As kids have prepared to go back to school in recent weeks, a cruel prank has circulated on TikTok. Dubbed the #NewTeacherChallenge, parents are sharing videos of them telling their kids that they have a new teacher, showing the kids the face of someone who is disabled or who has a facial deformity or disfigurement, and then filming the child’s reaction.
If that sounds horrible, it’s because it is.
The people whose faces are being used in this challenge have every right to be angry and hurt. There is no excuse for this kind of behavior, and no one would blame them if they colorfully told the whole internet to shove it.
But two of the targets in these challenges are well-known disability activists who somehow manage to always take the high road, serving as an example to the rest of us. Their ability to respond to people’s basest behaviors with dignity and strength, calling out the cruelty with clear and calm eloquence, saying over and over again, “It is absolutely not okay to treat me or any other human being this way and here’s why,” is awe-inspiring. If you want a role model for your kids, look to these ladies.
Lizzie Velasquez was born with a rare congenital disease called Marfanoid–progeroid–lipodystrophy syndrome, which prevents her from putting on weight, among other physical symptoms After being dubbed “The World’s Ugliest Woman” at age 17, she became a popular of advocacy for people who are different, for anti-bullying, and for teaching empathy and compassion. She continues to be an ongoing target of horrible memes and jokes, and yet she continues to respond by teaching valuable lessons and showing her own kind heart with her motivational speaking.
She shared a video when the New Teacher Challenge first started surfacing, explaining how the prank was not okay:
Please help spread the word! @tiktok_us #facetimeprank https://t.co/D7Q6z3a0sw
— Lizzie Velasquez (@Lizzie Velasquez)1596958453.0
This week, she posted another video showing how not to teach your kids about empathy utilizing this challenge. Some parents might use it as a teaching opportunity, getting kids to see why their own reactions are unkind, but if the parent’s own reaction to the reaction is to laugh, then kids can get confused and the lesson gets lost.
Hope you can help spread the word, @Upworthy! #NewTeacherChallenge https://t.co/vgzfmuc9oE
— Lizzie Velasquez (@Lizzie Velasquez)1598639921.0
Responses to Velasquez’s videos have been largely positive, but of course she has also received even more cruel messages. And again, she reacts by stating that these people “need help figuring out how to channel their own anger/hate in a way that doesn’t hurt someone else.” (I would personally like to tell these people to shove it on her behalf, but I will try to follow her example.)
No one said taking a stand would be easy. People on this app can be brutal. Just means there’s a lot more people wh… https://t.co/t3Lq6bJcVO
— Lizzie Velasquez (@Lizzie Velasquez)1598772303.0
Melissa Blake is another disability activist and writer who has been the subject of countless jokes, memes, and pranks on social media. She wrote an article for Refinery29 about her face being used as a prop for unkindness-as-entertainment in the New Teacher Challenge.
A Message To TikTok Parents Who Use My Face To Make Their Kids Cry https://t.co/cRhUU1F807 via @refinery29 @melissablake
— Hannah Durand, PhD (@Hannah Durand, PhD)1598866516.0
One thing she pointed out was that the parents making these videos aren’t just being cruel to her and others with disabilities, but also to their own children.
“I can’t help but feel sorry for their children,” she wrote. “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?”
She was also direct about the impact this cruel treatment has on her personally:
“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.”
Blake battles the trolls in a delightfully subversive way—by insisting she be seen in all her glory, refusing to hide away the way some tell her she should, and letting bullies know they will not win in her world.
Disabled people shouldn’t have to hide…
I think that’s part of the reason I’m so adamant about being so visible… https://t.co/Ggo3fp4y0d
— Melissa Blake (@Melissa Blake)1598858915.0
Not only should we be teaching our kids to understand and embrace that some people are going to look different or move differently or have different abilities, but we should also show our kids outstanding examples of strength, resilience, and respect they can look up to. These women fit that bill to a tee.
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