Cleft Lip and Palate

Education, career and lifestyle

It was clear that among the adults we spoke to that, having been born with a cleft lip and/or palate, they were not going to be held back in life. These adults were engaged in employment of their own choice and pursuing fulfilling careers and had enjoyed and benefitted from both further and higher education. In addition, they participated in sports and creative pursuits, made their own lifestyle choices and had a strong sense of identity. 

The adults were also aware that their chosen career paths were occupations where they felt they were accepted as somebody with a visible difference. Popular career choices included education (from early years to higher), the healthcare professions and psychology-based careers. Careers such as these require good interpersonal skills and communication plays an important role and those we spoke to reported that these occupations increased their self-confidence and their ambition to be successful.

Iona’s school experience had tainted her self-confidence but it did not stop her from pursuing her chosen career in nursing.

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Age at interview: 19
Sex: Female
So what sort of school did you go to for secondary?

A regular High School.

Yeah was it a mixed school?

Yeah mixed school, yeah. It wasn’t... the nicest area [laughs] so there was quite a lot of incidents, and I think that probably contributed to the fact that bullying was quite an issue.


Yeah just but yes that was my... school.

OK what kind of impact did that have on you in terms of your esteem and your achievements educationally?

Yeah it puts your self-esteem to rock bottom [laughs]. But I had always... I kind of always had an idea of what I wanted to do and…

You’ve always had a good idea?

kind of where I wanted to go, like nursing was always something I wanted to [pursue]. And at times... the school’s not easy, you don’t want to go and you don’t... it kind of makes you feel... it makes you feel rubbish. But then it kind of gives you a bit of a boost to... like, “I’m going to prove these people wrong. I’m going to like do well,” and just kind of kept my head down and, yeah, got to where I wanted to be so…

So what inspired you to go into nursing?

Probably family thinking your family does it influences you. So but also just from my previous experience of you know, having a cleft, that’s kind of made me want to... it kind of inspired me as well. From any time I’ve been in hospital like the nurses have always been absolutely excellent and... that kind of made me kind of... take the path to…

Was it feeling kind of you wanted to give something back?

Yeah like kind of thinking of I want to be, as a patient in hospital, I want them to look up to me like I looked up to the nurses, and helping people in... 

OK to be inspiring…


…and respected?

Yeah you’re kind of helping people, like... being someone, being a person that someone in hospital can go, like you feel comfortable with, and making that experience, although it’s not a good experience to be in, making it as good as it... like making the experience of being in hospital as good an experience as it’s going to be, yeah.

Gemma is set for a career in primary education and the experience has increased her self-confidence.

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Age at interview: 18
Sex: Female
But I guess again being... you know, in the occupation I am, I do have to be very open and very talkative to new people I don’t know, because we’re always going to have new parents come in to visit, to look at [school name], and new children come in. So I guess part of what’s made me very confident is working where I do, because I have had to come out of my shell, I have had to meet new people and…

OK yeah hmm so you think that’s helped you as a whole person?

Yeah, yeah I think that’s been the best thing for me that I’ve ever done really, is going there. Because it’s, it’s really helped me in, in my personality and it’s helped me grow a lot more.


And... I’ve always kind of known since I was 10 really that I wanted to work with children.


Known that was what I was going to do.

And so have you got a career kind of mapped out in front of you?


Yeah, yeah.

I’ve, yeah [laughs] I’ve got it mapped out, and I know what I want to do. And just, I mean knowing what I want to do has helped me as well. I’ve developed that confidence to just get out there and do what I want, sort of thing.

Mary Z has been a secondary school teacher for 15 years and also holds a headship qualification.

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Age at interview: 39
Sex: Female
I have been a teacher for about 15 years.


Yeah so I’ve, you know, been very fortunate and capable in school, and I have... my degree is in biochemistry, and I have a masters in science communication, and I’m obviously a qualified teacher, and I actually work as a vice-principal in a school, so I also have headship qualification as well. So having a cleft lip and palate certainly hasn’t held me back from doing what I want to do in any way, shape or form.

Do you teach in primary or secondary?


Are you in primary or secondary?

I’m secondary, yeah, so some people would argue that you’re working with, you know, the harshest critics, you know. I work with 11-16 year old teenage boys. Yes I’ve had the odd occasion where a child has perhaps mimicked what I’ve said, but I’ll bet you everybody has done that with a teacher, so I never took that as a personal, [laughs] a personal thing, or anything related to having a cleft lip or palate. And it’s never ever... it’s never held me back, you know. I suppose I’ve been lucky in that I didn’t have any, you know, hearing or heart issues associated with the cleft lip and palate, and I know that’s not the case for everybody. 
Others adults were self-employed or working within the arts. Elliott is a retail manager and manages staff as well as having daily face-to-face contact with members of the public. Alex wants to be a psychologist and Josh is planning a career in engineering. 
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Jon had had trained as an engineer and was interested in joining the Air Force but was prohibited because he had a cleft. He became an engineer in the oil industry but was not aware of any discrimination in this role. Jon now promotes arts events.

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Age at interview: 38
Sex: Male
I don’t really think I ever did. I mean I think... oh I... there were a couple of early pre-experiences about, they were in relation to cleft, one of which, which were both quite different, one of which was at university. I thought about... for some reason I got it in my head to go and join the Air Force.


That was my first idea. You know what it’s like, well everyone’s different, but when you’re in your late teens/early 20s, you know, you have ideas of doing all sorts of things and you see what sticks really. And I went to ... a selection process for that, and was told at the end of it that I couldn’t join it because I had a cleft because you can’t be a pilot in the Air Force with a cleft.

And what was the rationale behind that?

The rationale at the time I think was that they... I got the impression the rationale was there had been instances in the past of people having pressure related issues for flight, which I think some people with clefts do have more issues with equalising pressure.


And I think they therefore applied a more blanket approach because that’s what, that was the kind of most straightforward way of dealing with it through the selection process.

Yeah sure.

So that was a quite practical specific cleft related experience. And the other one was actually again pre-engineering I set up a business with a friend, and we had some investors, we were probably early 20s, 21 I think, and we had an investor looking to put money into the business who, by all accounts, said to my colleague, you know, “I find it difficult to invest in a business where there’s someone who looks like that.”

Right hmm.

Which, you know, was quite... quite specific [laughs] kind of reaction.

Was that said in your presence?

No it was said to my colleague out of my presence.

Right but…

It was very divisive, but he actually did still invest [laughs].

He did?

Yes... so... those were the kind of two experiences pre-kind of engineering. Through my four or five years as an engineer I never, to my knowledge... it was never an issue. No one ever mentioned it. And when I had to do practical like to go offshore, you had to do offshore survival training being ducked upside down in helicopters in water and stuff like that.

Where was this? Oh for the oil rigs?

Yeah the off- you had to do offshore survival training to go offshore. And I wondered whether a cleft might be an issue with kind of pressure issues with that, being shoved under water and all that training. But it was never an issue. No I mean through, certainly through... work, from there on I... of course you don’t know how things would have turned out if one hadn’t had a cleft and whether people are what’s the word? you know, discriminatory. But they were never... I never experienced any open discrimination in 15 years of work really since that point.

I would assume that’s quite a male dominated environment, would that be fair?

Oil industry, yes definitely, yeah, quite, quite male, quite, quite macho: not really me [laughs]. You know, offshore is quite ex-military; onshore quite... people have come up through the trades. And I, I think, was at a disadvantage because I hadn’t come up through trades; I’d come up through university.


And I think actually that gave me a practical disadvantage. And it wasn’t a job that I was particularly well suited to; it wasn’t a job that I was particularly interested in. None of that has to do with the cleft, it was just... that was just a fact. It paid quite well for four or five years, so I stuck with it and then decided to go and work in the arts. And certainly in the arts, you know, I think it does self-select quite kind of open-minded, liberal people. And therefore of all the career choices, if you’re a little bit different, or you are a bit different, the arts is probably [laughs] quite well suited to you.

So your experiences in the arts, what have they been like?

Similar, I mean, you know, I’ve tried to forge a career. It’s quite, again no, nothing detrimentally... nothing detrimental related to having a cleft. I mean it’s, I’m freelance; it’s a career that’s quite life consuming.
Apart from career choices individual pursuits included singing, creating music and performing in public. On the sporting side, there people engaged in rock climbing, swimming, and fencing. Together, the adults we spoke to said that these activities provide a confidence boost that helped in other areas of life.

Kendal was born with a cleft palate and is currently training to be a teacher. Although she wears hearing aids she used to play rugby and currently enjoys playing guitar and swimming.

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Age at interview: 24
Sex: Female
Kendal: I used to play rugby actually.

Did you? Yeah.

Kendal: Yeah and I

Suzi: Did England trials.

Kendal: Yeah I got to quite a good level and then I got a lovely injury. Yeah I used to take my hearing aids out for that because obviously I was I was in the front row, so part of the battering ram of course. Yeah so obviously if I bashed my hearing aids it’s not... 

Not pleasant.

Kendal: Not really pleasant, because they would hurt. And I didn’t really want to damage them because, OK, they don’t cost me money but they cost [laughs] someone money. But, no, I used to, I used to do that.


Kendal: And I mean I... I think I spoke before, I... my tubes are a lot smaller and sort of I do... I’m probably not as fit as I should be, but well I know most people when they run or when I get out of breath, I do have to breathe mainly through my throat, because my nose is mainly blocked or... I can’t get enough oxygen through there, so I get a very heavy chest, and that’s quite painful. But that’s only, that’s one sort of drawback. But I do love to swim, as my mum has mentioned. But earplugs are better, because I do spend quite a lot of time under water. 

Suzi: And your squishy nose.

Do you have any musical interests at all? 

Kendal: Yeah I mean I try and play guitar.


Kendal: I... that is interesting, because in my hearing register I can’t hear bass notes as well.

Hmm yeah.

Kendal: So sometimes when I’m trying to emulate a song I won’t get it completely right. But just practise makes perfect really, as everything. But I love music; definitely into music. Love my rock music. I go to gigs and all that kind of stuff.

Josh was born with a cleft lip and palate, is studying for a BTEC in engineering and enjoys going to rock concerts. He has not felt held back in life.

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Age at interview: 17
Sex: Male
So how would you summarise then your experience of having been born with a cleft lip and palate?

Pretty, pretty good, I imagine. It’s... kind of always, it’s... been handled well and everyone... most people have been supportive. And... yeah, people generally understand. So kind of it’s just another... aspect of life. It’s not kind of... it’s not kind of a major thing: part of life.

And you feel you’ve been able to reach the goals you wanted to in life?

Yeah like I’ve never felt held back by it. Always... always been able to do everything... so don’t really see what... don’t really see what the point is in worrying.


Don’t really see what the point is in worrying.

Since leaving school and going into further education Elliott has gained confidence and is now a retail manager.

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Age at interview: 20
Sex: Male
I think college definitely helped me a lot.

Would you say it was a bit of a turning point?

Yeah definitely that’s where my life... well I feel I began to feel a lot more positive. ...College, through college as well is where I got sort of introduced to... getting fit and going to the gym, which has also been another sort of constant, positive thing for me.

Would you say that gives you confidence as well?

...Yeah I’d say to. It’s a, it’s a confidence thing. ...I enjoy challenges as well so... I’m always sort of... trying to push myself a bit further and try new things. So college and gym was that sort of start of a new phase in my life almost I’d say.

Yeah, yeah.

...Yeah and met obviously new friends who are sort of... same interests as me, because obviously we were on the same course and... that’s where I met, I’d say, a few of my closest friends now from college.

OK yeah.

So... yeah college was a lot more positive for me than school was.

Yeah that’s good. And then following from college, how have your experiences been of entering the world of work? Can you maybe explain a bit more about that pathway?

I got my first sort of part-time job while I was still at college. So I worked in this sandwich shop for like, I think it was the last six months of college, part-time. And then when I finished college I was... decided I’d work full time a bit more before I went in to join the military so I got a job at [place name] full-time, and sort of told myself I’d work there for maybe a year, and then they sort of [laughs] progressed it a bit. …It’s sort of travelling round the world and it’s kept me interested so... I sort of…

So you’re travelling, yeah?

Yeah so I’ve been to a few countries now... 

Has that been a big life changing thing for you to do the travelling?

Not really a big life changing... thing, because I sort of went on a few holidays with my Nan when I was younger so I’ve been to a few places anyway. But it was good to sort of get to work in other countries. So I went to Mauritius, that was really nice, and been to Italy, which was like a life goal, I always wanted to go to Italy.

Yeah nice, yeah.

So getting to do that through work was quite enjoyable. ...So I’ve enjoyed that as well; it’s been good. It’s kept me interested.
Last reviewed June 2017.
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