Bullying and facial disfigurement

It’s Anti-Bullying Week in Britain, and while that awareness campaign doesn’t apply to us here in Ireland there are some important points raised by Changing Faces, a charity “for people and families who are living with conditions, marks or scars that affect their appearance”, that are just as applicable here.

As I know from personal experience, those of us with conditions, injuries and illnesses that affect the way we look often face discrimination at school, at work, and in many places we go. It’s hard enough trying to lead a normal life looking the way we do without encountering prejudice and harassment that sap our confidence and inhibit us. And bullying and intimidation are all too often experienced by the facially disfigured. Those of us who may already feel somewhat diminished by the way we look may not be as capable of handling bullying, while others can face it head on.

Bullying is wrong no matter who it is directed at, so highlighting the problem and the effects it has is a good idea. We need to confront the problem, not bury it, and address the causes.

The following is from the Changing Faces website and is targeted at teachers, but is worth reading if you work in the media or interact with the facially disfigured:

Media representations (or mis-representations) significantly influence the way people who look ‘different’ are perceived, and the way their lives are imagined, by others who do not know them yet.

Our language frames the way we think about things. Journalists, advertisers, politicians, script-writers and many others all use words selectively to promote their particular message or to encourage people to see things in a particular way.

The vocabulary we use can either hinder or help a person with a disfigurement.

– Joshua was horribly disfigured in a motor bike accident.
– Joshua was severely disfigured in a motor bike accident.

The second version is factual and non-judgemental – and therefore preferable. Imagine using ‘horrible’ to describe someone’s skin-colour or race. It is offensive. And yet people readily use words like horrific and grotesque when describing someone’s disfigured appearance.

By using words with care, teachers can help reduce negative beliefs about disfigurement, and enable people who look different to feel a part of society rather than apart from it.

Are you sure “disfigurement” is okay?

Not everyone likes the word “disfigurement”. Some people prefer words like “visible difference” or “unusual appearance” when mentioning the way they look. Many people prefer the name of their condition e.g. vitiligo, cleft, Nf, Goldenhar, Moebius, burn scars, eczema…

At Changing Faces we recommend that school staff working with a child whose appearance is disfigured vary the words they used to help the child try out different words in order to find out what words they are most comfortable with.

Changing Faces was founded by James Partridge, who was injured following a road accident. It has an excellent website with lots of practical information and advice on everything from skin camouflage to educating health care professionals in dealing with the disfigured. It also campaigns for face equality, and to change public attitudes towards people with an unusual appearance. It lobbies “for integrated health services; influencing schools and workplaces to create more inclusive environments; and pushing for anti-discrimination protection and enforcement”.

While Changing Faces has several offices and support networks, it also operates, since 2011, in Northern Ireland. If you want information contact Jan Wright, Northern Ireland Officer at 0845 4500 732
or Email: nireland@changingfaces.org.uk

You can also check out the Changing Faces website at: www.changingfaces.org.uk

Unfortunately, there is no specific group/charity working on behalf of the facially disfigured in the Republic, which is a great pity. I am very conscious, from meeting people – both young and old – that there is a need for such a service, and I hope 2015 may bring some good news on that front.

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