Read the text carefully and answer the questions that follow it. Use your own words throughout as far as possible.

When I took my art exam many years ago, for one paper we sat in a circle and painted a group of objects set before us in the centre. Among them was a lovely sponge cake, cut to reveal its colour and texture. As I struggled to capture it, mixing and applying paint, the invigilator came several times to watch me. Afterwards, he took me to one side. ‘Why did you paint the cake green?’ he asked. I groaned, realising that once again I had been handicapped by what I was beginning to call ‘colour blindness.’

A couple of years later, the Army agreed that I had a problem and reacted by banning me from just about every trade except that of clerk. Two years after that, working in the sales office of a steelworks, I consistently made a hash of a multi-colour graph of production which I had to keep up to date. The management were not pleased when the lines changed colour from one week to the next.

Defective colour vision—a more accurate description than ‘colour blindness’—is hereditary and caused by faults in the retina at the back of the eye. About 8 per cent of men and 0.4 per cent of women have it. It takes several forms and varies from slight to severe, but it almost always operates in the red to green part of the spectrum. This means, simply, problems distinguishing between colours within that range. It is not just a matter of misnaming colours. People always ask me ‘What do you call green if you can’t see it?’ Or they hold up a green tie and say ‘What colour is this then?’ These are, to me, meaningless questions at which I can only shrug and stammer helplessly.

Think of it more as a matter of colour matching. Give me lots of bits of red and green cloth of different shades and ask me to find one which matches a particular green tie and I will always fail. Most of them will look exactly the same to me and I will stare and pick helplessly at them6. Left to myself7 I am likely to appear in all sorts of bizarre shirt-tie-jacket combinations.

Disability, of course, it is not. Irritant, though, it most certainly is—and there are, of course, many jobs from which the colour-defective applicant is automatically barred. Think, for example, of how a good lawyer might treat the testimony of a colour-defective policeman. ‘What colour did you say his jacket was, officer? The same as this one I am holding up, was it? Or this one over here?’ And how would you feel about taking a ferry at night with a captain who was unable to tell the difference between the port and starboard lights of an oncoming ship?

Now consider the colour-defective young child in the classroom, doing colour matching and naming activities. One teacher has described giving a class coloured cards and sending them off to find things in the environment that matched. Were I asked to do that today, I would joke and con my way through. At six, however, I would have been bewildered.

Then, of course, there are colour-coded reading schemes and coloured maps. Any multi-coloured map will contain several shades which, to the colour-defective child, are indistinguishable from each other, and the fact that he knows they must, in fact, be different only adds to his annoyance.

The point is not that the child can be cured or that the whole classroom regime should be changed. All I want, from the strength of 55 years of living with the problem, is to speak up for pupils and students with defective colour vision and ask simply that their teachers be aware of the problem. Any class of 30, after all, is likely to have a boy with poor colour vision in it. Any school of 300 could have 10 boys and a girl. It might help some of these children, too, if their teacher could talk to them and help them understand that their frustration has a genuine cause.

(adapted from Gerald Haigh’s ‘Painting the Town Green: Colour Blindness’)


1 Why did the writer groan when the invigilator asked him about his painting?

2 What was the writer’s problem with the graph at the steelworks?

3 Why does the writer put ‘colour blindness’ in inverted commas in this article?

4 What misunderstanding do people have about colour-defective vision?

5 Explain how the writer reacts to questions people ask him about colours.

6 Explain the phrase ‘I will stare and pick helplessly at them’.

7 What does the writer mean by the phrase ‘left to myself’?

8 Explain why a colour-defective police officer might have problems.

9 Explain why it is undesirable for a colour-defective person to be a ferry captain.

10 What does the writer say that he has in common with a colour-defective young child?

11 In what ways does the writer differ from a colour-defective young child?

12 What particularly annoys colour-defective children at school?

13 What does the writer imply about the number of children likely to have colour-defective vision?

14 What does the writer suggest to teachers about pupils and students with colour-defective vision?

15 In a paragraph of 70–90 words, summarise the problems caused by colour-defective vision that the writer describes.

Sample Answers

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