A question of representation

 One of my big goals for 2010 – but it may take the whole decade! – is to do all I can to enable more people with unusual-looking faces to be into the public eye – are any standing in the forthcoming election, I wonder?

Last Monday, I was invited to speak at a Central Government Department conference looking at how it could broaden the diversity of people applying for and being selected to serve on the (many) non-departmental or arm’s length public bodies – quangos in old language. Speakers spent little time explaining the benefits of having a broad representation of people from many ethnic backgrounds, those with disabilities and disfigurements and whatever their age, faith or sexual orientation on those committees – it is so obvious. Instead the focus was on how to attract more people to apply – the percentage of people with disabilities applying was very low indeed. 

After giving my short input on how to reach disabled people (eg: advertise in the right places, use neutral language, make sure the application process is barrier-free and your interviewers are devoid of bias, unconscious bias especially), I had to leave. As I cycled off to my next meeting, I found myself wondering what it takes to put yourself forward, especially if you have a disability or disfigurement, for ‘public service’.

Is it the heavy dose of “once tried, never again?” syndrome? If you have had previous experience of being rejected (perhaps rather unpleasantly) for formal jobs and may not much relish being interviewed – as I suspect is the case with many people with disfigurements and disabilities – why would you put yourself through it? 

But there is a very strong case for public bodies to exist, advising or making decisions that should not be left to politicians or civil servants so we all have an interest in them being as effective and representative as possible – as many voices should be heard as possible. Maybe we need a TV soap to demystify ‘public bodies’ by developing as character who applies and serves – and another one who volunteers for charity work or to serve as a Trustee, both vital to the health of our civic society.

 Later in the week I met up with the Chair of one of the selection bodies for people applying for public office and we agreed to explore how Changing Faces might encourage greater representation – watch this space!

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2 thoughts on “A question of representation

  1. Dear James,
    I am greatly looking forward to hearing you talk at the Odonto talk on 11/3 in Edinburgh. I have to admit I don’t usually take the time to look up and find out a little about the speakers.
    You “looked” interesting! I’m sure we won’t be disappointed by your talk.

  2. I think one of the reasons why so many people with disfigurements and disabilities don’t apply to serve on public bodies is that the stigma around difference and disability is still so powerful that even we find ourselves believing in it – we assume that the ‘mainstream’ world will reject us because of previous bad experiences, or we secretly feel that we might be as inferior as people often imply we are. Instead, we should be concentrating on our strengths and our skills, many of which we have had to develop because of having to learn to navigate our way in a world that often deems us as ‘abnormal’ or ‘socially inferior’. For example, I am often complimented on the fact that I have a nice speaking voice. But my ‘nice’ speaking voice is something that I consciously started to develop as a teenager because I found that many people assumed that my appearance meant that I was stupid – hence why I use my voice to show people that I am articulate and thoughtful (or at least, I hope I am!). But it’s a skill that I’ve developed over the years. I’ve also developed the art of appearing very confident when in fact I’m very shy and dread the thought of having to walk into a room full of strangers and speak to them! Again, giving the appearance of confidence is a skill that I have developed and it’s only now, at the age of 30, that I genuinely feel confident and don’t always have to fake it! I’ve met many people with disfigurements and disabilities who have developed similar skills and done so because they’ve had to. We need to encourage more people with disfigurements to apply the skills they have developed to working/volunteering for public bodies – we are a wonderful untapped resource!

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