These tips for recognizing human faces won’t work at the zoo, but they should help people with low vision in challenging social settings:
Written by: Joseph L. Fontinot MD, CLVT
Medical Dir: Community Services for Vision Rehabilitation
I’m sorry, who are you?
The inability to recognize faces is one of the most common complaints of people with age-related macular degeneration and is a frequent cause of embarrassments and concern in social activities.
If you have AMD, you will have blind spots in the center of your vision (central scotomas) and decreased contrast sensitivity. The blind spots will occupy part of a person’s face and the impaired contrast sensitivity prevents you from seeing shades of texture and color. Since the blind spots are funnel-shaped, being smaller at close distance and greater at further distance, you will have less difficulty recognizing people up close. You will begin to recognize people by their voice, the way they walk and dress, their size, height and other characteristics. The problem with this sort of recognition is that it is not as quick or exact as normal face recognition.
Face recognition is an important part of everyday life. We recognize people, hail them and begin a social dialog. The ability to do this is important in order to respond appropriately or know what to say. Some people may be offended if we do not recognize them.
What can be done? At a distance, any telescopic magnifier will help. It has been shown that bioptic glasses (glasses with a small telescope mounted in the upper part of the glasses) does help identify people. The new head-mounted mounted electronic magnifiers (Iris Vision, Patriot, Nu Eyes, etc.) do help. However, these are difficult to use in ordinary circumstances such as walking and would not be comfortable in some social events.
Speak up. Sometimes simply saying “Hello” or “Good day” will elicit a response that identifies the person or you will recognize their voice.
If the situation is appropriate, get closer. This makes your blind spot smaller, covering less of their face.
Engaging in small talk will give you clues as to identity.
Moving to the side where the person’s face is least in shadow may help and you may recognize them better from a different angle. Also, try positioning yourself so the light is behind you and on the face of the person you are trying to identify.
Knowledge of your scotoma position and your “preferred retinal focus” will help in directing your gaze so that more of the person’s face will be visible.
As always with vision loss, plan ahead. If you are going to meet a small group of people, find out ahead of time who they will be and this will help with recognition.
If all else fails, simply say “I’m sorry, I have macular degeneration and I have trouble identifying people. What is your name?”
If you are with a close friend or family member, you can quietly ask them to identify people as they approach.
A white-tipped cane will make it obvious why you do not recognize people.
There are also lapel pins saying “I have Low Vision” and you can simply call attention to the pin.
Remember that a minor degree of embarrassment is better than staying at home. Get out there! Say “Hello” to everyone.