Last reviewed: 4 October 2021
- What is a visible difference?
- How does visible difference affect an individual?
- Potential impact on work, customers and visitors
- Legal duties
- Suggested adjustments
- Further information
What is a visible difference?
A visible difference is anything on an individual’s face or body that makes them look different.
The difference can be something the person is born with, inherits, develops, or acquires during their life.
Examples of common visible differences include:
- scars from accidents or surgery
- being born with fewer fingers or a shorter limb
- cleft lip
- skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, vitiligo
- craniofacial conditions which may cause a differently shaped head or facial feature
- paralysis such as Bell’s palsy, strokes
It is estimated that one in five people in the UK has a visible difference.
How does visible difference affect an individual?
This will vary from person to person and from situation to situation. Some people are comfortable and proud of their visible difference. In contrast, other people can struggle with their visible difference. This may be especially true if it is new and they require treatment for a medical condition.
Many people with visible differences experience negative reactions from other people. These reactions can include staring, abusive comments, or being talked down to or ignored in places such as shops and restaurants. This can have a significant impact on a person’s confidence, self-esteem, and mental health.
The nature, cause, or treatment of a visible difference may have additional barriers than just those related to the visual aspect. For example, a person may have reduced mobility due to scarring, swelling, or amputation. Others may be more prone to infection, such as those with burn injuries or undergoing cancer treatments.
Potential impact on work, customers and visitors
A report by the charity Changing Faces in 2017 found that 79.5 per cent of respondents avoided applying for jobs due to their visible difference.
Another finding was that 81.3 per cent had experienced staring, comments or unpleasantness from a stranger.
The negative and unempathetic reactions of other people can significantly impact a person and their work.
The Equality Act 2010
In the UK, employers have duties to:
- prevent discrimination, and
- provide reasonable adjustments
for their disabled employees. This means it is unlawful for employers to treat applicants, job candidates and employees unfavourably because of their disability.
The Equality Act also requires employers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for their disabled employees.
For more information, see our ‘Briefing – Adjustments in employment’.
Staff training on visual difference awareness covering appropriate terminology and language and interacting with someone with a visible difference. The Changing Faces SERVICE mnemonic is a helpful reminder and training tool:
- Smile – it can help a person relax.
- Eye contact – make normal eye contact. If that is too difficult, try looking at a feature very close to the eyes.
- Respect – never draw attention to a person’s appearance.
- Value – treat people as you wish to be treated.
- If in doubt – ask.
- Calm – if you make a mistake, apologise. If you find it challenging to understand what someone is saying, ask the person to repeat it.
- Equality – a person meeting the Equality Act definition of ‘severe disfigurement’ is likely to be covered by the EQA.
Staff should also be trained in applying what they learn to the specific circumstances they find themselves in. For example, some people with neurodiverse conditions may feel uncomfortable with someone making prolonged eye contact or smiling, so this may not always be appropriate.
Staff themselves may not always be able to apply all of the steps above. For example, an employee with Bell’s Palsy may not find it easy to smile, and so they should not be expected to do this.
- Be guided by the person on appropriate terminology and language. Language can have an immediate and powerful effect, negatively or positively.
- Use the term ‘visible difference’ rather than the more negative ones such as ‘disfigurement’, ‘deformity’ or ‘defect’ as these can be offensive. Other terms such as ‘ugly’, ‘scarred’, or ‘victim’ should also be avoided.
- A visible difference may be as a result of another condition that causes additional barriers for a person. An employer should address these barriers as they would for an employee with any other disability. For example, someone who has achondroplasia will likely need adjustments to their job as a safety manager. This may include adjustments to their workstation, personal protective equipment, and adjustments to the kitchen and toilet facilities.
- Some people with visible differences will need time off work to attend appointments related to the cause and management of their visible difference. This may be for ongoing treatment for burns, cancer treatments, UV treatments for psoriasis or fittings for a prosthesis. Time off for appointments related to the visual difference should be counted separately from absences caused by general sickness. For more information about managing absences, see our ‘Briefing – Managing sickness absence’.
- Flexibility on clothing – some materials or the fit of clothing can irritate the skin for some people, and it may cause damage such as with burn scars. This may mean that a work uniform may need to be adapted to be suitable and comfortable.
- Some people may need time and a place to apply prescribed creams and ointments to their skin as treatment or to prevent infection.
- Don’t tell people to cover up and hide their visual difference. For example, asking someone who has a visible difference on their arms should not be expected to sit with a jacket or long-sleeved top during the hot summer weather – or indeed any other time that their colleagues aren’t asked to cover up as well.
For more information on suggested adjustments, specific barriers for migraine and information about the law, please see our other resources in the Knowledge Hub.
For more detailed information and advice about a specific situation, contact the Advice Service:
Tel: 0345 450 0275
Mail: Changing Faces, POBox 76751, London, WC1A 9QR
© This resource and the information therein are subject to copyright and remain the property of the Business Disability Forum. It is for reference only and must not be copied or distributed without prior permission.
If you require this resource in a different format, contact email@example.com.