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Rekha’s story: “I will always challenge prejudice when I see it”

Throughout her life, Rekha has challenged discriminatory attitudes so that people with visible differences can feel valued and respected.

My name is Rekha. I was born with a cleft lip and palate and hemifacial microsomia – the microsomia meaning one side of my face is underdeveloped. Life has been tough and, as the years pass by, life feels more difficult.

My first memory of school is a sense of wanting to belong. I wanted other kids to play with me, yet no one did. I often spent playtimes and lunchtimes holding the dinner lady’s hand. That was until I became exasperated and pulled the pigtail of the girl in front of me in the dinner queue and asked (demanded is probably more accurate), “Will you please just be my friend?” She said, “Okay.”

35 years later, Suki and I remain friends. Mandy joined the party some years later, and the rest is history (thank you Suki and Mandy, and I’m sorry!). Despite not being in the same class, knowing I had friends gave me confidence throughout infants and primary school.

Secondary school was very difficult. The bullying was dreadful. New levels of cruelty meant my sense of self would never be the same. I still struggle to feel “enough”. However, as an adult, I am able to challenge these feelings by rationalising my unreasonable thoughts. I take comfort in assisting those around me by helping friends, developing junior members of the team at work, and looking after my little dog. He’s a content little boy who absolutely loves life! I look at him and I know I have done something right. All of this helps me build confidence in myself.

I had a long-term relationship during my 20s, which ended due to cultural differences. When I was with this person, I felt “normal”. He made me feel like the only woman on earth. There was a shift from being bullied to being treated like someone who mattered. Our time together helped me learn my self-worth and the standards I require from a partner in any future relationship. I no longer feel sad at being single but rather celebrate that I will never compromise who I am for anyone.

Having a visible difference in the South Asian community adds an additional and unnecessary layer of complexity. In a culture where appearance is everything, my visible difference resulted in me being regularly judged and pitied. My mum was often asked if I had learning difficulties, or if she received disability benefits. These comments would infuriate my mum, and she always sought to educate those around her.

Fortunately, I have always been incredibly stubborn and questioned everything in life! I would challenge people’s comments, which was often construed as me being rude. This could not be further from the truth.

My questions flowed from a desire to educate people about harmful attitudes so that other people with visible differences would not have to face similar remarks. I will always challenge prejudice when I see it.

Whilst not exclusive to the South Asian community at all, I have decided not to belong to societies in which human beings are categorised based on appearance, gender or sexuality. I am drawn to people who are down to earth and whose moral compasses are aligned with my own.

To this day, I still deal with stares and comments. How I choose to deal with them depends on the individual in front of me. If it is a child or someone who is intrigued, I seek to educate. If it is a “serial starer”, I go right up to them and ask where they’d prefer me to stand, so they can have a proper look!

Rekha’s friendships helped her build her self-confidence

Whilst it took longer to qualify as a solicitor, my career has given me so much. Friends for life, camaraderie and, crucially, a sense of belonging and purpose.

At primary school, I was told I would never have a professional career. Today, I am proud to say that I enjoy a busy practice as a solicitor.

I must thank those who have supported me along the way – particularly David, Neena, and Sue for providing me with opportunities and sharing all they knew with me. In return, I soaked up all they had to offer and more!

I am known for placing my work life on hold to allow time for surgery and recovery, as I never wanted to disrupt my colleagues or create issues for my clients. I would often delay seeking new opportunities until there was a window where my life was more settled.

That was until 2023 when I joined Kennedys knowing that I would be undergoing major surgery five months later. It was a massive leap of faith, and I was welcomed with open arms. I was hugely supported by two senior partners who did so much to help me settle into my role. They were always very reassuring in discussions about my treatment and made sure I was kept fully up to date whilst I was off work.

The surgery was incredibly tough, and I developed permanent facial paralysis as a result. I still find this very difficult, and the additional stares make my heart sink. I find myself (once again) trying to find peace amidst the turmoil.

Thankfully, my employer has been in my corner through all these challenges. Kennedys have supported me to work from home, so I can process what’s happened in a safe space while being able to work with my clients as usual. They are a wonderful employer, who demonstrate equality in the true sense. I am also very fortunate to have made good friends in my incredible colleagues, Danny and Nathan. To say thank you will never be enough.

The change I would like to see for the visible difference community is acceptance. I would love a world where labels such as “visible difference” were not required because everyone is embraced as their true authentic selves.

In a world where there is a heavy focus on aesthetics, living with a visible difference will result in additional challenges, but there is no hurdle that is insurmountable. As I say to a dear colleague and close friend, ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff.’ Always focus on areas where you can shine!

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