Application Accessibility: Designing For and as a Colorblind Person


Understanding Colorblindness

Location: New Haven, CT     Time: 9:31     Class: Biology I

Teacher: “Now, if you were colorblind you would not see that sailboat”

Me: “Um, what sailboat…”

Above is the colorblind test that my high school biology teacher gave to our class one day to illustrate color vision deficiency or “colorblindness.” Those who are not colorblind should be able to easily see the sailboat in the image, while those who are colorblind cannot.

It was in that moment, in the middle of biology class, that I first realized I was colorblind. Suddenly, so many things began making sense. I understood why I had always been shocked, for instance, when my classmates claimed that they never had trouble identifying the differences between the markers our teachers used on the whiteboards to demonstrate key ideas or skills. I also finally understood why I never understood the logic of crayon boxes with 96 different choices, when I was sure that there were only about 8 distinguishable colors.

Colorblindness affects about 5% of the male population. It is often misunderstood but at its most basic level, colorblindness is a mild disability, which decreases a person’s ability to distinguish one color from another. Curious to know what those who are colorblind see? The colorblindness simulator available at Colblindor offers some examples.

OG  Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 10.41.49 AMRedWeak

                     Original                                       Green Weak                                    Red Weak

The images above also illustrate the point. Although research shows that there are many forms of colorblindness, the most common are those that make you unable to distinguish yellow from blue or red from green.

Understanding Accessibility 

When we talk about web/application accessibility, the simple goal – from both an ethical and a business perspective – is to make your application available to the widest possible audience. In 1986, the United States Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was amended to incorporate Section 508, which grew out of the advent of the Internet. Essentially, Section 508 requires U.S. government agencies to ensure that all of the information they provide electronically or through technology is available to people with disabilities. It further requires that the information provided needs to be comparable to that provided to those without disabilities. The result is that many unique tools have been developed and continue to be created to accommodate a variety of needs.

Hopefully, you have a heart and a good head on your shoulders so, you are already starting to see the benefits of making your application accessible to those who may view it. After all, taking accessibility into account “just makes sense.” For those that need a bit more incentive, it may be helpful to know that with today’s tools, it also does not require a ton of work.

Working With Colorblindness

So what is it like to work with colorblindness? I am a junior developer here at ALV, but I also focus a lot on user interface design and user experience. When I took my first design course, I felt embarrassed by my colorblindness and often agreed with people’s critiques of my work and their ideas about which colors would look best, without question, even when I could not tell the colors apart.

As I became more confident in my design skills, I realized that colorblindness could work to my advantage. Why? Since I cannot distinguish all colors by sight alone, I have had to develop a much more technical view of color to help me make sound decisions. This is not to say that other designers ignore hue, saturation, brightness, RGB values, and other settings; instead, colorblindness means that I lean on the numeric values more than they are likely to do. It also affects the structure of my work. Since I can’t necessarily grasp the contrast between colors by looking, my user interfaces (UIs) tend to be very clear and simple; doing so allows me to see and focus on forms rather than color.

My colorblindness has also made me more aware of times when there may be opportunities for collaboration with others. The best designs I have come up with have always been in a team setting, where each of us can utilize our strengths.


Complying with Section 508 and taking into account disabilities – even those that are minor, such as colorblindness – will increase your user base and bring about a more user-friendly interface. While colorblindness has affected my work and my life, technology offers assistance since it allows us to put a number to a color. Using color numbers, understanding the color wheel, and putting yourself in the shoes of others will most certainly allow you to develop a beautiful and – more importantly – a usable interface for your users.

* Here are some links to tools I use to help me with picking color palettes and understanding color.