New year, old stereotypes

Happy New Year everyone – and I’d like to start on an upbeat note … but sadly not.

‘The Undateables’ returns to Channel 4 for a new series on Monday night.

For the last four years, this series has brought together people who have medical conditions, disabilities and disfigurements with others with similar conditions (and in some cases no conditions) in an attempt to find love.

undateables

And the good news is that there have been some notable successes, such as Brent and Challis, and our very own Steve and Vicky, whose wedding we’ll see in the new series. Sadly, however, the directors have made no attempt to correct the impression that people who look unusual don’t have love affairs – of course they do! And without the need for a TV show!

But like many programmes from the production company ‘Betty’, my biggest issue is with the show’s title.

As Changing Faces said before the first series back in 2012, the title ‘has the potential to cause unnecessary offence, to perpetuate stigma and encourage abuse or harassment of people with facial disfigurements and disabilities’.

Last summer, the issue was raised at the British Medical Association conference, when doctors accused the programme of exploitation; earlier, the UK Disabled People’s Council said the programme ‘posed a threat to the rights of disabled people under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’, and said it was ‘unwatchable’. Jessica Middleton provides an insightful analysis of the title in this blog on The Badger.

Clearly, however, the fact that the programme won a BAFTA nomination, high ratings and lots of social media noise indicates that it’s anything but unwatchable. But if you care to look at the social conversations taking place, many of them follow the line: “I hate the title, but love the show”.

One of the most troubling effects of the show’s title is the suggestion that people who have a disability or disfigurement are outsiders, people you wouldn’t expect to find on Tinder, or meet in a bar, or at a speed dating night. Other dating programmes perpetuate the stereotype.

I’m no fan of ‘Take Me Out’ – it’s rather vulgar in my opinion – but why has it never featured someone with a disfigurement amongst the 15 female contestants in each show? I’m sure some ‘Take Me Out’ fans will remind me of Tony, the man who lost a leg in a football accident, who appeared on the show. But he was the sole male contestant – choosing from fifteen female contestants. Hardly a balanced position.

Slightly better is the other Channel 4 hit, ‘First Dates’. In the last series we met Chuks, who was born with short arms. And in the new series – beginning later in January – we’ll see Arunima, who’s a wheelchair user. And so whilst we can – gently – applaud ‘Take Me Out’ and ‘First Dates’ for having some representation of disability, neither have ever shown someone with a facial disfigurement.

Is that because a facial disfigurement is just too undateable? Could it be that four years of perpetuating the myth of someone with a facial disfigurement being unlucky in love has pushed this form of physical difference beyond the pale?

Proof of the negative way that the title has played out comes in a number of forms. TimeOut magazine has an ‘undateables’ column in their New York and some other editions. Instagram and other social media channels are full of people, mainly teenage girls, complaining that they are ‘undateable’ on account of their looks. Even Battersea Dogs Home now use the word to describe hard-to-rehome pets, animals that the Dogs Trust have called ‘sticky dogs’ for a number of years.

Last spring, on the Changing Faces Facebook page, we invited our supporters to submit photos of their wedding day. It quickly became our most popular Facebook post ever, demonstrating that people who look different don’t love any different. Indeed, our recent supporter survey found that more than two thirds of our supporters are either married or living with a partner. Only around one in five said they were single.

And if you’re wondering: I’ve just spent a wonderful family Christmas which included celebrating the wedding of our third ‘child’.

Changing Faces publishes guidelines for broadcasters on the importance of the language they choose to use – and that includes in their titles. They align with our guidelines for journalists, with which we regularly challenge newspapers – sometimes with some success.

In my view, it’s not good enough to say, “Oh, it’s just a title, the programme is good once you watch it”. Three million people may do that. But what about the attitudes of the rest of the population? Still shaped by such worn-out stereotyping, I’m afraid.

Rightly in 2016, we wouldn’t tolerate a show about women looking for love called ‘Lesser Sex’, nor one about lesbian, gay or bisexual people called ‘Queer Love’. For me, ‘The Undateables’ is just as offensive, and until production companies and broadcasters can be responsible with their show’s titles, we’ll remain a depressingly long way from achieving face equality, eight years on from the launch of our campaign for it.

Let’s make 2016 a year to throw out these titles once and for all!

Advertisements

Research is definitely a crucial part of a better future but let’s not forget the present

Two big stories breaking in the media today are attracting my attention – a nice change from yesterday’s need to challenge another tiresome TV series title.

First, overnight news comes in of another incredible face transplant operation, this time on a man in the States, Richard Lee Norris, who had been injured 15 years ago in a shooting accident. The photographs released show the brilliance of today’s surgeons but they also remind me of an Italian man I was in hospital with back in the 70s who had to endure many brilliant conventional operations to repair a similar injury.

And almost simultaneously, news of a new major research programme into the causes and impact of cleft lip and palate. To quote the press release of The Cleft Collective: “cleft is one of the most common congenital abnormalities in the world, affecting 1,200 children born in the UK every year – but little is known about its causes, with opinion divided on best treatments.

So, in case anyone is in any doubt of my position (and Changing Faces’), let me say it again: medical science has a huge part to play in making a better future for people whose faces look unusual for any reason. Gaining the funding to do this, as The Healing Foundation and the Universities concerned have done for the cleft programme, is vital – congratulations and thanks to them…

Just as important for the future too is that conventional well-proven surgical and medical interventions are available and that includes skin camouflage which Changing Faces is now offering directly or in NHS clinics.

All of these options should be available to patients wherever they live – which is sadly certainly not the case in many many parts of the world. Much more advocacy is needed…

But there is something vital missing in this recipe because even if the transplantation research is successful, it will only be for a very few patients worldwide each year. Thousands, millions, will continue to have to live with their condition – their disfigurement – their birthmark, facial paralysis, their asymmetry, for the rest of their lives. And this is difficult.

All of them should have access to what could be described as ‘disfigurement life-skills training’ – a process by which patients (and their families) are helped to adjust to looking unusual in a world that prizes good looks so much and stigmatises not-such-good looks.

What has shocked me about Richard Norris’s story is the revelation that he spent 15 years living as a recluse. This should never happen to anyone. Sadly we hear every week that it does to far too many people… with a Bell’s Palsy or after cancer surgery or after burns or….

Frustratingly, Mr Norris and many others have not had access to the sort of empowerment that Changing Faces specialises in and advocates for – and is now available in some places. In particular, we know how crucial it is to people of all ages who have unusual looks to develop effective communication skills to manage all sorts of everyday social interactions. Going shopping, using public transport, meeting strangers, being in the playground – all these and many other everyday occurrences which most people take for granted can become nightmare scenarios. Here’s a pointer to the sort of help I have in mind.

Richard Norris’s remarkable surgery will make him less conspicuous in his everyday moments – let’s hope he finds the confidence to thrive in them too in the future.