James’ Dream of Face Equality

A civil rights pioneer that you have never heard of who fought for a cause you have never heard of just died. This man was a hero of mine, and I guarantee he will be one of yours too when you learn how and to whom he dedicated his life. Dr. James Partridge, OBE (Order of the British Empire) looked a lot like me—scars and disfigurements resulting from burns suffered in an accident in his teens covered his body. Enduring the daily injustices of looking “different” in an image conscious society, James, like all of us with visible differences, learned how to cope with honesty, bravery, and humor. Unlike most of us though he could also write books, start organizations, lead large-scale awareness campaigns, and build international coalitions that would relieve the suffering of so many.

In 1990 James wrote a book called Changing Faces about his challenges as a burn survivor and his experienced advice. It was the book he wished he had received when he first was catapulted into the new reality of looking and feeling “different”. It just so happened it was the book I was fortunate enough to receive in 2001 when, after a plane crash, I found my burned and unrecognizable 16-year-old face in a North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center hospital mirror. James showed the way for me and countless others with burns to square with the uncomfortable reality of having a different looking face and the absolute need for developing strategies to navigate a world that could be hostile towards you based on your appearance. I would come to know that his impact was far greater than this little yellow book and far beyond anything I could have imagined.

Before I knew about James, I had no idea.

Not only were there people like me with burns who existed at the center of a world of pointing fingers, both stares and quickly diverted eyes, shockingly candid comments from children, inhumane insults from adults, curious job rejection letters, and the like, but also there were dozens of other conditions that made people appear “different”. Before I knew about James, I had no idea.

Some of these conditions I would learn about are like Moebius Syndrome that paralyzes the muscles of the face; Vitligo which gives patchy skin discolorations; acid attacks against females in Southeast Asian countries; large “port wine” colored birthmarks; or cleft lip and palate. There are millions of beautiful people among us with genetic, inflicted or accidental conditions who are often called “freaks”, prejudged as sinister or bad, rejected from employment, discriminated against in many ways and often simply separated from the full opportunity of our society because of their appearance. Having experienced thousands of unwelcome gawks myself, like James, I had insight into what millions experienced on a daily basis.

To provide support and ultimately to develop a platform to change societal norms, James started the pioneering UK charity Changing Faces. By working directly with MPs in Parliament or getting big companies to sign onto important equal rights pledges, Changing Faces was needed. But James and Changing Faces were also radical–staging public awareness campaigns for “face equality” like the time where James, with his obvious disfigurements, read the TV news for a week or when they plastered the London Underground with beautiful portraits of people with disfigurements.

In late 2017, after 25 years James stepped down from Changing Faces and started Face Equality International, an organization that aims to take the Face Equality movement worldwide through building a coalition or partner organizations. It was this dream that James talked with me about on the few occasions I was with him. His life’s work was going global, finally. I could feel his anticipation and hesitation. Was the world ready? Finally, could people in every corner of the world, persecuted for how they look, be encouraged and supported to come out of hiding? Finally, could those people unable to see the humanity beyond a novel appearance, learn how?

When we met last in person on his rolling international tour, he was seeking input as he laid the groundwork for FEI. I was inspired by his mission, but, honestly, I was more inspired by inspired by his confidence in public. I swelled in pride to discuss with him the nuances of how a crowded restaurant was taking in two burned yet gregarious and comfortable guys. I truly felt, for the first time, like I had a role model who looked like me.

I knew James had been sick. His cancer and chemotherapy treatments a few years back took away his hair—another layer of appearance that James had to see himself through. Of course it seemed to have shaken him as the diagnosis and treatment does, but throughout I was amazed how he retained his spark, his drive, good humor, and confidence in his appearance–disfigured and hairless…and confident. That’s powerful.

The last few times I spoke with him, it seemed he was getting back to himself, finishing a memoir Face It, which I received, signed by a very alive James Partridge just last month. His picture on the cover—eyes open with hair and a big smile—is how I imagined him living. “James will be around for a while,” I thought. “What’s the rush to read this now?” I set it on my shelf.

I still don’t know how he died last week, but when I learned, I wept. I did not realize until that moment how much faith that I had in James being alive to see to it that face equality made it to the world. I imagined him far into the future, meeting with US Congressmen about ADA amendments or traveling into sub-Saharan African countries to understand the local flavor of disfigurement discrimination. Never once did I remember how naive that was. I imagined him as more than human because what he did with his life was just that. It was superhuman.

I didn’t realize until he suddenly passed, just how much I loved and admired him. I, personally, had never been that close to someone so impactful on the world stage, someone who stood for something real and something necessary–freedom for people who are treated with least regard in our society.

James is, of course, not the only one fighting for Face Equality, but he was a pioneer of making it a civil rights movement. He is a hero to thousands. He will remain a hero to me. How could the world not stop to recognize this man? Clearly the movement he started has a long way to go before it is recognized beside disability rights, racial equity and other social justice campaigns.

We cannot let James’ dream for a worldwide movement for Face Equality lose any momentum. Join me in celebrating this incredible life lived and a human we can all look up to—scars and all. Join me in supporting Face Equality International and all of its partner organizations. Let’s build a world where facial differences and disfigurements do not define worth and where compassion and shared humanity is supreme.