Melissa Blake looked down at her phone only to see a barrage of Instagram and Twitter notifications, seemingly out of nowhere. Soon, she understood why: people were sending her messages warning her that her face was being used as a prank in various Tik Tok videos.
Blake didn’t use Tik Tok, a video-sharing social networking service, so the videos came as a rude surprise. Screenshot after screenshot showed the face of the 39-year-old, who has a genetic bone and muscular disorder called Freeman-Sheldon syndrome, being used as a joke.
The worst part: the culprits were parents around the country, who were using pictures of her in an effort to scare their children.
It’s all a part of what’s being called “The New Teacher challenge,” the latest viral trend, where parents pretend to FaceTime their child’s new teacher. The photos being used range from mugshots to silly celebrity photos, but mixed in are photos of Blake and other people with disabilities. As happened in Blake’s case, the kids’ reactions are often frightened and embarrassed, while the parents typically stand by amused.
“I don’t understand how it’s funny to use a picture of a disabled person to scare your children, and I don’t understand why you’d want to scare your child to begin with,” Blake said.
“Instead, they should be teaching children about people’s differences and setting a good example.”
Blake, a freelance writer and disability activist with over 80.4K followers on Instagram, isn’t the only one with a disability whose photos have been used as part of this challenge. Lizzie Velasquez, another disability activist, also recently discovered her face was used for a prank on the platform.
She posted a video on Instagram that shows a mother doing the prank to her son.
Velasquez wrote, “Showing your kids a photo of someone who looks different in hopes of them having a scared reaction is vile… I will say this over and over and over. The people you put in photos or videos are human beings!! We have feelings, and we have something we work on every day called self-confidence. Please, PLEASE don’t teach your children that it’s funny to be afraid of someone who doesn’t look like them.”
Velasquez posted a few weeks later another video after it happened to her again.
It happened multiple times to Blake, too, even prompting her last week to post a screenshot and link to one of the videos. In that case, the original poster personally reached out to Blake.
“They messaged me on Instagram and apologized and said they didn’t know I was an actual person. They took the video down too,” Blake said.
“I think a lot of the time when people are bullying people online, they are not thinking that there is a human on the other side of the computer that they’re making fun of.”
Although this video was taken down, a quick search revealed several videos using Blake and Velasquez’s picture still up on the app.
Blake has been an outspoken disability activist for years, and she often receives backlash, specifically on social media. In the four years since President Donald Trump took office, and after she wrote an op/ed opposing him, she says the cyberbullying has gotten worse.
She’s been called names like ‘blobfish’ and ‘disgusting’ and was told ‘she should be banned for posting photos of herself because she’s too ugly.’ Blake fought back with a now-viral Twitter post, where she posted three selfies to “commemorate the occasion.”
Now she’s fighting back again, writing about her experiences and the new viral Tik Tok trend, while encouraging people to report these Tik Tok videos. But, she says those who have reported the videos have received a message from the social media service saying the content doesn’t violate their guidelines.
A spokesperson for Tik Tok said their team reached out to Blake and Velasquez to let them know the issues they experienced are against Community Guidelines and that they are monitoring the situation and taking action as needed. They said they don’t condone or support this type of content and will continue to remove any videos that include real people with disabilities. According to their harassment and bullying policy, “Content that disparages a private individual on the basis of attributes such as intellect, appearance, personality traits, or hygiene,” will be removed.
Their statement reads, in part:
“We are an inclusive platform built upon the foundation of creative expression, and we expect that inclusivity from our user community. As we make clear in our Community Guidelines, bullying or hateful content has no place on TikTok and will be removed. We encourage users to celebrate what makes them unique, while finding a community that does the same.”
Blake feels if people with disabilities were more visible and were better represented in the media, this prank might not have ever happened in the first place.
“I think the more people, especially kids, see people with disabilities, and the more that they see there is nothing to be afraid of, the less afraid they’ll be.”
Ariel Henley agrees. Henley, 29, has Crouzon Syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by the premature fusion of particular skull bones. This early fusion prevents the skull from growing naturally and affects the shape of the head and face. Henley has been a disability activist for a few years and is even writing a memoir called “A Face For Picasso,” about growing up with Crouzon Syndrome.
Henley, who is from the San Francisco Bay area, heard from someone on Instagram that her face was also being used in the Tik Tok challenge.
“I started scrolling through, and I was honestly afraid that I was going to see my picture,” Henley said. “And I saw some other people I know writing about what happened on Instagram, and I was just horrified.”
“I told them to report the video, but I don’t want to know other than that. It’s embarrassing and humiliating, and I don’t understand how parents could think this is okay.”
Henley has taken to social media over the years, just like Blake, to normalize disability and share her experiences. Despite there being more space for people with disabilities than ever before, she believes there needs to be more representation in mainstream media.
“When it comes to representation, people need to keep in mind how people with physical differences and facial differences and any disfigurement are being used,” Henley said. “In entertainment, they [people with facial disfigurements] are often the ones playing the bad guy, or they are cruel, simply because of what they look like.”
“But there is no connection between moral character and appearance. Stop with that. It’s impacting real lives, and it’s been going on for way too long. This Tik Tok trend is feeding into that in a lot of ways.”
In the meantime, Henley and Blake hope awareness about this viral trend helps bring it to an end. They are also encouraged by the reactions they’ve received since speaking out about this trend and since becoming outspoken disability advocates. Many on Tik Tok are also now coming to the defense of these women, posting videos with their photos but with encouraging messages and to stop the hate.
“One of the things that warms my heart is that people will come and say, ‘You know what? You spoke up about something I’ve never even thought about, but now, I am aware of that, so thank you for bringing that to my attention,’” Blake said.
“And I think that’s been one of the best things to come out of this online trolling for me, is that people have an awareness of what disabled people go through.”