NEWSMAKER: Challenging face values - James Partridge, Chief executive, Changing Faces

Annie Kelly

In his 1990 book Changing Faces, James Partridge wrote: "I sometimes have the impression that people are embarrassed to meet me because they are so surprised that someone with a face like mine is doing anything with his life."

These comments say a lot about Partridge, his attitude to his life and to his charity, which he founded in 1992 and named after the book that has come to be seen as the self-help manual for those struggling to cope with facial scarring or disfigurement.

Last week was something of a watershed for both Partridge and Changing Faces. While the charity hosted a debate at the House of Commons on government and public attitudes to disfigurement, and released the results of a nationwide survey into the perceptions of facially-disfigured people, Partridge was awarded the Radar Person of 2003 award for his work furthering the human and civil rights of disabled people.

These events are testament to his work over the past 11 years as chief executive of Changing Faces, during which he has tirelessly attempted to convince people that a facial disfigurement does not make them less of a person.

In 1970, at aged 18, Partridge suffered terrible burns in a car accident and was left with severe scarring on his face and body. He says that writing the book and subsequently founding the charity was a form of therapy for him, after spending 20 years feeling that there was not any real help available for people struggling to cope with life after a major disfiguring accident.

He started the charity after a psychotherapist read his book and talked to him about his views on the importance of social skills training to help people cope with facial disfigurement.

Now Changing Faces' workshops, counselling and education programmes provide a training ground for people to learn to cope with disfigurement by rebuilding their social skills and reasserting their sense of identity.

In the past few years, its work has extended into education programmes for schools and employers. The charity has just successfully lobbied the Royal College of Physicians to release a report calling for further research into the social, psychological and ethical impacts of facial transplant surgery.

"The whole concept of facial transplants is incredibly problematic," said Partridge. "We're entering the realms of science fiction here, and I've got serious worries about the fact that not enough research has been done into the impact of facial transplants on the individual."

He also sees the charity as having a responsibility to encourage the public to shed their fears and anxieties about facial disfigurement.

"It takes a long time to convince people that they can still stand proud and strong when they have scars or burns on their faces," said Partridge.

"But we still need to give wider society some kind of behavioural strategy for dealing with people who look different to them, and this is where our public awareness and education work comes into play."

Changing Faces recently ran a hard-hitting poster campaign, featuring close-ups of people with severe facial disfigurements alongside straplines such as "How do you survive bumping into me? What about saying hello?" Partridge feels that this has helped move the charity into the public eye.

"The poster campaign was just the beginning," he says. "I started it because I felt I had something really valid to say and I want the charity to have a much louder voice in the public domain. I really believe that changing discrimination and prejudice is possible - attitudes to other types of disability are changing, and I'm optimistic that we can do things to improve life for disfigured people."

One of the most striking things about Partridge is his overwhelming optimism.

His voice roars and booms around his office, and his previous life as a teacher is evident as he emphasises his every point with elaborate scribbles, charts and diagrams.

He describes himself as a 'social entrepreneur' and says that his past experience as a dairy farmer, teacher, politician and community leader in Guernsey has equipped him with the necessary skills to lead the charity on to bigger and better things.

"Without that experience, I wouldn't be able to put myself on the front line as much as I do," he says. "It's a challenge raising £3m to open a new research centre, or being the focal point in raising support for the charity. But while I sometimes feel there is a lot on my shoulders, I feel able to carry it."

It's hard to believe that he ever felt defeated by his scars, but he says it's been a long and difficult road that makes him all the more determined to keep going.

"We live in an image-conscious world, where heavy scarring and deformity is seen as a very negative experience," he said. "I know, I've been there myself, and even though I was blessed by an enormous amount of support from friends and family and an extensive education, it felt almost impossible to get any sense of self-esteem or identity back.

"I never believed I would get married or have children or friends, it all seemed so out of the question, but I did. I've gone on to lead a fantastically rich life and I want this charity to allow others to see that this is possible - providing that they see their changing face not as a handicap, but rather as a challenge."

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