“Oh, look,” I deadpan as I read the latest message from someone letting me know that they saw my photo on TikTok being shared in a hurtful way. “Surprise, surprise!”
I joke because I’m definitely not surprised. As a disabled woman, people ridiculing and mocking my appearance is practically the most predictable thing about social media.
I was born with Freeman-Sheldon syndrome, a genetic bone and muscular disorder, and I’m also a freelance writer and disability activist, which means that part of my job is being very active and visible on social media. And because I look different, people have called me everything from “disgusting” to “a blobfish” to saying that I should be banned from posting photos of myself because I’m too ugly.
I’d thought I’d seen it all. But a few weeks ago, I discovered it was happening again on TikTok through something called the New Teacher Challenge. It’s the latest viral trend in which parents show their children photos of disabled people, who they say is their child’s new teacher. The kids' reactions — typically frightened and embarrassed — is filmed, of course. And it’s all done for a laugh.
I’m not laughing, though, because none of this is funny. I’m utterly disgusted.
When motivational speaker and author Lizzie Velasquez recently discovered that her photo was being used by a mom who filmed her son’s terrified reaction, she took to her Instagram to condemn the trend and call on parents to set a better example for their children.
“TikTok, I need your help,” she explained. “If you are an adult who has a young human in your life, please do not teach them that being scared of someone who doesn't look like them is okay. Please. Everything that these kids need to know about empathy and being kind to one another starts at home.”
Adults who actually think this is okay, and worse...even funny, should know better. There’s absolutely no excuse. They should be the ones teaching their children how harmful and hurtful these pranks are, not laughing in the background as their child recoils at the sight of a disabled person. We live in a society where people who look “different” are seen as ugly and grotesque; those messages start being taught at a young age. Think about how many Disney villains have some sort of deformity.
I can’t help but feel sorry for their children. Imagine your mom filming a vulnerable moment, one where you can't help but burst into tears, and they actually post it for the whole world to see. How is humiliating your child, or watching other children go through that, a source of amusement?
The TikTok prank has only reinforced how important disability representation is, especially given the fact that 61 million adults in the United States live with a disability — that’s one in four. Beyond that, we need to normalize seeing people who don’t look like us or our family members. We need to teach the next generation that our differences should be celebrated, not feared or mocked.
“We need to stop acting like a face that is different is inherently bad or scary, or something worthy of a ridiculous and cruel TikTok trend,” says writer Ariel Henley, who was born with Crouzon syndrome, and no stranger to cruel words being lobbed her way online. “I dream of the day when a face like mine is so normal it’s a non-issue.”
So far, TikTok hasn’t done much to combat this online hate. When people report accounts that have been using my photos in this challenge, they’ve received statements that TikTok has found no violation of the platform’s rules. It’s not just there. When I’ve reported Twitter accounts for posting photos of a blobfish to bully me, more often than not, Twitter says it doesn’t violate any rules either.
I want to be clear: I am violated. Every single time. Each photo, taunt, and cruel word is a clear violation of my dignity and my worth as a human being. And every time these platforms fail to take action, they’re sending the message that this bullying is okay. So many disabled people have become inured to our appearance being mocked. That’s not something we should ever have to get used to.
One of my favorite disability activists is Carly Findlay, an Australian writer who was born with a rare severe skin condition that causes a facial difference. She regularly fights back against people who mock her appearance online. After Reddit linked to her blog in 2013 and a flood of hateful comments ensued, she took her power back by actually responding to the post by educating people about her facial difference.
“This turned the responses from disgusted and hateful to more empathetic,” she said. “My confidence soared.”
Findlay wants to see a future where young people grow up being “accepting and inclusive and never fearful.” This hope for a brighter, less ableist future is the reason I continue to be so visible and vocal on social media.
Disabled writer Karin Hitselberger also routinely posts selfies on social media in an attempt to normalize disabilities, which are a “beautiful part of the natural diversity of our world.”
“The trend teaches people that disabled people are something to be afraid of,” she says. “Trends like this one perpetuate the narrative that we are less than human.”
Disabled people aren’t here for your ridicule. We’re not punchlines. We’re people. It’s my hope that more people (and platforms, too — TikTok, I’m also looking at you) join us in this fight. We need you all. Disabled or not.