Achromatopsia is a rare genetic defect of the retina that causes total color blindness. Although there are only approximately 3,000 cases of this condition reported in the U.S. and in the entire world, only one in 30,000, there is one geographic location where total color blindness is the not unexpected. It is a small island in the South Pacific called Pingelap, where, as a result of intensive inbreeding, some 780 islanders, or one in every 12 people are considered completely colorblind.
After traveling to this remote spot, Dr. Oliver Sachs, the renowned neurologist, wrote a fascinating account of the origins of the eye disease in a book called The Island of the Color Blind (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997). In this environment he tested these severely color blind people. When he requested that his subjects judge the colors of various yarns, they did so on the basis of brightness, so "yellow and blue might be paired with white, or saturated reds and greens with black". He writes about an island weaver and her "special art of brightnesses, delicate patterns of differing luminances........."
In other areas of the world, where complete color blindness is rarely found, many men, in particular, refer to themselves as "color blind" when, in reality, they are color-deficient and have a limited ability to differentiate red and green shades. If however, they are completely color blind to red and green, they will see both colors as a tone of yellow. Totally colorblind people can see only white, black and shades of gray.
Statistically, approximately 8% of men and 0.5% of women experience some problems with color perception, although it is usually an inherited sex linked condition that is passed on genetically through females.
Many people that fall into this category observe that they are more sensitive to texture and shape than most. If they are involved in creative fields such as architecture, design or art they are more apt to place a great deal of emphasis on form, balance, contrast and texture which can certainly add an interesting dimension to their work.
So perhaps the stigma of "color-deficient" should be replaced with "color-different"!
Photo: Pohnpei Landscape. Photo (c) FSM Visitors Board.