Few people bother to sit next to me whenever I get the bus. It’s something I was always conscious of. Sure, people who know me might sit down and chat to me, but as someone who used to frequent buses down the years, I found it a bit annoying.
As we lived in the city centre, or were close enough to walk, I never had a reason to take the bus. But back in 1965 we changed house and moved to the suburbs, meaning that for a few months I needed to bus into school. That’s when it dawned on me that I was different. No one – and I mean no one – would venture close to me no matter how crowded the bus.
Fortunately, I went to a secondary school close to our new home, so my only reason to bus into town would be to shop or visit the cinema. As soon as I boarded the bus people would start staring. I noticed and tried to pretend it didn’t upset me, but it did. I was hurt each time, and couldn’t wait to find a seat quickly. I dreaded getting on when the bus was crowded, feeling eyes reacting to the sight of my face. It troubled me, made me self-conscious and sometimes afraid. I just wanted to get the bus to drive as fast as it could to my destination.
One of the mannerisms I adopted to ‘hide’ my face away from public view was to place my elbow on the window and bury my chin in my hand. I hoped that when passengers got on or off at each stop they might not notice me. I dreaded those bus trips and it wasn’t just because of the staring.
I must have been around 15 when other teenagers began to talk about my face if they were seated behind me. My face would flush and my anguish grow. I knew there was no point in trying to defend myself or take on these louts – you’re always a loser if you react. So I kept my mouth shut and gritted my teeth. I also prayed they might get off at the next stop, but usually I was stuck with them for a while. Of course this didn’t always happen. They might pass me on the way to their seats and do a double take when they saw my face, in which case some might nudge each other and nod or point to their pals and they’d sit close to get a better look. A couple of times one of them might sit opposite me and chat to his buddies several rows back, all the while keeping an eye on me. I was too intimidated, too frightened to respond.
By the time I reached my twenties, and not having a car, I’d usually walk to town or work, all the better to avoid confrontation, because by this stage I was no longer prepared to put up with the harassment. At least that’s what I told myself, but in truth I was too scared to risk an incident. I kept well away from trouble if I could avoid it.
As the years rolled by I met my wife Trish and our kids came along over the next few years. Being a night worker meant I drove to work, so buses were not a concern. But come the year 2000 I found myself back on day work, and pretty soon it became impractical to run two cars, so there was nothing for it but to start on the buses again.
By this stage I was more confident about my face, and less troubled about how people might react. And yet, I noticed people were deliberately avoiding me. Very rarely would anyone sit next to me unless they knew me. If the bus was crowded when I got on, you could almost sense the discomfort of girls in particular if I sat beside them. Maybe they took their cue from watching too many horror films where the villain is often the guy with a scarred face. Fortunately, I was more comfortable about myself and after a while I hardly noticed people’s reservations or even the staring or startled looks. I’d either read the paper or stare out the window.
I was reminded of my bus experiences a few months back watching The Ugly Face of Disability Hate Crime when presenter Adam Pearson talked about the issue as a camera recorded people avoiding him on the bus. It’s a problem many people with facial disfigurement encounter and struggle to cope with. It is also a contributory factor in them feeling socially isolated. Why do people behave this way? Why are we not more inclusive?
You can make a difference. The next time you see someone on the bus who looks different don’t be afraid to sit next to them. They have feelings just like you and deserve to be respected. It starts with you.