Ben is a 38-year-old financial planner who lives in suburban San Francisco with his wife and two young daughters. His life is pretty fantastic, but thanks to colorblindness, it has definitely not been the path he had pictured when he was a teen.
When designing his high school class ring, Ben included an “aviation” insignia to illustrate his goal to become a pilot. When the little airplane was spotted by a friend who knew that colorblindness limited flight careers, his plans took an immediate about-face.
“I always wanted to be a pilot,” he said. “Somebody saw that ring and said, ‘You know you can’t be a pilot when you’re colorblind.’ Up to that point it had been a novelty. Then it changed things.”
Although the blanket statement “you can’t be a pilot” is not quite accurate, the colorblind do have severe restrictions on their flight activities. Even in a pre-Internet world, Ben was able to quickly discover some of the reasons pilots need good color vision.
“I looked it up and learned runway lights are green and red. That freaked me out. I thought, no way. If you kill somebody, that’s on you,” he said.
Ben went on to graduate from the University of Tennessee with a degree in retail and consumer science, and began a successful career as a financial planner. Yet even in an office setting his lack of red-green vision causes headaches.
“The hardest thing that is still a super struggle are these color-coded maps and graphs at work,” he said. “One of them is called the Map of the Market and it’s shades of red or green. I really don’t know what colors they are but I can’t see them at all. I can imagine that it would be super helpful to be able to see this. It really frustrates me.”
Another proprietary piece of stock market software Ben uses is colored with brighter reds and greens, which is better than the pastels but still difficult for him to read. It was designed to show the state of the market at a glance. Red means a certain stock is down, green means it’s up. Ben can see reds are darker than the greens, but he has to look closely to discern the difference.
“I just know if I come in in the morning and the whole screen is dark, it’s bad.”
Ben’s doesn’t remember how old he was when he learned of his vision condition, but the scene remains vivid in his mind.
“I was coloring while my mom was drying my hair and I guess something I did made her think I might be colorblind. I don’t know how old I was but she got out the encyclopedia and had me do the dot test so I must have been old enough to read. I don’t remember her reaction, but I remember thinking I need to figure out how to tell which crayon is which. I think I felt lucky that I wasn’t really blind,” he said.
Ben and his parents did a good job of communicating with teachers about the condition, and that made a difference with his educational success.
“All my teachers knew. I was really up front about it,” he said. “It actually may have made my grades better because I could ask teachers for help and I feel like they gave me extra if I asked. If I came across a problem I would say, ‘I don’t think this is fair for me. Can you do this in a way that doesn’t involve color?’ I didn’t have a single teacher that wasn’t supportive.”
Ben loves to mountain bike, run, snowboard and hike, and does realize he is “missing out” by not experiencing colors in nature fully.
“I feel like there is this world I don’t see. Like when I go to Yosemite I wish I could see all the colors. But it’s still the most beautiful place on earth to me and I keep going back,” he said.
Ben says that although there are days that go by when he doesn’t think about colorblindness at all, it has a profound effect on his life. His wife gets up early to help pick out his clothes for work. His four-year-old daughter thinks it’s “hilarious” and says, “Silly Papa, your eyes don’t work,” when he gets the crayon colors wrong. Yet his attitude is exemplary.
“I absolutely don’t think of myself as disabled,” he said. “I think everybody has some kind of problem. If this is mine I guess I’m pretty lucky.”