Politicians are to be urged to tackle the prejudice suffered by young people who have a visible facial difference, with teenagers urging MPs to ensure children are taught at school to be more open-minded.
At an event in Parliamentary hosted by the Changing Faces charity on Wednesday, 13-year-old vlogger Nikki Lilly, who has a rare medical condition known as arterial venous malformation, was among those raising awareness of appearance-related bullying.
In her speech, which has been shared with HuffPost UK, Nikki said that while children in her position are “brave”, politicians have to be “braver”.
“We need to re-educate children in schools and tell them our stories, after all you can approach us, we do not bite,” she will say.
“Being discriminated against because of how you look is wrong. I have been called Ugly, Freak, Pathetic, Monster, Hideous and this is often on social media... More often than not in public it’s normally long stares or giggling.
“We are brave but you today have to be braver to bring in laws and champion greater understanding of the needs of the imperfectly perfect and highlight zero tolerance of any prejudice.”
There are 86,000 children in the UK today with a disfigurement, and Changing Faces research shows that almost half of young people with visible differences are bullied about their appearance at school.
Less than a third of young people would be friends with someone with a disfigurement, according to the charity’s survey of seven- to 17-year-olds.
Appearance-related bullying gets worse as young people move to secondary school, it found, with more than six in ten teens experiencing negative or nasty comments.
This was true for another of the charity’s youth ambassadors, 14-year-old Sophie, who has a large red birthmark on her forehead.
“I decided not to cover up my birthmark at secondary school because I wanted to be me,” she explains.
“I got a few comments and stares at first but it was when I was 13 that the problems really started because one boy bullied me quite badly. He would shout things at me and call me ‘iron burn’ when he walked past. It went on for weeks and weeks.”
That is why the charity’s Youth Action Group is calling for a change to PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education), to raise awareness of visible differences among children.
“Discussing these matters in school would give children an insight into the challenges people with visible differences have to face every day,” Sophie told HuffPost UK.
“Hopefully this would make them more aware of how they speak and behave, and remove the stigma that is built up around talking about these issues.”
Sam, 13, adds that greater awareness among a generation of children could mean that people with a visible difference will become more likely to take on public roles.
“It’s important to understand that looking different doesn’t mean we are strange - if there was more awareness maybe there would be less bullying,” he says. “If there was less bullying, we’d feel more confident and maybe we’d see more people with a visible difference on TV or in more public roles.”
Fourteen-year-old Marcus believes schools have a responsibility to help teach children of all ages what is acceptable or not when meeting people who have a facial disfigurement.
“It is not ok to stare, make negative comments, point and laugh,” he explains. “It is ok to ask questions, engage in conversation or even a passing smile. Everyone is entitled to be treated the same, no matter how they look.
“If we can teach all this in schools maybe as we all grow up, society’s views will change - we will be the next generation who hopefully will embrace difference. Everyone will be treated and valued as individuals, regardless of how they look.”