50 Different Faces

You may not know this. You can see about 50 faces at once.

You can make a good go of discerning between different people in a crowd of about 50. If that crowd is 100 or more, you just see face-blobs. Try it out.

facesCrowd2faces in crowd

People that have Cerebral Visual Impairment [CVI] tend to deal less well with visual clutter. For example, anything more than a table-full of faces will probably result in some sort of detuning.

As a parent of a child with CVI, I am equally fascinated and distressed by these sorts of details. But I am learning to be less fretful as I go along this road with my little one.

A recent consultation with a leading professor in the field of CVI helped our family understand something of what Olive sees. And trust me, “What Olive sees” is a very popular question in our house.

You can’t help but think of any compromise in vision in terms of, well, firstly ‘eyes’ and then secondly, blurriness. It’s the Specsavers view on the world.

Seeing clearly is certainly part of the equation. However, mobility, recognition, depth perception and a bunch of other stuff are all parts of ‘seeing’ that require different areas of the brain to make your world work.

It’s something of a revelation to realise that when you are seeing stuff ‘out there’, you are actually being presented with an image rendered by your brain about what’s in front of you.

It’s your very own 3D virtual reality game, going on inside your noggin.   And it’s happening really, really, really fast. So fast that you think the seeing and the ‘what you see’ are the same.

Kids with CVI have a different visual experience because the route between the eye and the areas of brain that do all the picture making and movement are compromised in some way.

They don’t see normally.

But then, what is normal?

I know some very normal people who do some very abnormal things, and vica versa. I also know that two people can listen to a One Direction album and hear two completely different sounds. I, for example, hear the ghoulish laughter of Simon Cowell beneath layers of sequenced, auto-tuned babble. My Californian niece, Bailey, hears an angelic chorus of horny English wonder-monkeys.

How the world appears to Olive is…well, it is what it is, really? It’s her normal. And whilst this lends itself to existential wandering, the practical implications of having a child with CVI are wholly that…practical.

  • Big thick lines are easier to see than thin ones
  • Clutter is likely to be a bit confusing
  • The field of vision ahead is probably clearer than the lower field
  • Faces are pretty complex and take some figuring out
  • Moving things are tougher to see than things that don’t move

That’s what was great about the professor’s advice. It was all grounded in how to deal with the situation, rather than understanding (in detail) the specifics of what’s actually going on. Not that this resulted in dumbing down at all. Far from it.

I’m very conscious not to be too generous with the notion of normality. Creating an inclusive society is a laudable intention…but we ain’t there yet. There’s also a difference between inclusiveness and whitewashing. People and face-blobs. Stand back far enough and we all start to look the same. We all equalise, but on too grand a scale to be meaningful.

To create an accessible world for people with visual impairment, or any impairment for that matter, requires huge efforts, granular attention and the energies and brain power of lots of people. That’s where the great work of people like Joy and her manifesto from the RLSB come in.

I suppose what you want is a society that can see the crowd and recognise all the faces within it, down to the most minute detail. Not via CCTV but through the eyes of everybody else in all those masses of people.

I wrote a blog last year about completing the London Marathon 2014.

My most enduring memory of that event was the level of interdependence on the day – thousands upon thousands of people helping each other out.

It was a useful lesson for the importance of looking out for folks and for those crazy sum-of-the-parts thoughts that occupy a father trying to figure out where his kid sits in the scheme of things.

I ran my marathon. It rhymed with Mo Farah’s but it wasn’t the same. It’s wasn’t even the same as the people who finished a minute or two ahead of me. It was an amazing day, a bucket list of an experience, but to all the people who plodded round or those supporting us, after a while, it was pretty normal, too.

I’ll be doing that again this year. So, please help me support the RLSB by logging onto the donation page or using the link below.


It’s an exceptional thing you do!


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