Friday, 20 March 2015

How to talk about disfigurement in the media

Changing Faces is the UK’s leading charity
for people and families who are living with conditions, marks or scars that affect the appearance of their face or body – we use ‘disfigurement’ as a collective term for all those conditions. We are working towards Face Equality, where everyone is treated fairly and equally, regardless of their appearance. 

I was flattered to receive an email from Dr James Partridge OBE, the Chief Executive of  Changing Faces - not least because it assumes that I am part of 'the media', and not just a rather sad blogger with more time than intelligence. 

The email came with a link to a very useful guide for thinking about how The media has a vital role to play in helping us to combat prejudice and discrimination: at the risk of high-jacking their ideas, I'd like to reprint their suggestions here.

FACT should be favoured over sensationalism. Use ‘burns survivor’ (not victim) or ‘a person with a cranio-facial condition’ or ‘a Bell’s palsy’. 

APPEARANCE should only be mentioned if it’s relevant. If you wouldn't refer to someone’s race, why would you mention their face? 

This has come up a few times, lately: how appropriate is it to use certain adjectives to describe someone? I agonised over my review of Dundee Rep's Blood Wedding (it had a deaf actor, and used what I think is 'colour-blind' casting), before deciding to ignore the casting completely. 

This ties in with the habit within criticism of mentioning the attractiveness of female performers... 

CORRECTION shouldn't be the focus. Don’t assume a scar or visible difference is something that needs fixing or removing via surgery. 

EVIL behaviour is commonly linked with scarring. Don’t use a scar or condition as a short-hand to portray someone as a villain, bad or ‘dodgy’. Scars are caused by accident and medical treatments; they can happen to anyone. People should be defined by actions, not appearance. 

Right, yes, exactly. Think about Dr Doom: he wears that big old mask because he is scarred and cannot bear to be seen as 'ugly'. While I might give Stan Lee a pass on this one - it was the 1960s, and von Doom's behaviour is not always evil - I see this as laziness on the part of writers. 

EQUALITY isn’t just an idea, it’s the law. ‘Different’ doesn't mean ‘ugly’: every face is different and they’re all equal. The Equality Act 2010 established legal protection for people with ‘severe disfigurement’, and responsible journalism reflects this. 

I am not sure that I want to be a 'responsible journalist': I don't want to be insulting, though. As for ugly - I am not one to talk about such matters. Have you seen the state of me?

QUESTION the use of terms such as ‘brave’ or ‘heroic’. Being heroic is a choice; having a visible difference isn't. Can you justify the adjective? 

This reminds me of Mr Robert Softley. He did a show called Tell Me What Giving Up Looks Like... which was his way of questioning the assumptions about disability. I think I always say this - I do think he is a 'brave' performer, but because he is relentless in his critique of easy thinking and doesn't spare his own blushes. Nothing to do with 'visible difference'. 

USING phrases such as ‘hideously scarred’ is offensive and suggests scars have made that person hideous: they have not. Scars are a fact of life, they may tell a story and be more or less visible, but that is all they are. 

AVOID ‘horrible’, ‘horrific’ or ‘bad’ to describe the extent of injuries. Use neutral terms: ‘severe’ is a perfectly good non-judgmental description. 

LET disfigurement be part of everyday life and report it accurately. It doesn't need to be a barrier to friends, relationships or a career, but poor reporting can perpetuate these assumptions. 

INDIVIDUALS may have a disfigurement, but it’s not WHO they are. Use ‘a woman with a disfigurement/scar/condition’ rather than ‘a disfigured woman’. Ask the subject of your story how they’d like to refer to it, and use their language. 

Forgive me for just joining in on a good idea, but this goes for everyone. I am realising that using an adjective before a noun (that is, sexy lady, ugly critic, stupid Vile) is an act of objectification. 

TREAT headlines and titles with the same care as other text; don’t default to offensive words like ‘Elephant man’, victim or ‘body shock’. 

YOU can’t be an expert on everything, so don’t hesitate to contact us if you think we can help!

I think the last one is very evident in my case. 

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