Learning to See

This week, I poach a bit on accessibility’s turf: I have colour vision deficiency (CVD). For me, like most but not all such folk, it means red and green are not easily distinguishable. In fact, the upcoming holiday effusion of colours is fifty shades of grey to me.

When I was a younger me, my greatest dream in life was to be able to drive a bulldozer; that would have been an awesome job. Later on I wanted to be either an astronaut or an electrical engineer. Both those later dreams were thwarted by the fact that distinguishing red and green is rather key.

I had to adapt. Mathematics, computer science, and now business became the order of the day. For the most part, there’s no major differences in how I live my life compared to how you live yours.

There are a few. Victoria’s traffic lights are sideways, so it becomes important to know the pattern. Before moving here, I was used to vertical lights.

Those flashing lights on Highway 59 to Houston beside the smoke house are in fact yellow, not red. So, the full and complete stop I came to the first time I drove that way was unnecessary and unsafe.

Despite the very kindly efforts of a sales associate at a nameless department store, the reason I needed help selecting sheets had everything to do with genetics, and not the fact that I simply hadn’t learned my colours yet. I didn’t have the heart to tell that associate I could never learn the lesson being patiently taught.

I worry sometimes that despite my attempts at patient teaching, perhaps my own students also lack the heart to tell me that they’re not quite ready to learn the lesson I planned for that day. Of course, their advantage is there is no math gene, so the challenge is one of foundational knowledge rather than one of genetic futility. Still, it behoves me to be ready to reach my students where they are. To create a classroom environment for them where they can succeed.

It doesn’t really take much to change things to be CVD friendly. Bolding edits rather than using red (dark red is nearly indistinguishable from black). Using patterns as well as widely separated colours. This site has some good tips http://guidelines.usability.gov/guidelines/30 and the statistical visualisation software I use has a friendly colour palette.

All this is to say I think often with just a few small edits, I can make statistics more accessible to my students. I know fractions are scary, so I include some fraction examples right after introducing probability ratios. Little things, which perhaps make a difference.

I learned from our president that there is something human about sharing our vulnerability. My students worry about mathematics, and they do not know about my struggle to become proficient in that discipline. Sharing with them why I wear jeans is another way to humanise our connection; it reminds them we all have challenges. We overcome challenges together, not in isolation.

A student and I were reading a chart once online. Hesitantly, that student confessed we’d need to use the screen magnifier, because seeing was a challenge. I told the student that was alright, because that particular chart was using various shades of red, dark green, blue, and purple so it was a challenge for me too.

However, after we looked at it with each other’s eyes, we understood the information perfectly.

Have you ever seen something mundane become awesome?

As for me, I never thought a silly bar graph would end up looking simply brilliant.

But that one did.



Matt Wiley is a tenured, associate professor of mathematics with awards in both mathematics education and honour student engagement. He earned an assortment of degrees in computer science, business, and pure mathematics from the University of California and Texas A&M systems. He is the director of quality enhancement at Victoria College, assisting in the development and implementation of a comprehensive assessment program to enhance institutional performance outcomes. A programmer, a published author, a mathematician, and a transformational leader, Matt has always melded his passion for writing with his joy of logical problem solving and data science. From the boardroom to the classroom, he enjoys finding dynamic ways to partner with interdisciplinary and diverse teams to make complex ideas and projects understandable and solvable.

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