Every year, over 540,000 people in the UK are estimated to acquire a disfiguring condition to their face, hands or body – from birth.

A false dilemma: To whom shall we give a special award?

Face equality means equal expectations and equal respect, no soft option because you feel sorry for the child whose unusual appearance makes them vulnerable to teasing, name-calling, bullying or ostracism.

Negative responses to visible difference go hand in hand with the widespread  tendency to seek to make disfigurement okay by finding a higher meaning, ‘something special’, something redeeming perhaps, in the lives of people who have to bear the visible stigma of disfigurement.

For example, we see this at the end of RJ Palacio’s Wonder. Auggie starts school late due to all his surgeries for a facially disfiguring condition he’s had since birth. His first year at school brings challenges and some tough times.

He makes some good friends and has plenty of fun too. But does he need to be sanctified and held up as someone who helps other people to be better, as when he wins the Henry Ward Beecher medal for the student whose quiet strength has carried up the most hearts?

This is an approach which people use instead of actually responding with respect and equality to anyone whose disfigurement or whose visible disability may give us an anxious jolt the first time we encounter them. It’s as if we’re trying to compensate them for some other disrespect or unfairness, instead of making it our job to work on the disrespect or unfairness itself.

But the repair work this calls for is face equality, respect, our pulling ourselves together so that we can just treat each person respectfully, fairly. For most people who have a disfiguring injury, condition or illness, the ‘special need’ is ours – to make a special effort to respond to and engage with them in an ordinary, fair, respectful way, if we are meeting them through our work or in a leisure setting.

Or, if we are just a passer by in an anonymous public setting, ours is the effort to afford them the ‘civil inattention’ which strangers generally give each other in public spaces.

Q. If a teacher believes that he or she is acting in the best interests of a pupil, can he or she nevertheless be held to have discriminated?

A. The UK’s Equality Act (2010) establishes in law that discrimination does not require there to have been any specific intention on the part of the discriminator: as long as the treatment is (in the case of direct discrimination) because of the protected characteristic, then it will be discrimination, regardless of intention. This is why it is important for there to be training on equality and on the provisions of the Act for all those with pupil contact.

Building a fair and inclusive society depends upon our not doing things to single anyone out as ‘special’ for a personal attribute such as a severe disfigurement. Such personal attributes are so widely viewed negatively that their holders are often put at a disadvantage – in education, in employment, on the bus, in the leisure centre, and in the queue at the supermarket.

At school in the novel Wonder, at the end of his first year at school, Auggie actually needs to win the prize for being the most improved baseball player. RJ Palacio herself has acknowledged that this is the criticism most often levelled at the book. Yes, in the book, the award might have lifted Auggie and his parents but this is an adult opinion of how such an award would be received.

“Something similar happened to me as an eleven year old when the headmistress at my last speech day announced a ‘special’ award for someone who has been so determined in the face of adversity.  When she called out my name, my cheeks burned, I was so embarrassed. 

I wanted to win the award for French or swimming – like all the other kids – not to be singled out for the way I coped with my condition.  As I walked up I knew that those kids who were clapping still wouldn’t play with me in the playground the next day or ask me to pair up with them on an outing.