I was introduced to a bunch of young people recently. They were friends of one of our companions, and we met while walking down a busy street.
They spotted my face (yes, that’s an odd looking chin), and some of them reacted like rabbits caught in headlights – their eyes opened so wide I thought they would pop out. They engaged us in conversation and I pretended not to notice, but what their reaction said was, “Oh my God, I better act cool here even if I can’t quite take in what I’m seeing.”
My wife happened to be there, and funnily enough while I didn’t say anything, she actually mentioned the incident a few days later.
It’s not unusual to be surprised when you meet someone with a facial disfigurement for the first time, although most people are quite good at disguising their surprise and moving on. Some react negatively and with some hostility, staring intently, hurling abusing, laughing at you. Not very pleasant and very disturbing for those of us who may lack the confidence and courage to accept such setbacks.
We are used to checking people out as we go about our lives, and the way we do it when we meet strangers in the street, work or business is to process their faces. Which is why some people are ‘startled’ when they first meet us, because they can’t quite analyse what they are seeing and how they should react: their eyes widen in surprise and they talk as if nothing has happened, yet their eyes tell us the opposite.
That reaction is something I have gotten used to down the years. It is what I have come to accept as part of the price of being visible whenever I step outside my home, take a bus or go on holidays. Frankly, it doesn’t bother me, but like the staring, etc., it can annoy my companions. Imagine, though, how it affects more vulnerable facially disfigured people who are struggling to cope. Making that effort to step outside their homes is enough of an ordeal without coming across these ‘startled’ folk.
One burns survivor I know is so concerned about how people view her that she doesn’t even go shopping, but has a friend who does it for her. She loves walking, but only goes to the local park when it gets dark lest she suffers the unkindness of strangers. Her boss is less than understanding and she has retreated into her own world. She doesn’t socialise anymore and has dropped most of her friends. That’s not a healthy situation as I know all to well from personal experience.
So how do we stop those ‘startled’ looks? The visibility of the facially disfigured is helping, not just in newspapers but also on television. Education is also crucial. We need to explain that facial difference is fine and should be accepted. It should start in schools, and the media also has a role to play. We must stop portraying the disfigured as villains in films and television. It won’t quite eliminate the problem, but it will certainly reduce it.