Face Equality International
IFEW

Advocating to reduce ignorance, and increase protections

Gary Elbert

I am an ultrarunner, martial artist, kickboxer, journalist, vegan athlete and writer passionate about raising awareness for people with visible differences.

On my run today I passed a young blond-haired kid. I waved, smiled, and said hello as I passed, and he responded in kind from the vantage point of his scooter. This was my second time meeting this dude on a run. 

And he is the reason why I am writing this. The kid was born with a cleft lip/and palate just like myself. 

I don’t want any child to endure what I have endured over the years. The psychosocial difficulties, the ignorance, the moronic behaviour, the nastiness, and the psychological consequences. 

No person in the world should be treated poorly based on a quirk of biology. No person in the world should be treated as if they are less than, inferior, or less valuable based on a characteristic they had no hand or part in choosing. 

Yet on it goes, age old processes replicating themselves daily while people throughout the world struggle and endure a battle that should be consigned to the dark ages. 

The kid was born with a cleft just like myself. And I hope he grows to be a strong, proud, and confident little dude capable of getting the very best out of himself. 

For him to do so will require intelligent and warm parenting and a positive, inclusive school and social environment. What would be a further massive additional support would be recognition from the state that people born with or who acquire visible differences need to be specifically recognised, supported, and represented. And this should be multi-dimensional. It should be legislative, it should be social, it should be educational. Raising the awareness of the general society and educating the next generation will make our societies, our school playgrounds, nightlife environments, and our public discourse more inclusive and more aware. 

Dealing with reactions from others

I was walking down the street recently minding my own business. Two people, strangers, were sat at a café table on the path ahead of me as I walked in that direction. Immediately, I recognised something was said because the person with their back to me swivelled and stared then returned when my eyes locked on her. So I maintained eye contact as I walked past, their eyes appeared to glaze over, like they knew they should be quiet, but they really wanted to look. 

I am physically intimidating or, so I have been told. With a deviated septum due to the cleft; tattoos adorn my arm and I train and workout regularly. I often note in my diaries how becoming a martial artist, kickboxer, and ultrarunner was a crucial process in returning the autonomy that was taken away from me without my consent for my formative years and for most of my early adulthood. 

I am physically very robust and one of the many advantages of being so is my conditioning is a deterrence against potential bullies, loudmouths, ignoramuses etc. We live in a world where physical capability is not only a health and wellbeing bonus that provides improved cognitive and emotional functioning, but it also serves as a protective mechanism. 

 

Gary wearing running clothing, standing in a busy street.

Anyone who looks different will be aware that sometimes having such protection can avoid some nasty and disruptive interactions. 

Walking on I was aware that my previous state of contentment and relaxation was disrupted because of this silent but penetrating encounter. I tried to hide my ruptured psychological state from my walking companion who was oblivious. What right did these people have to act this way? What rights do I have? Is this an assault? Is this a crime? I continued about my day repeating a counter narrative I created to respond. 

They scan the external environment looking for others to stare, gawp, mock, and gossip about. The instinct to talk about others rather than discuss ideas, ambitions, hopes, dreams, plans, and projects for the future. 

Don’t let these people affect you any further. 

How to react to ignorance from others

Those of you who navigate your lives looking different and who often feel at the mercy of random ignorance and cruelty in public will be familiar with this, I’m sure. The immediate reaction to public ignorance, the challenges in responding, and the damage it can inflict psychologically and spiritually. 

These moments represent an attempted robbery. It’s an attempt to steal your humanity, your innate biological and neurological complexity, your bravery, strength, courage, and compassion and reduce you to a single component of your being. It’s a process of reductionism common to most human activity. 

It’s important to try flip the switch on this. 

Look around. 

Most people struggle in public settings. Anxiety and social anxiety are at epidemic levels and more so after two years of social isolation during the worst days of the pandemic. 

Negotiating the external world and the psychosocial complexities that ebb and flow from living your life with a clear visible difference does become even more of a challenge. But if you can recognise this fact a pathway can be created and entered whereby you flip the switch. 

You expect ignorance yes, but you’ve dealt with it before. Perhaps you will flap it away like the pesky fly it is and continue your path of living life the way you want to live your life. Refuse to let your difference define you. Because it only does so if you allow the others to do so. 

And you are- most likely- much better than that. 

I think of that little kid and his happy go lucky smile. 

He made me write this tonight. What he needs is more support, protections, and services to copper fasten his future. And there are many more just like him requiring help. 

Thanks to FEI for allowing me the platform to raise my voice and speak my truth. I hope to continue doing so. 

Find more from Gary here @elbertgary1


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