Roses are yellow, violets are grey

My six-year-old son is living in a world without color.

Bill Clinton 224 (photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
Bill Clinton 224
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
You can color my world with sunshine yellow each day, Oh you can color my world with happiness all the way. Just take the green from the grass and the blue from the sky up above, And if you color my world just paint it with your love, Just color my world. - sung by Petula Clark, 1966 That catchy old song keeps going through my mind lately and I find that I am noticing the colors around me in an intense new way - the blue sky, the green grass, the pink and purple flowers brightening our city, even the many new color variations on the cars in our streets. Those magical colors normally lift my spirits and make me smile. Today, they are making me cry. So many colors all around us, so many vivid hues and pastel tones, so many subtle shades … and my son, my sweet, bubbly, brown-eyed, pink-cheeked, six-year-old youngest son, can't see most of them. My little boy has just been diagnosed as color blind - or to give it its proper name, color vision deficient - and we are struggling to come to terms with what this means for him and for us. Don't scoff: I know there are worse problems in the world, that there are any number of tragic illnesses and crippling disorders that can befall a child. But even though I am more than grateful that his problem is not in that category, this is almost a problem in itself: color vision deficiency is seen as a minor affliction, and, as I am learning, it clearly is not. I first started to suspect something was off about a year ago, when my son turned five and I realized that he still wasn't very good at identifying colors. Immediately, I felt guilty - my other three children had all known their colors at that age, and if he didn't it must be because I hadn't done as many one-on-one activities with him as I had with them. So I started spending some time drawing with him. I soon realized that he just didn't seem to be able to remember colors: he would say a mandarin was orange one day, but a few days later he would say it was brown or red, and he would keep asking me what color his crayons were. For a while I thought my boy might have a learning disability or a memory problem. And yet he seemed quite smart in other ways, remembering songs and stories he had learned in pre-school, writing his name, counting numbers, and so on. He just seemed confused about colors. I had been planning to take him for a routine vision test before he begins first grade this September, and decided to advance it and to ask the eye doctor about his color confusion. She tested him, and we got the stunning news that it looks as though he has a severe or total red-green deficiency. What does that mean? Like most people, I thought color blindness meant a person could see only in black and white, like an old TV show. I've now learned that this can happen, but it is very rare. Total color blindness affects only one in 100,000 people, usually in isolated, inbred communities (incidentally, Moroccan, Iraqi and Iranian Jews have a relatively high incidence), or because of a brain injury. What is far more common is a deficiency in a certain range of colors, usually red or green. The human eye has three kinds of color receptors - blue, green and red - enabling us to distinguish thousands of shades. If one receptor is "faulty," the eye sees colors in that range weakly and some shades become indistinguishable from one another. People with a slight defect may not even know it. But if a receptor has a serious defect, or if it is missing altogether, the person cannot see that color at all and a large range of colors become indistinguishable from each other. Because the red and the green receptors work together, people with defects in one also have trouble with the opposite color. This means that severely red-deficient and severely green-deficient people see the world in a similar, sadly limited way. Blue and yellow can be seen, but purples and strong pinks look blue, pale pink looks grey, and reds, oranges and greens all merge into shades of brown. Red-green deficiencies are by far the most common type of color blindness, affecting about eight percent of boys and 0.5% of girls - that is, one in 12 boys and one in 200 girls. (See facts box.) Most of those affected have "weak" red or green perception, but fully 1% of all boys have no green receptors at all and a further 1% have no red receptors, meaning that at least 2% of boys - or one in 50 boys - have a total red-green deficiency. There is also another kind of color blindness in which the blue receptor gene is affected and the person cannot see blues and yellows. This form is quite rare, striking about one in 15,000 people, and affecting males and females equally. None of the genetic forms of color blindness is curable, and even though there are various tinted lenses on sale that claim to help color-deficient people distinguish colors, doctors and scientists doubt their efficiency. So where does that leave us? Our eye doctor said that while my son's red-green deficiency appears to be severe, at six he is too young to have any further testing done. She said most color-deficient Israeli boys take extensive tests before they go into the army. In the meantime, although my son doesn't know what he is missing, my husband and I do, and we are going through a kind of mourning period. My boy will never be able to appreciate a green field dotted with red kalaniot; to him the brown flowers will disappear in the brown grass. He will never see all the colors of a rainbow or a glorious sunset or a Monet painting. And beyond missing those poetic moments, he will also have to endure a host of mundane frustrations. He will never be able to see if his steak is rare or well-done, pick a sweet red apple from a sour green one, or see a rotten brown spot on a fruit like an apricot. He will always need someone to help him choose his clothes and he will be confused by some computer games and programs. He will need help at school with a great many tasks. He will have to be taught that when he crosses the road he must watch whether the little man on top is lit up (red) or whether the man on the bottom is (green). When he starts to drive he will have to learn that the red traffic light is on top and the green one is on the bottom, and he may have limitations on driving in poor light. Some occupations will be off limits or too difficult for him: pilot, train driver, electrician, printer, graphic designer. Most wrenching for me right now is the realization that my son's favorite superhero, Spiderman, does not look red to him. I'm trying to be positive about this. We all have limitations. I once wanted to be a singer but realized I was tone-deaf (not that this has stopped some people!). We aren't all cut out to be pilots or graphic designers, and there are many other careers from which to choose. Many color-deficient people have been successful in life, among them former president Bill Clinton, actor Paul Newman, singer Bing Crosby, golfer Jack Nicklaus, and even our own television host Yair Lapid, whose color deficiency is reportedly the reason he always wears black. My son will live with his limitations. He is, thank goodness, intelligent, mischievous, healthy and whole in every important way. There are so many other worse things that can happen to a child. And while he is growing up and learning to deal with life we will color his world with love.