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Monday, 4 February 2013

Face Blindness

One of the reasons that I love audio description is that I have always been terrible at recognising people. I just do not see faces clearly enough to be able to tell who people are from what they look like.  I recognise most people I know by a combination of their voice, their general body shape, their hair style, the clothes that they wear and, crucially, the context in which I encounter them.

So if I am at work and someone says hello to me in the corridor, I know it is most likely a student or colleague. My brain usually comes up with the right identity based on the factors listed above. If this doesn't work I tend to enquire after the person's health in the hope that either their voice and general demeanour will tell me who (as well as how) they are, or they will mention in passing some crucial piece of information (a location, child's name, shared concern) which will allow me to work out who they are.

This somewhat haphazard approach usually works reasonably well. More often than not I manage to work out who I am talking to before it becomes apparent that I started off the conversation completely in the dark. Luckily, most people are relatively predictable in their style of dress and general body shape. Most people are also more than happy to talk about themselves, thus giving me crucial clues as to their identity. But recently, I found myself in two situations where my tried and tested people-recognition techniques faltered.

Over the weekend I attended a party at my parents' house. Although I have known many of the guests for over thirty years, I spent much of the evening struggling to work out who I was talking to. It seems that people who have no problem with facial recognition cannot imagine what it is like not to recognise people in this way. Even though my eyes look noticeably different from other people's and all my parents' friends know that I am registered blind, no-one told me who they were before embarking in conversation. I think I made a reasonably good job of putting names to faces, especially because I knew exactly who was at the party, but it was quite an effort and did lead to some awkward moments. If I had been wearing dark glasses and /or holding my white cane, I'm sure people would have been more forthcoming. But I guess it feels odd to introduce yourself to someone who you have known for thirty years.

It is hardest for me to recognise people when they appear in an unexpected place or at an unexpected time. I would not recognise my husband if I encountered him unannounced at my place of work. I would not be able to pick out my children if I happened across them during a school trip and I would not recognise my best friend if I met her in the supermarket. This does not mean I do not love these people, it just means that I need more clues before I can identify them. This morning I was approached at the railway station by a friendly stranger who turned out to be a close and dear friend. When he first said hello to me I had no idea who he was. I quickly ran through a mental list of which people I might conceivably encounter at Oxford station early on a Monday morning and no one on this (admittedly short) list fitted. Plus, I wasn't even sure he was talking to me. He persisted in his greeting until I smiled and said hello back. Still having no idea who he was, I asked him which train he was getting in the hope that this would prompt him to reveal some crucial information without giving away the fact that I still didn't know who I was talking to. Luckily as soon as he said more than a few words I recognised his voice instantly and was (belatedly) delighted to see him.

As I ran for my train I wondered why I put myself in such an awkward situation. When my friend said hello to me, why did I pretend I knew who he was? Why not simply ask him to tell me his name? Social convention is a pretty powerful thing. Everything we learn about human interaction is based on the assumption that human faces are instantly recognisable. Infringing this rule feels deeply wrong. Perhaps I'm worried that people will be embarrassed by their assumptions, offended by my forgetfulness or hurt by their own apparent forgetableness. More alarmingly, I wonder if my reluctance to ask people to identify themselves comes from deep-seated feelings about my blindness. Despite my best efforts, am I still harbouring feelings of shame or self-hatred? Is my denial of my own inability to recognise people part of a need to 'pass' as a perfectly sighted person and thus refuse the validity of my way of seeing? Whilst sipping my latte I decided that I would use the memory of this encounter to be more honest with people about what I can and cannot see.


  1. Hannah, I've spent all day since in groups talking with total strangers about authenticity in interactions, and have been thinking all day about our meeting this morning. I'm left thinking about how things happen between people- are co-created, and notice that while you would like you parents' friends to do better, you don't seem to require the same of me. While I admire your self-examination and determination to talk about your sight more directly with people, as your friend I think you should ask more of me. I also know something about what you can and cannot see, but failed to say something like "Hi Hannah, it's Mike." and having not done so then compounded things by not acknowledging this. Then, as I say, I've spent all day working hard at careful, concious encounters with people I care about a whole heap less than you. So, I'm sorry, and will also try to do better next time I'm in a similar situation!

    1. Mike, you shouldn't be sorry! What neither of us have said was that it was VERY early in the morning, at a time when no-one should be expected to have meaningful social interactions and when I certainly was both sleep- and caffeine- deprived. (I like the irony of the subject of your training though..). Also, because we always see you guys either in our house or yours, I absolutely know who you are in those situations and so therefore never expect nor require you to tell me. There's no reason that you should know the rules for meeting me in a different context because I've never told you them.

  2. I have face blindness (prosopagnosia) because of autism and I experience a similar level of awkwardness in social situations. Even people who know this make no allowances for my forgetting their name.

    Last week a patient absconded from the ward and I got into trouble for not chasing after him. Explaining that if I saw him I would just run straight past him without recognition (he was wearing jeans and T-shirt, standard male attire) made no difference.

    I've found that the area where people make least allowance for disability is where it crosses the rules of 'normal' social interaction.