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Universal Design in Education & Colour Vision Deficiency

Colour Charts

In a recent podcast conversation with my colleague Darlene McLennan and our guest Karen McCall, something really got stuck in my head, and I related to it.  Karen said to us “The problem is that everybody defines 'inclusive education' as something different and, most of the time, it's defined as our being 'accommodated for' rather than being 'included in', so we have to change that paradigm.” 

Later in the conversation, we spoke about the accommodation paradox– that a student needs to request something is ‘fixed’ so that they can access it.  This presents a whole host of issues. One of the key issues is that the timing and access to education has been demonstrably slowed by the lack of appropriately designed materials, and the onus is shifted to the student to do something about it. 

In this article I’ll share with you my experiences (and avoidance, via imposter syndrome, to my own detriment) of requesting broken things be fixed, and then provide some ideas for educators about designing things to meet the needs of students with colour vision deficiency.  This article will start with a story, and end with advice.  Both parts are equally important.

“You need to do the activity, or you can sit outside on the veranda.”.  I looked at her, she looked at me.  I could tell – I was about to get in to another heated debate about whether or not colour vision deficiency is real.  Looking back, I was a pretty brave kid and didn’t seem to have a lot of issue with challenging authority when I felt it was the right thing to do.  I was also still learning to pick my battles.

This colourful story begins in 1993, five years prior to the above scuffle.  I was making some wildly clashing colour selections on butcher’s paper in pre-school.  Alarm bells sounded: This kid is different!  Call his parents!  It turned out I was colour blind (diagnosis at that time). The optometrist performing the assessment ran me through it 3 times to verify that she hadn’t made a mistake.  I remember her giving me an odd look, and asking me to do one particular panel again.  Mum said I should just give the answers I thought made sense – or something to this effect, recognising that I was trying to ‘get the right answer’.  I then failed (passed) spectacularly and received my sticker to ride.

The start of my primary schooling lined up with the release of the Disability Discrimination Act (1992), and access to education on an equal basis to your peers was a radical concept if your circumstances were divergent to the lesson plan for the day.  For the first few years of school, one of my parents, who are both teachers, would visit the school and word the year group teacher up on my colour vision deficiency.  Some were good about it, some were not.  My recollection of those discussions on the educator side was mostly an attitude of CVD being ‘not a real problem, no issue’.  The thing about this is that society doesn’t recognise how heavily it relies on colour to differentiate ideas, groups, people, concepts and in particular, to teach things like mathematics, especially in the early years.  At least it didn’t back then.

While colour vision deficiency has been tested in court and is recognised as a disability in Australia, in other countries protections under equivalent legislation are not as easily available.   Societal perception about colour vision deficiency is interesting, when posed in the context of disability.  There is some court precedent that actually condones (upholds) direct discrimination against people with colour vision deficiency, specifically in policing and intelligence roles, and formerly in aviation. The case decisions don’t seem to be made on the basis of specific science relating to the occupation, but are generally guided by an ‘expert’ of some sort.  Despite the existence of legally mandated direct discrimination against people with CVD relating to work, my experience has mostly been that society believes CVD is minor enough to be overlooked.  This included when it comes to the creation of and adjustments in education materials.

So - after my first few years of free parent advocacy, it was then over to me.  Self-advocacy was a skill I had to develop – to hold these discussions with people about what I needed whenever a colour related roadblock cropped up at school.  Having to do this has taught me to word things in a way that are logical, factual, and outputs based. I learned to hone in on the activity at hand and dissect it, to find out if colour vision was really a required output.  It wasn’t always a slam dunk prosecution case on my part.

In fact it was often awkward, embarrassing and difficult to step up and swing - especially in front of a classroom of your peers.  Sometimes I succeeded, and sometimes it was an unwinnable battle and I knew it. One particular teacher was obsessed with having a colourful classroom, and it was my worst year academically. This was the year my peers would learn the times tables during the day, and I would learn them at night.  The teaching relied on colour charts and coloured blocks.  I would listen to musical times tables at night before bed on a Walkman, and zone out during those particular lessons.  At the time, everybody thought this was a great alternative – because at least I would learn them! A reasonable adjustment?

Moving forward to high school, before the choose your own adventure timetabling kicked in, of comedic note were mandatory art classes.  An art teacher waving a colour chart around was my kryptonite.  I read the encyclopedias in the library and skipped art often – the path of least resistance, sort of!  The librarian was a wise enough man and never said a word.  The lack of flexibility and choice about study paths did cost grades, but I choose dignity and knowledge over year 8 art.  Many lessons related to geography and science relied on colour, and adjustments were not implemented at the time beyond ad-hoc help from the person sitting next to me. A teacher may or may not have come over and quietly pointed at the right result for me on more than one occasion. 

At University textbooks, lectures and tutorials often contained colour coded pie charts, graphs and concepts.  Sometimes the lecturer would describe the content, sometimes the old ‘as you can see’ would trip me up.  At that time, I would never have thought I could request ‘reasonable adjustments’ to teaching materials and I certainly had started to identify with imposter syndrome when it came to this sort of process.  I didn’t want to cause a fuss or be a hassle – having had my fair share of being ‘that guy’ over the years.  In tutorials I had a good group of classmates, and we mutually respected each other – so I never felt odd having to ask for help. 

Interestingly enough, throughout this process I never identified as having a disability regarding colour vision deficiency.  Now, working post-University, I have no problem talking about colour vision deficiency in the workplace when I need to, and asking people politely and respectfully to fix things or to help me work through things as needed.  This is about practice, because I can still describe to you the familiar, awful, uneasy feeling of looking at something and thinking “Should I say something? Or just wriggle my way through it?”.  I see talking about CVD as doing my part to raise awareness about the issues faced, and encourage people to design things with us in mind. 

Society has changed a lot toward more positive perceptions about individuality, but the way we create and present learning materials hasn’t changed too much once you step outside of the equity field.  WCAG 2.0 has for the most part stopped me from needing to copy & paste things in and out of websites and change contrasts, and most software now tells you the name of the colour as you hover the mouse over it.   Wait - perhaps after all, it’s no big deal anymore? Ah, but no – design matters!

Reflecting on all of these experiences and my circumstances, you the reader can probably agree: If the lessons and materials were designed well across my lifespan, colour vison deficiency would have given me nothing much to write about in this article. 

So, Universal Design in the context of study to me has 3 components:

  • It is always a one-fight-at a time situation when the learner stumbles across inaccessible material. There is no adjustment process that can react fast enough to the issue at hand to give the learner equal access.  Adaptive technology is helpful, but does identify the learner as ‘different’.
  • There is more to think about than students requesting adjustments to materials.  Many learners will not be comfortable with discussing the inaccessibility of the material in front of them, especially in front of their peers.  If you’ve met me, maybe you were surprised at my apprehensions expressed in this article.
  • If we can create a world where the learner knows they will be welcome and included and are unlikely to need to ‘request adjustments’, we can eliminate the first two components for the most part.

Because at the moment our legal system doesn’t encourage universal design, here are some immediate tips and ideas regarding colour vision deficiency to level the playing field:

  • Documents, resources and materials should be designed with multiple ways of identifying content (not just relying on colour) to provide equal access without a need for requests.
  • When building pie charts, you can “Add Labels” then “Add Values” and position them to the side of the relevant piece of the pie, offering the reader two ways to know which piece represents what.
  • When planning activities, conferences, work areas, groups: avoid using colour only as an identifier.  Can you imagine being told you’re on the red team when the other teams are blue, green and yellow and they all look the same to you? Chaos!
  • With technical and science based subjects, for example in instances where chemical reactions are determined by colour, assistive technology may help.   Consider talking with students about using a colour detector.  These devices will read out the colour of whatever they are pointed at.  Is it safe and reliable? Safer than the human eye.
  • When sending emails or co-writing documents, do not use colour coding only to separate workloads or identify sections.  Consider using tags or inserting text above the sections to identify the content.
  • Spreadsheets in the workplace – Colour coding of Red/Green/Orange is common to showcase status.  Consider using tabs or headings instead or in conjunction with colour.
  • Consider general messaging to teaching staff and content creators about Universal Design, and the design of PowerPoint presentations, charts and graphs in lectures and tutorials.
  • Some data gathering and display software like google forms is interactive, and allows the user to hover their mouse over the chart to see what the value is.  When you export or screen shot this, that feature is lost and will need to be modified as above before being used.
  • Ensure strong colour contrast in marketing materials, brochures, intranet content and other related information.

I’m hoping you’ve enjoyed reading this and learning a little bit about lifelong learning with colour vision deficiency.  If you’re interested in what sparked this thought train that turned in to an article, consider listening to (or reading the transcript of) our discussion with Karen McCall – and get onboard with the global standards for inclusive education concept!

Published: August 2020.


David Swayn is currently the National Disability Coordination Officer, North Queensland and a regular contributor to ADCET