The Unrecognised SEN
Colour blindness is a problem which affects 1 in 12 boys and 1 in 200 girls yet is often overlooked by schools. Kathryn Albany-Ward, who recently discovered her son is colour blind, outlines the difficulties children can face. Attain put her concerns to the Minister of State responsible for SEN to help raise awareness of her campaign.
This article first appeared in the Autumn 2010 issue of Attain.
'Little Red Riding Hood', 'Bluebeard', 'Ten Green Bottles' - colour is an integral part of a child's learning from a very young age. But what if your child cannot actually see the colours? About five per cent of the population is born colour blind, yet there is no official government recognition of colour blindness as a Special Educational Need; no routine testing; and no formal training for teachers on how to recognise and assist colour blind pupils in their care. Children with a colour vision deficiency are clearly disadvantaged within a classroom environment since colour is a key educational instrument. For the moment at least, it is left to parents to identify if their child is colour blind and to raise the issue with their child's school. One in twelve boys are colour blind so one of them could be yours!
When my son moved to a new school recently, I was vaguely aware that he had some problems seeing colours correctly. Once, in the supermarket, I had asked him to fetch me a bottle of sky blue fabric conditioner and he returned to the trolley with the lilac version. We had a little chat about the fact that I did not have time for messing about that day, but he was very insistent that he had brought the right bottle. I should have believed him but I knew nothing then about colour blindness and anyway thought, like most people, that colour blind people mixed up red and green. So, we put the matter behind us, carried on with our shopping and almost forgot all about it.
I am ashamed to say that I ignored what I then considered to be a slight issue. Although I knew that my uncle was colour blind I had never thought our son could be. He appeared to have had no problems learning his colours - when he was at nursery he knew fire engines are red, grass is green and so on. He had been in nursery from six months old, and at school for two years, but no-one had even hinted that he might be colour blind. Like most parents we had wrongly assumed that all children are still tested for colour blindness at school entry and never gave the matter any thought. Before Ross started his new school we had to provide him with a pencil case and stationery. We chose a bright red pencil case so that it would stand out - or so I thought. I had no idea it looks 'brown' and does not stand out at all (although if you ask Ross what colour it is he will, of course, because he has been told, tell you it is bright red - he would not want you to think he is stupid!). We bought a full set of colouring pencils and I still did not realise that, like most colour blind people, he can only accurately identify five out of the set of 24!
Ross's condition might not yet have come to light had it not been for the reversible maroon/olive green rugby shirt he wears at his new school and the fact that he happened to mention that he never knew who was in his team for games. After some detailed questioning I discovered that the reason for this was because, although he knew each side of the shirt had a different colour, he couldn't actually tell the difference. Once I realised that there was a serious issue I headed straight for the computer, but found hardly any websites about colour blindness and almost nothing for parents looking for information. (I have now rectified this with www.colourblindawareness.org a website for parents and teachers). I did find several websites however which allowed me to 'see' the world through my son's eyes and what I saw shocked me.
Once I could 'see' Ross's world I understood how difficult it will be for him to be colour blind in modern life. I realised that in school he would struggle to understand much of the information presented to him on worksheets, in textbooks or on the computer. I then considered his future schooling. How would he cope with chemistry, biology, geography, physics and obviously art. Which jobs would he be unable to do? What about exams? How could he read litmus paper, do chemistry titrations, read coloured maps, graphs, pie charts or diagrams?
I asked for information from the school but was surprised to discover there was nothing they could give me and actually I was already better informed than they were. I was disappointed, so contacted the then Department of Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) only to find that there is no Government policy, and the condition is not considered to be a Special Educational Need - even if a child has no colour vision whatsoever! I couldn't believe it - there is no formal obligation on schools to consider the needs of colour blind children even though colour blindness is a condition which affects 400,000 pupils. Even worse, I found that teachers are taught nothing about colour blindness and generally do not know how to properly support their colour blind pupils, although statistically there will be one colour blind child (1 in 12 boys and 1 in 200 girls) in every (mixed, maintained sector) classroom. No wonder boys are not achieving as well as girls in school today!
Fortunately there are plenty of things willing schools and parents can do to assist. Some enlightened schools have issued guidance for teachers and some have also instigated their own screening programmes. Headington Preparatory School, an all-girls school in Oxford, does not even have any colour blind pupils, but nevertheless the Head, Andrea Bartlett, has ensured that all her staff are fully aware of how to support colour blind students in the classroom. Not only that, she has introduced colour blindness teaching into PSHE lessons to ensure that the girls know what to look out for if they have colour blind children of their own. Schools which have introduced pupils to the world of the colour blind have found that students are fascinated, easily able to grasp how much of life can be adversely affected by the condition and suggest solutions to help.
In the days when it was not possible to 'see' the world of the colour blind there was some excuse not to take account of their needs in school. In the age of the internet there is no such excuse, so I hope that the new Coalition Government will take up the challenge and instigate a programme to identify all colour blind pupils and advise schools how to adequately support them. Parents and teachers can visit the Colour Blind Awareness website, objectively consider your children and, if you have the slightest suspicions they could be colour blind, refer them to a professional for assessment. Textbook manufacturers and suppliers of teaching aids need to reassess their products and urgently produce alternatives which are suitable for colour blind students.
For more information, please visit: www.colourblindawareness.org
Comment: MP, Publisher & SEN Coordinator
Attain asked three key individuals to comment on points raised in this article: Sarah Teather MP, Minister of State responsible for SEN; Nicholas Oulton of textbook publishers, Galore Park; and Penny Frost, SEN Subject Leader for IAPS.
Sarah Teather MP
I read the article with great interest and was moved by Ms Albany-Ward's story of how she came to realise that Ross was colour blind, and the steps she has since taken to understand the impact of the condition. Her story made me reflect on how our understanding of colours can be taken for granted, and with it an ignorance to the difficulties that these children face. I only imagine the steep learning curve that parents must undergo and commend her efforts in setting out to provide the information to other parents and to teachers, which she felt was missing.
I believe that all children should be given the opportunity to achieve their potential. So whilst colour blindness is not itself regarded as a special educational need, I would expect schools to make every effort to ensure that such children are not disadvantaged and that staff are alert to some children having difficulty differentiating certain colours so they can find a way round any problems. To help schools do this it is important they share good practice, so I welcome the steps taken by local decision makers, such as in Headington Preparatory School, to find innovative ways of using their curriculum to increase awareness and work together in identifying solutions.
We want to make sure that the most vulnerable children get the best quality of support and care. Children with special educational needs and disabilities should have the same opportunities as their peers. The system needs to be more family-friendly so that parents don't feel they have to battle to get the support their child needs. That is why I will launch a Green Paper in the autumn to look at a wide range of issues for children with SEN and disabilities. Before then I will be looking at the results of the Ofsted review of SEN we are expecting later this summer, in addition to the many reviews of SEN policy in recent years. I'll also be listening to the views of parents, teachers and organisations with an interest in this area.
Sarah Teather MP is Minister of State for Children and Families.
As a former teacher and now Managing Director of an educational publishing company, the question of accessibility is one that I have been working with on various levels for the past 25 years, and colour blindness is an issue that we do have strong views on. For the past two years, we have had working in our publishing team a young graduate who is colour blind. He can relate to everything that Kathryn says about the confusion that is the lot of the colour blind, whether it is about the 'real' colour of a pair of trousers or the lack of distinction between 'different' colours, say, on a pattern, which are different to us, but identical to him.
What we have learnt from his experience is that, as one would expect, people who are colour blind adopt strategies for coping. They may not be able to see the world as we see it, but they learn to cope with the way they do see it. So at Galore Park, we now go to great lengths to ensure that, while we may not be able to publish books that will be seen in the same way by everyone, whether colour blind or not, we do not publish a book which will be misleading or inaccessible to a colour blind pupil.
For example, where a diagram in a science book has a test tube containing liquids of different colours, and it is essential (for an understanding of the topic) to see those two colours as different, we are now adding a solid line between the two, to draw a clear distinction between the two liquids (see example images below). We cannot guarantee that the colour blind pupil will see the two colours in the same way that the majority of us see them, but we hope to make clear that there are two different colours there.
The teacher in the classroom, or a parent at home, will need to be sensitive to those areas where colour distinction is central to a teaching point, and ensure that the pupil has recognised the relevant areas. But we for our part will have done what we can to ensure that an inability to differentiate certain colours is not a total barrier to understanding.
Nicholas Oulton is the Managing Director of Galore Park Publishing.
Penny Frost, SEN Subject Leader
The much under-considered condition of colour-blindness has been highlighted in this interesting and well-documented article by an IAPS parent. Children who are colour-blind have no idea that they are, and so create strategies for themselves to manage their experiences of puzzling home and classroom situations. The most severe form of full red-green blindness is rare, but children can still be considerably disadvantaged by a range of less severe discrimination difficulties. The statistic of 1 in 12 boys and 1 in 200 girls with colour discrimination difficulties is an indication that schools must be vigilant, particularly towards the boys in their classes.
The article raises a number of issues which will be helpful for schools to take into account, and I offer the following points for IAPS SENCOs and teachers to consider:
- High quality printed tests for colour-blindness, such as Ishihara's Tests for Colour-Deficiency (Japan 1996, available through Chap-man and Hall in London), give a much more reliable identification than tests downloaded from the web.
- Always monitor apparent lapses of concentration involving mistaken colour discrimination or difficulties with colour sorting and discrimination, particularly with reds and greens. If concerned, recommend testing for colour-blindness.
- Try to avoid making or using diagrams which contrast reds, pinks, maroons and greens to explain a teaching point. This is particularly important in Biology and Geography, where colour may be used to show flow of blood or lava etc, as the teaching may be lost if the child cannot follow the colour flow.
- Help a colour-blind child avoid confusion by labelling classroom colouring pencils with dots to indicate their colour categories.
- Experiment with colour overlays for text book diagrams to see if you can enhance the colour differentiation on the colour spectrum which is causing problems.