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COMMENTARY: Some people really don't see colour

'Needless to say, I am sensitive about my affliction'
Cutting hay under the rainbow Justin Hensch
Cutting hay under the rainbow Justin Hensch

It all started years ago in Miss Tasker’s Grade 1 class. It’s funny how we all remember the name of our wonderful first teacher. Anyway, I had been to the fire hall with my dad, who was a volunteer fireman, to see the fire engines. Naturally, my first artistic subject was going to be a fire truck. I remember working away by myself and remembering small details. Knowing me, I probably rejected gentle and helpful suggestions. Imagine my humiliation when I displayed my fire engine from the front of the class. “Fire engines aren’t brown!” That was I learned that I was colour blind. Sorry, Chief Lymburner.

The second notable occurrence was when I was going to my high school prom. I had saved for a new suit and this time I was going to do it all myself. The local haberdasher offered up a selection of fabrics and designs and I selected a neutral business colour that I thought was grey. It turned out to be a beer bottle green tone. I had purchased a matching Carnaby tie and pocket puff. It was all too late to change and disappoint a young lady, so I went to the prom disguised as a beer bottle. Hopefully, my dance steps made up for it. I guess.

I managed in the army because everything was colour coordinated but one event stands out. I had saved up and purchased a snappy new serge uniform for “walking out”. It was a beauty with anodized silver buttons and “collar dogs”. A wonder to behold as it hung in my locker. On the appointed parade day, I ironed my brand-new uniform and polished my dress shoes and marched smartly onto the parade square for inspection. The inspecting officer was very unhappy. Apparently, my iron was too hot, and I had scorched the front and back of the inside leg of my trousers and the inside of the sleeves of the tunic. I had to look carefully but the officer was right when he sent me away for wearing a two-toned uniform. It could not be salvaged.

Needless to say, I am sensitive about my affliction. It comes up every day at some point. I can’t tell orange from red, but I can tell green from orange and red, so I stop for anything not green. Just don’t get too close behind me. I’ve learned the position of the lights on a traffic light, but the horizontal traffic signals present a new problem. I have to be very alert at night because I cannot truly differentiate between the overhead streetlights and traffic signals. The variety of emergency flashing lights is really a challenge. I can’t really tell an emergency vehicle from a tow truck, so I pull over or stop for every plausible flashing light.

Who was the person who decided to use colours to indicate whether the washroom is occupied or not? I can’t tell the colour of the little stick figures on a plane. Is it red or green? I wait until I see someone coming out, then I rush the door. The same is true of portables. There’s a little hole with a red or green dot. To determine the colour, I would need to get right up to the little hole to see the colour. I could be thought to be peering through a keyhole. I’m left to try the door and hope it’s open or locked if it is occupied.

I attended a meeting on aging the other day. A younger person created and made the presentation. In the modern way, the presentation was all colour coded and the colours and lettering were all of the new subtle colours. There was one prominent bullet in yellow with white letter lettering. I was only aware of a thin white line of no prominence that I supposed was printing. I had to ask a neighbour and he could see there was printing but could not read the words because the printing was so small. Thankfully, the presenter made up for it with her enthusiastic and helpful approach.

I believe the applicable domain of design specialization to address colour blindness would be called Cognitive Ergonomics. The generalized goals of this domain are the reduction of human error, enhanced safety and health and comfort. Surely, the colour challenged, and others deserve protection. I’ll leave with one final question. Who decided that red needed to be the colour of stop signs. Red bleeds into the landscape. I’m more aware of the orange sign that says a stop sign is ahead. Please, please include colour blindness when we consider accessibility!