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Page last updated at 09:38 GMT, Friday, 12 September 2008 10:38 UK

How should you react to disfigurement?

Alison Rich

The appeal by Alison Rich, carried in the Magazine earlier this week, for people not to stare at her facial disfigurement, prompted many readers to ask how they should react in her presence. It's not as awkward a question as you might think, explains James Partridge, of the charity Changing Faces.

There are no hard and fast rules in any social situation. We all know from everyday experience that everyone reacts differently to different situations, even according to their mood on the day but this advice will, I hope, help.

The first issue is, naturally, staring. Over the course of a week most people get a couple of double or triple "takes" but it is important to realise that for people with a disfigurement it's a case of this happening many, many times each day. Like Alison, most people who live with a disfigurement will gradually learn not to give these glances a second thought. But experiencing this for the first time, if you have a disfigurement or you are a parent, friend or potential partner, as the BBC's reporter Dan Bell did when he shadowed Alison Rich, can be shocking.

"I do feel for Alison… however, what exactly is the ideal response to seeing someone who does look so different?"
Amy, Manchester UK
"What are the general public supposed to do? I glance at people all of the time, no matter what their face looks like"
Suzanne, Norwich
"To stare is rude, to look away in embarrassment is wrong, no wonder people take sideways glances, but this too is criticised. So what is the 'correct' reaction?"
Bruce R, North Wales

Looking at someone who looks different may be natural but we encourage people to think about what it would be like to be looked at all the time. So if you realise you are staring, try a bit of eye contact and maybe a smile to acknowledge a fellow human being.

What about if you have to speak to someone new who has a disfigurement, how should you react? Where should you look? Look them in the eye, but gently. If you find this hard at first then look at the bridge of their nose, it has the same effect. Shake their hand if appropriate, smile, nod your head in acknowledgement of their presence. Be sensitive to their cues - do they radiate confidence, fragility or sadness, are they in a hurry?

What should you say? How about "Hello." Sometimes it's a simple as that, talk about the weather, the price of petrol, how crowded the train is - as you would with anyone else. If you know the person and they have recently acquired a disfigurement, you could say that you're sorry they've been unwell or had an accident and ask them how they are.

Wondering what happened? Don't make it the first thing you ask someone. Many people are happy to tell you, but wait until you know them better or until they tell you themselves. If you really can't help yourself, say something like: "Do you mind if I ask what happened?" Be prepared that they may choose not to reply.

Try eye contact and maybe a smile
Look them in the eye, gently
Or at the bridge of their nose
Be sensitive to their cues
Don't immediately asked 'what happened?'

In our Face Equality campaign we are asking people to check the automatic assumptions that they make about a person's life on the basis of their appearance.

A public attitudes survey we commissioned earlier in the year found that nine out of 10 people were unaware that they had implicit negative attitudes to people with facial disfigurements. Our aim is increase this awareness and to reduce the prejudice and discrimination that presently exists.

For more information on our Face Equality campaign and to find out more about our work, see the Changing Faces website [link, above, right].

Finally, show your support for our campaign by "lending your face" along with Joanna Lumley, Jonathan Ross and Barbara Windsor. All the uploaded pictures will make a massive face collage that we intend to project on to a major London landmark.

James Partridge is chief executive of Changing Faces.

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