We know that the bullying of children with unusual appearances is all too common

Language matters: notes for teachers when writing or talking about appearance and difference

People with conditions, injuries and illnesses that affect the way they look often face discrimination at school, at work, and in other areas of their lives.

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.

education_info_mainAre 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. Rather than a more generic term, many people prefer to use 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.

However, “disfigurement” is the succinct generic term, widely understood by the general public, and enshrined in British law as a ‘protected characteristic’ in the Equality Act 2010. This Act protects people with “severe disfigurement” from discrimination and disadvantage, whether intentional or inadvertent, in school, at work, and in many other social contexts.