind have found that students are fascinated, easily able to grasp how much of life can be adversely affected by the condition and suggest solutions to help.
See the website for detailed information and advice, but here are some simple first steps parents and teachers can take to help
- label all colouring utensils, pencils and paints etc with name of the colour
- use strong contrast on the board and on computer screens and not use red and green for highlighting
- be aware that many teaching aids are in primary colours, but a colour blind child may not be able to see the difference between red and green
- teach the ‘correct’ colours for everyday items because colour blind children can learn to identify many colours they can’t perceive by shade rather than hue
- check worksheets/textbooks and use patterns or labels to differentiate, rather than colour.
- ‘audit’ the home and classroom to ensure important information can be seen
In the days when it was not possible to ‘see’ the world of the colour blind there was some excuse not to take account of their needs in school. In the age of the internet there is no such excuse, so new Coalition Government – please take up the challenge and instigate a programme to identify all colour blind pupils and advise schools how to adequately support them! Parents and teachers, visit the Colour Blind Awareness website, objectively consider your children and if you have the slightest suspicions they could be colour blind refer them to a professional for assessment soon. Textbook manufacturers and suppliers of teaching aids, reassess your products and urgently produce alternatives which are suitable for colour blind students (see website for details).