Wednesday, August 7, 2019
Brad Pitt and I -- we've got something in common. It's not money, or fame, or good looks -- definitely Brad has it all over me there. No, it's an invisible disability that affects the ability to forge relationships and work effectively with others. Both Brad Pitt and I have prosopagnosia, commonly known as face blindness.
Being able to recognize others is so important that it mostly goes without saying. In an evolutionary sense, knowing which humans belonged to your clan and which humans were competitors could help you decide whether to share prime gathering or hunting locations. In the modern world, those who easily recognize and connect with others are more successful, whether they are selling cars, cultivating allies for a political cause, or persuading jurors. Those on the low end of the scale for facial recognition labor under a distinct disadvantage. At the extreme, persons with prosopagnosia may not recognize family members or even their own faces. More commonly, those of us with prosopagnosia have experienced the awkwardness of welcoming someone to a group as a newcomer who has been there for the past two years; we may avoid receptions because of the awkwardness of having conversations with people who obviously know us when we don't recognize them, or we may steer ourselves away from people-oriented careers because we feel inadequate. And we compensate. For instance, at Orientation I listen to voices and try to memorize haircuts because frankly, most males between 20 and 40 look exactly the same to me (and ditto for females). And I e-mail a lot because I know the message will go to the right person that way.
Study after study on teaching effectiveness stresses the importance of getting to know your students, starting with learning their names. Instructors who don't learn their students' names can be perceived as remote and uncaring. Imagine, though, that names come easy enough, but the faces don't -- that every time you look at a person, you're trying to figure out not just their name, but whether this is a person you're meeting for the first time or someone with whom you had an intense hour-long meeting last week. Theoretically, if one's only interactions with students were in the actual classroom, table tents and seating charts could alleviate the problem. But the real world isn't that simple -- we interact with our students not only in the classroom, but also in the office, the hallways, the parking lot, and even in the grocery store and gas station. How heartrending it is to see a student in the hallway and not be able to tell if s/he is the one who just returned from the funeral of a loved one!
When I work with students with a learning, emotional, or physical disability, it is common for them to tell me they feel intensely isolated by the disability. So many students who are entitled to classroom or exam accommodations decide not to take advantage of them, often to their considerable academic detriment, because they fear taking accommodations will flag them as different, and emotionally different feels like inferior, even though intellectually they realize they are the equals of all their classmates. So in a way I welcome the disabilities I have, because they allow me to better understand my students. While I certainly don't claim to understand their exact situation, I do relate to the experience of feeling like "the other" in a situation I did not create. In my case, I combat the isolation by disclosing my prosopagnosia to students from the start of Orientation; that way, they can understand I'm not disregarding them when I don't recognize them. Heather Sellers, teacher and author of You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know, says that her prosopagnosia has been a gift:
We all have brains that are really good at some things and quite disappointing in other areas. We all need help -- with names, directions, public speaking, balancing our finances. My social thriving . . . depends on my asking, calmly, clearly, and plainly -- no drama, no apology -- for assistance. . . . This practice has changed my life, my relationships, my teaching.
Since asking for help is a lawyerly skill, modeling this behavior helps my students see it as what a lawyer does. And I'm very open with students about my coping mechanisms, from liberal use of flashcards to asking them to identify themselves each time they speak with me. And as Heather Sellers says, "[A]fter learning about prosopagnosia, and coming out into the world with it, I have been absolutely overwhelmed by the goodness of people. . . . People offer to help me, always. I feel more connected . . . to my fellow humans than ever before."
Humor can be a potent weapon in overcoming the isolating effects of many a disability. Years back, when I was first coming to terms with prosopagnosia, a student came to my office for case briefing advice. "Before we go on," I said, "remind me what you name is." "A____ S___," she replied. I looked mock sternly at her. "I'm sorry," I said, "you are not allowed to be A.S. I make flashcards of all the 1Ls, and I memorized six 1Ls last night, one of whom as A.S. So since I don't recognize you, you can't be her. "I cut my hair yesterday," she laughed. "You are not allowed to cut your hair," I deadpanned. "Or change its color. In fact, for the next three years I expect you to wear the same clothes as your 1L photo so I can recognize you, although you should probably have two sets so you can launder them occasionally." Because she laughed, and helped me, through the next three years, I eventually grew to recognize and treasure A.S. -- through many hairstyles, color changes, and a variety of clothing.