COVID-19: How to video-call if you have a visible difference

Learning how to video-call during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic can present particular challenges for people with a visible difference.

Video-calling can be a great way of staying connected but it can be challenging too, especially if you have a visible difference or disfigurement.

As we all use video-calling for our work and social lives during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important you know how to overcome the challenges it can pose if you live with a visible difference.

On this page, we share some suggestions on how to video-call with less anxiety and worry if you have a condition, mark or scar that affects your appearance.

It may be helpful for you if you are:

  • Somebody with a mark, scar or condition affecting your appearance (visible difference).
  • The parent/guardian, teacher, youth worker or employer of somebody with a visible difference.

What are the challenges?

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a big surge in the use of video-calling and we have all become familiar with software such as Zoom, Teams, FaceTime, Houseparty and Skype. Learning how to video-call is a journey most of us have had to take as we have got to grips with working and socialising remotely during the pandemic. Our whole lives moved online for a while – and it is likely we will all rely on these methods of contact more for the foreseeable future.

This can be a great way to stay connected but there are many reasons you may find video-calling challenging – especially if you have a visible difference. If you do, you’re not alone. From what we hear from our community, video-calling can raise particular challenges or anxieties for those with a visible difference. Knowing how to manage video-calls successfully when you have a visible difference can help you make the most of this technology for work and social life.

Why do I feel more anxious on video camera?

The “mirror effect”

One strange side-effect of video-calling is the ability to see your image on-screen – creating a constant sense of “holding a mirror up to yourself”. This can feel especially disconcerting and distracting if you have a visible difference as you may feel very self-conscious or as though certain features or aspects are being highlighted.

You might find yourself frequently drawn to look at your reflection and you may feel worried, self-conscious or preoccupied about the way you look.

You may find that you spend more time checking your own appearance than looking at anybody else – and you wouldn’t be alone! In one survey, six in 10 people said they felt more self-conscious on camera than in real life and 30% said they spent more than half of their video-call time looking at their own face.

“Help! I feel like I’m having to perform”

You may feel much more self-conscious and shy – both about your appearance and the limitations of how you can express yourself on a video-call. This might cause you to feel very anxious and you may try to find ways to compensate, in ways that can feel unnatural – like nodding or smiling a lot more that you normally would.

You may feel that you can’t break eye-contact, as you would naturally in a face-to-face interaction, in case this is seen as a lack of interest. It takes a lot of concentration and energy to ensure people know you’re paying attention. It can be exhausting – this is sometimes called “Zoom fatigue”. It may make you feel robotic, “on show” or like you are performing or not being “you”.

Connectivity issues and body language

We rely on body language and tone of voice to understand each other – but issues with connectivity, voice distortion, freezing, sound delays and so on can get in the way of this and conversations may feel unnatural or stilted. You may be unsure when it’s your turn to speak, or worry you haven’t been heard, made your point, expressed your interest or been understood. This can be even more challenging if you look different or your face moves in a different way.

Juggling different roles in the same space

Think about the roles you perform and where and when these happen. We may behave differently at work or school, compared with how we are at home, or with family and friends. We all wear different “hats” at different times in different places.

Juggling all these roles from one space – your home – can be hard. At any given time, your living space may be your home office, a makeshift school, the gym and socialising space as well as where you cook, eat and sleep. You may feel on edge, cooped up or stressed at the loss of control. You might find yourself reluctant to do things you normally would because of having to do them online.

The crossover can feel intrusive, as your personal, professional and/or educational worlds become temporarily merged. You may worry that others can overhear you in “work mode” or that people are judging the look of your house, its tidiness or your taste in décor.

So what can I do?

Here are some techniques to help you learn how to video-call with less stress and worry if you have a visible difference.

1. Make your environment calm and comfortable

If possible, try to have separate areas for work or study, socialising and relaxing even if a different part of the same room.

2. Communicate with the people at home

Explain you need the space and ask them not to enter at certain times, so you are not overheard or observed. You could put a sign on the door when you are on a call, so you are not disturbed.

3. Try different lighting, positions and backdrops

Play around with different lighting, positions and backdrops and see how they make you feel. Lots of people find natural light that shines evenly on their face to be flattering. You may prefer to be lit from a certain angle – experiment and see what makes you feel the most confident and relaxed.

4. Hide your video window

If you’re finding yourself distracted by checking your appearance, you might like to stay on camera but hide your window from view – most video-conferencing software has this option.

5. Turn your camera off

There may be times when it does not feel comfortable to have your camera on. We all feel like this at times and others on the video-call should be supportive of that decision. You may wish to raise this with your employer or friends to explain. There may be other reasons such as having your children or partner around, your wifi being too slow to sustain video, wanting to concentrate on looking at something or because you are taking notes.

6. Have a phone call instead

Take a break from video and have a phone call instead.

7. Take regular breaks

Allow yourself breaks between video-calls – when scheduling them, leave some time in between to relax, make a cuppa, take a small walk or stretch a little.

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