WHEN teenager Hannah Read looks in the mirror, she cannot recognise her own reflection.

The 17-year-old is unable to pick out close family from a crowd and even walks past friends in the street.

Hannah suffers from prosopagnosia known as face blindness – and her case is so extreme, it is the worst in the UK.

Hannah developed the rare condition after contracting a virus that inflamed her brain as a child.

But rather than let it get her down, Hannah believes the condition has given her a unique appreciation of life because she cannot judge anyone on appearances and instead values inner beauty.

Hannah, who lives near Ringwood, said: “I can see the face just like everyone else can.

“I see the eyes, the nose and the mouth and everything that’s on the face but all faces look the same to me.

“It’s really hard to get around because I can’t recognise my family or friends. I have to go off voices.

“And the fact I can’t recognise my own face is very upsetting.

“I want to know what other people see when they look at me but I can’t see it myself, so I just have to live with it.

“I am who I am.”

Hannah was just eight when she fell ill on a family holiday in Gran Canaria with her parents Louise, 47, and Andy, 51, where she was diagnosed with encephalitis – a condition that causes inflammation of the brain.

Hannah first complained of a headache, high temperature and became confused.

The following day, she deteriorated and was rushed to hospital after she began losing consciousness.

Hannah was treated in intensive care for four days and stayed in hospital there three weeks before she was returned by air ambulance to Southampton General Hospital to continue treatment for another fortnight.

Mum Louise, explained: “Only then did we realise the enormity of what happened. Hannah was lucky to have survived.

“They explained Hannah had an ‘acquired brain injury’ and they couldn’t predict what her future was likely to be.”

It wasn’t until Hannah returned home, the couple realised Hannah had face blindness and later got support with the incurable condition from Dr Sarah Bate, an expert in prosopagnosia at Bournemouth University’s Centre for Face Processing Disorders.

Experts suggest one in 50 people have some degree of developmental face blindness but most don’t know they have it.

But Hannah has the added challenge of having general visual perception difficulties, which means she cannot recognise objects including everything from food on her plate to animals as well as pictures.

Louise, said: “We realised when we got home when everything should have been very familiar that nothing was familiar.

“It’s like having no sight at all because if your visual perception isn’t there, you don’t know what you are seeing.”

Hannah’s condition means getting around and making friends is difficult.

Hannah, who has no memories before she was eight, explained: “I had to learn to do everything again – learn to read, write, get dressed. When I was younger, I would get very frightened if I got lost but now I have more confidence to ask.

“It’s not very nice not knowing where anything is around you.

“My worst nightmare would be someone saying ‘go and get the scissors out of the classroom cupboard’ because there is no way I could do it because I couldn’t recognise what scissors are.

“It’s impossible to find people so I have to rely on people to tell me where they are and to speak to me. If they don’t, chances are I will walk straight past them.

“It can be very difficult to make friends because some people can’t accept my condition so it can be very isolating. Some people don't think it is real so it is very frustrating!”

Despite the challenges of the condition, Hannah believes her disability has given her a unique insight on life.

She is drawn to somebody’s personality rather than what they look like.

And surviving encephalitis, means she is grateful every day for the kindness of her loved ones.

"It makes me so annoyed how people can judge others on looks. I can't see what other people say is beautiful so my beautiful is very different.

“I look at people on how kind they are to me and to other people.

“My best friend Josephine really understands and I don’t know what I’d do without my sisters who help me get around and even pick out outfits."

Hannah says watching TV and films is almost impossible, so she has a passion for music and is an upcoming opera singer.

She is now studying Children's Play Learning and Development at college and dreams of a career as a nursery nurse.

Hannah, who performs in concerts locally, said: "Children don't judge disabilities so that's why I love working with them so much and singing has really helped with my recovery. I can't change who I am so there is no point letting it stop me. When I am singing or with children, I can just be me."

For more information go to www.prosopagnosiaresearch.org