Coldingham man with a facial disfigurement finds solace in wearing a mask during lockdown

A facially disfigured Coldingham man who has found wearing a face mask during lockdown provided a barrier from cruel comments has made a plea for the public to show more kindness.

Tuesday, 16th February 2021, 5:03 pm
Atholl Mills. (PHOTO: BILL McBURNIE)

For many the Covid-19 lockdown has been a source of struggle and sadness.

But for 26-year-old Atholl Mills it has proven something of a blessing.

Born with a facial disfigurement known as cystic hygroma he has almost grown used to unwanted stares and cruel comments.

Those attitudes all changed when he began wearing a mask after it became mandatory to do so and he became ‘normal’ in the eyes of the public.

He was able to interact with people without his facial condition proving a barrier.

Atholl is now wary of what the future holds when face coverings are no longer mandatory.

He hopes the public will learn lessons and treat people with visual differences the same as anyone else when masks are eventually removed.

Atholl, currently on furlough from Dunbar Garden Centre, said: “I have found it quite a relief because the stares that I normally get have just disappeared. I’m definitely apprehensive about the masks coming off, and that’s not to say I love wearing them. I just hope that when the masks do come off that people remember to be kind."

Atholl said he can pinpoint the time he first encountered prejudice.

He recalled: "As a child I did not think I looked any different than anyone else until a new boy started at school and he told me that I looked different and weird and then I started noticing when I was going out to the bigger cities like Edinburgh and Newcastle people staring and it did affect my confidence to the point that I did struggle to go outside.

"You can become fixated by comments and stares because that’s something, unfortunately, you become accustomed to when you are out and about.

"It wasn’t until I was at university that I self-reflected that I had a real bad opinion of myself and that I really needed to change and that helped me gain confidence.

"When mask-wearing came in I definitely felt some relief because just prior to lockdown things had been getting worse with rude comments all the time. I’d have kids saying I look funny and weird and an adult even said ‘if I looked you I would kill myself’ when I was in a work setting, so I just had to take it.

"Then we went into lockdown and I followed the rules, didn’t go out unless I needed to and I remember going out with my mum because she needed a big shop, and shops can be anxiety-inducing for me, and remember going in and having to wear a mask for the first time and it was just such a relief. No-one was looking at me and I could just go about, get what I needed and leave.

"Working in hospitality I also had to wear a mask and I noticed people who had come in and said stuff to me before didn’t even look twice at me and that kids just chatted away to me as if I was a normal person and it was just such a relief.

"It can be awkward going up to a table with kids when you have a visual difference because you can’t tell the kids off and you look to parents to educate their children but unfortunately they often just brush it off and do not use the situation to educate and it can be really awkward.”

Atholl, an ambassador for the Changing Faces charity, added: "I’ve not had anyone say anything negative to me since lockdown came in.

"For me it has taught me that although the masks might have been covering one thing they have also uncovered another situation. A lot of people with visual difference who have reached out to me have noticed the same thing. It shouldn’t take someone with a visual difference to wear a mask not to get comments shouted at them in the street or when you are just trying to do your job.”

Changing Faces is the UK’s leading charity for everyone with a mark, scar or condition that makes them look different. To contact the organisation go to www.changingfaces.org.uk or call 0345 4500275.