To kick off the start of the school year, the "New Teacher Challenge" has taken off on platforms like TikTok and Twitter.
Parents tape themselves showing their children an image of their new teacher — but in reality, the viral prank mocks people with physical differences. Some of these videos featured photos of Melissa Blake, a disability activist who was born with a rare genetic bone and muscular disorder called Freeman-Sheldon syndrome.
Since she’s not a TikTok user herself, Blake found out about the so-called prank from people who follow her on other social media networks. Her followers messaged her to say they saw her photo in these videos and reported the accounts, she says.
Dealing with people mocking her appearance isn’t new for Blake, but she says online bullying is getting worse. She fights back by sharing her story and remaining visible on social media despite the bullying she experiences.
When people use photos of people with physical differences in this way, she says, it displays how society hasn’t normalized people with disabilities or who look different.
“I feel like every time, you know, I post a selfie or I share something about my life as a disabled woman, I feel like that is representation that is going to really combat this ableism,” she says.
Vocal online activists like Blake use social media to normalize people who are part of everyday life through heightened exposure and understanding.
Now 39, Blake had 26 surgeries from the time she was 10 weeks old to 16 years old. With limited mobility, she can walk short distances but uses a wheelchair most of the time.
Many people reacting to this trend on social media express outrage toward what these parents are teaching their children about difference by turning people’s appearance into a joke. Blake says she could understand a bit more if teenagers were driving this prank — but it’s the parents choosing the photos.
“When I found out that it was the parents that were doing this, I thought they'd be the ones that are teaching their children that this sort of thing isn't okay,” she says. “What I was most shocked about is that it was actual adults that think this is funny.”
When people report these types of videos, social media platforms need to take them down, she says. Blake supports zero-tolerance policies for bullying on social networking services.
While TikTok has since cracked down on removing videos that break its community guidelines, Blake says multiple people who reported videos that featured her face showed screenshots of the platform saying the posts didn’t violate any rules.
“People with disabilities like myself can speak out all we want,” she says. “But if these social media platforms aren't taking a proactive role to take down these videos when they see them, then me being so vocal is only go so far.”
Some parents who never participated in the challenge have told Blake that they used her story as an opportunity to talk with their children about physical differences. Parents can turn this “horrible prank” into something positive by using it as a vehicle to teach children not to fear disabilities, she says.
“I think if we have these open conversations about disabilities and about what it's like to be disabled and that people with disabilities aren't so different,” she says, “I think for the next generation, they can grow up in a world where they're not afraid of people with disabilities.”
This segment aired on September 7, 2020.