Respect Accessibility

Colorblindness is surprisingly widespread in America

Vincent Fiorentini was in elementary school drawing a self-portrait when a teacher criticized his color choice. 

“The teacher said, ‘That’s not the right skin color, it’s pink,’ and I said, ‘No, this is skin color, it’s green.’ ” Fiorentini tells Changing America. “At that point, it became pretty clear that I was colorblind.”

Fiorentini is far from alone. Some 8 percent of men and 0.5 percent of women have some form of colorblindness. It was for them, and himself, that Fiorentini created the app Color Blind Pal.

What Fiorentini described is red-green colorblindness. Usually inherited, colorblindness affects the colored-light sensing cells, called cones, in the back of the eye. The condition can affect any of the three cones — red-, green- or blue-sensing — or combinations of them. A cone might be less sensitive than usual, making a color appear dull or muddled with nearby colors in the rainbow. Or it might be missing entirely, making a person completely unable to see, for example, red light. In extreme cases, none of the cones work and a person can’t see color at all, which usually comes with other vision impairments. 

Even a low level of colorblindness can impact daily tasks such as choosing matching outfits or following color-coded maps. That’s where Color Blind Pal comes in. 

The app shows a live feed from the phone’s outward-facing camera and overlays the image with useful information. Its most intuitive feature is the ability to focus on an object and tell the user in writing what color they’re looking at. Depending on the user’s preferences, the app can display common names like “dim orange” or more descriptive names like “grape” and “gunmetal.” 

Its second function can give colorblind folks a new way to see the world. The app alters the image, creating an augmented reality image where colors that are muddled to a colorblind user’s eye become totally distinct. Different settings offer filters for different kinds of colorblindness, so the app can recolor the image using the hues that the user can tell apart. 

Finally, the app can work in reverse, showing others how an image appears to colorblind folks. This function might allow teachers, web developers, graphic designers or architects to check their designs for accessibility. 

Website developers have taken note of the need for more accessibility. World Wide Web Consortium has launched the Web Accessibility Initiative and inspired Tumblr’s 2019 high-contrast “facelift,” as they call it. Tumblr is a blog website, so its staff announced the design change in a text post tagged as #DustBuster, saying, “The blue is darker, the grays are lighter, all the buttons and icons are brighter with our new brand colors. … Goodbye, #36465D. You’ve treated many of us well, but #001935 will treat every single one of us even better.” 

Color Blind Pal is not targeted toward people without visual impairments, but it still provides a major service: It promotes empathy for others and, hopefully, inspires thoughtfulness in design.

(Some video courtesy of Color Blind Pal)