Author Joe Rutland’s book, “Cleft Thoughts: Emotional Musings From the Facial Difference World,” is his effort to help those with cleft palates and other so-called craniofacial differences.
Rutland was born with a unilateral cleft lip and cleft palate, and without a uvula – the flesh that hangs at the back of the throat. He says many people know what a cleft lip or palate is, but he says craniofacial differences go beyond those.
“There are people that are in war zones, veterans, and there are some people around the world and in the United States who have been involved in auto accidents where they had severe burns [that] have affected the look of their face,” Rutland says.
He started the group Heartfelt Smiles to bring together people with craniofacial differences so they can express their feelings in a safe space.
People in the craniofacial community face challenges with breathing, speaking and being understood, and even with hearing and sight, Rutland says. Some have even had numerous surgeries.
“There are men and women and young adults who’ve gone through 10, 15, 20 reparative surgeries,” he says. “And people sometimes, they just don’t even think about it. They don’t consider these other elements that go on.”
He says that’s because people often don’t look past a person’s physical appearance to learn more about them.
“It’s about looking at someone and going, ‘Ooh, what happened to your face?’” Rutland says.
He says this snap judgment can have serious consequences beyond feeling misunderstood or criticized. He says in some countries, people with facial differences are viewed “as though they were the devil.”
“They will make sure that they’re hidden in the backs of houses,” Rutland says.
But there is one way to help: “Be empathetic,” he says.
Written by Caroline Covington.