This document was first written on March 19, 2002. It was modified on March 20, 2002, and subsequently modified again on June 18, 2007. It was inspired by hearing of yet another community which has opted to go the school uniform route. I must admit, outright, that there might be very good reasons for going this route. The U.S. Department of Education has a very good summary of this discussion, and other considerations when implementing school uniform policies, and that discussion can be found at this web site: http://www.ed.gov/updates/uniforms.html Those considerations include a reduction in school violence and theft, preventing the display of gang colors and insignias on clothing at school, instilling students with discipline, helping to resist the effect of peer pressure, helping students to concentrate more effectively on their school work, and helping school officials recognize intruders. However, I want to highlight here, in particular, at least a few very serious reasons why I think they should not be considered seriously. Before you read further, I should add that it is not likely you will have read these particular arguments before, and this is mostly because there are not very many people who are able to make them.
If you've read my web site, located at http://home.earthlink.net/~blankface/index.html, it will be no shock what I have written here. If you haven't yet read my web site, I encourage you to do so either before or after reading this document. Some things I discuss quite thoroughly in that document, and some, though not all, of the points I have made in that document will be repeated here.
Let me introduce myself for those of you who don't know much about me yet. My name is Glenn Alperin. At the date of this writing, I am 24 years old (29 years old at the date of last update), long past the age of being either an elementary or high school student. I and a few million other people, by a conservative though rather unscientific guess, have a cognitive medical condition called prosopagnosia. (Recent scientific evidence suggests that the prevalence may be as high as 2% of the population as a whole according to research conducted separately by Ken Nakayama of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA and Martina and Thomas Grueter of Münster, Germany.) Basically, this means that I am unable to recognize people by using the face as the primary recognition clue. Some time back, I had a picture taken of me which I placed in a scanner which is attached to my computer, and using an image editor software package, I modified the photograph to reflect what it is that I remember about other people. Keep in mind that this is not how I see other people when I look at them, though I am told that at least a few people with a very severe manifestation of prosopagnosia might very well see people this way:
It is, instead, a very good illustration, or as good of one as I can visually make, of what it is that I am able to physically remember about other people. Now imagine that every person was wearing the same blue jeans you see me wearing there, and every person is also wearing the same white tee-shirt as I am wearing in this picture. (It's really not a good photograph as it was taken with too little light, so other features of my body which I might use to recognize myself and which other people with prosopagnosia might use are not very easy to see here.) I'm certain it would be quite difficult for most people to differentiate among each other if these were the only sets of clues one had to identify people. Fortunately, because face recognition is so good in most people, they don't have to resort to trying to figure out who people are based on their clothing or other physical characteristics.
Now that I've explained a bit about how difficult it is for me to identify people, I think it should be fairly clear why I would despise even the idea of school uniforms. I know one thing for certain: If, when I was in highschool or elementary school, there had been a school uniform policy implemented, I would definitely not have bothered to graduate. The stress level on me would have been so great that I'm certain I would have dropped out of school. The reason why should be quite obvious after reading the next paragraph.
Something most people don't realize, even if they think they know a lot about prosopagnosia, is the social isolation which often goes along with not being able to recognize people. I've long since come to terms with the fact that I won't be able to recognize other people, but it seems to take most people an extraordinary length of time for them to realize, and to truly understand, that just because I fail to recognize them does not mean that I do not remember things about them. In fact, I remember many things about many different people, and I can keep that information fairly well sorted so I don't mix up information I know about one person for a different person. This doesn't mean that I don't mix information up about people, which I do with some regularlity, but not as often as people might think. Keeping information straight about people you have no mental visual image of is not an easy task. I have discovered that I am much better at remembering things about people I've met in e-mail or online correspondance than I am at remembering things about people I have met in person. Nonetheless, people seem to have this strange belief that a failure in recognition might mean that the person who failed to recognize you is trying, intentionally, to snub you socially. In my case in particular, and in the case of other people with prosopagnosia, this could be nothing further from the truth.
Having said all of this, it should be no surpize to anybody just how significant the effect of school uniforms might be to a person like myself. It removes a very significant piece of my identification repertoire. Granted, clothing is not the first thing I use to identify people, but it works very very well for short term situations, such as a classroom, or, as is more the case for me these days, when going to assist somebody while working in a retail store, and needing to return to the person after checking on their particular request. Sometimes, clothing works very very well for identifying certain people, especially if they wear the same style of clothing day in and day out. I had a friend from college I could readily identify not only because of his size (he was quite muscular) but also because, without fail, he always was wearing the same baseball cap and the same style of shirt, and nobody else wore that particular combination while I was in college.
For a person who can not recognize faces, often times, recognizing clothing, and thereby recognizing the people wearing the clothes, is the only way to cling to a social situation which is otherwise totally incomprehensible and utterly devoid of social meaning. I'll give you a very recent example of this: There is a photograph in my house, and in this photograph is a picture of two people, one of whom is holding a dog. It was only after realizing this particular detail (the man and women together with the dog) that I was able to realize that the picture was of my brother and his wife. The contextual clue of the dog is what allowed me to make that particular identification. Clothing is another contextual clue I use to attempt to identify people, and lacking that or any of several other contextual clues will make a person totally unrecognizable to me.
For a prosopagnosic child, there is one other very serious potential negative consequence of having school uniforms. When other children either figure out or find out that the child is either incapable of or impaired with facial recognition (and they almost inevitably will when the child either mistakes one person for another or questions are raised by the children among themselves about the reasons behind a child's shyness or behavior), there is the additional problem of school bullying to be reckoned with. A child who is bullied and who lacks the ability even to identify the bully is basically a sitting duck for the bullying assaults to continue. If the prosopagnosic child has the courage and/or ability to fight back, it is that child who will inevitably be caught in a social trap of explaining such behavior to a teacher or school administrator and identifying the original bully, a task which will prove to be difficult for a child with prosopagnosia anyway, and impossible for the child to do when everybody is wearing the same school uniform.
One of my personal earliest memories of grade school was based around just such an incident where the person I thought had been bullying me denied the whole incident took place, and I had no way to know if I had "gotten the right kid" when physically retaliating, and that was without school uniforms. Now I was not, and still am not, the most observant of people, but I have spoken with a few parents of prosopagnosic kids and with some prosopagnosic adults who have described their child's or their own observational skills for details not including the face to be of an exceptionally gifted level. All of us, however, rely on as many clues as we can possibly gather to try to learn how to recognize people. When any of those potential clues to recognition are removed, it causes an appropriate defence against such bullying to be darn near impossible to carry out. Of course, there was no proper justification for my own retaliatory behavior, but in the case of a school with a school uniforms policy, the situation would have been even more difficult, not just for me in my case, but for every child with prosopagnosia who has the misfortune of experiencing similar bullying tactics.
All of that said, however, there are times when I found uniforms to be essential for me to function properly in some situations, and it is these, in particular, that I want to encourage people to think more about. I discovered very very quickly, when I was younger, that I was not much of an athlete, but even more importantly, that I could not identify the people on my team unless they were wearing some kind of team uniform. It took the other kids I was playing with even less time to figure out I could not identify who belonged to which teams, and as a result, I was often passing, or throwing, or kicking the ball to the wrong person. The only way I could be even the least bit successful in sports (and thats all I ever was since I wasn't that gifted athletically as I already mentioned) was if people would wear team uniforms to tell me who was on which team. Even in highschool, I often had to remind my basketball coach that this was a necessity for me even in scrimmage.
I am sure that any implementation of a school uniform policy may turn out to be a good thing in ways other than the article I referenced at the very top mentions. I suspect it may very well create the possibility of a much earlier diagnosis of prosopagnosia in a small group of people. This by itself would surely be a good thing, but there are also significant negative social and educational consequences that would go along with the potential positive outcome of a greater prevalence of early diagnoses. For example, it is a difficult enough process for the prosopagnosic child to create and cultivate friendships with people the child can not readily identify to start with. The child with prosopagnosia will naturally gravitate towards the people the child can most easily recognize. Because there is rather little in the way of physical differences to differentiate one person from another, aside from the face which the child with prosopagnosia will not find useful in any event and aside from clothing which has the potential to be the prosopagnosic child's social salvation if it is uniquely identifying enough on a particular person, the child is likely to feel either socially isolated or socially confused (or both) just in the normal course of socialization which occurs within the school environment. I am certain that it is not in the best interest of the child with prosopagnosia to cause the child to experience additional social and educational hardship by essentially causing the child to go to school with what the child will perceive to be physical clones as a result of all of the other children wearing school uniforms. In fact, I think the child with prosopagnosia, who will likely always struggle to make and maintain friendships anyway, might cease trying to create friendships when faced with the inevitable failures of trying to differentiate between a collection of what they will perceive to physically be "clone classmates".
The question then becomes this: Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, what would be a "reasonable accomodation"? I think you can probably agree with me that the answer is quite clear. Such a reasonable accomodation should include, at the very least, the removal of such a school uniform policy. I don't think that is an unreasonable thing to ask.
The author is more than happy to exchange e-mail with anybody interested in this particular topic. Be aware, however, that any attempt to dissuade him from the viewpoints expressed here, which are purely his own, will be as unsuccessful as asking him to recognize people by using their face as the primary recognition clue. Feel free to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or comments you might have. The author will endeavor to answer them as expediantly as possible.
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