James Partridge obituary

International campaigner who helped transform attitudes to people with facial disfigurements

James Partridge, who has died aged 67 from cancer, did much to help people with facial disfigurements live with pride and to transform public attitudes. As a burns survivor himself from a car fire, he pioneered the movement for face equality by founding the organisations Changing Faces and Face Equality International.

In December 1970 he had just accepted a place at Oxford University after studying at Clifton college, Bristol. But severe burns to his face and much of his body necessitated five months in hospital and a further five years of complex surgeries.

From despair in the aftermath of the accident, James gradually rediscovered hope and the beginnings of a way forward. He took his degree in philosophy, politics and economics at University College, Oxford, graduating in 1975. Friends there were very supportive, and he learned techniques for coping with intrusive attention: “Keep your eyes looking forward, do not let your chin drop, sanction the staring without reacting to it.”

Then he took an MSc in medical demography, relating disease and mortality to the structures of populations, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. In parallel came his first job, as a research assistant in health economics at St Thomas’ hospital in London. At his interview, one of the panel said: “I see you have had a lot of plastic surgery. Do you think you will be needing some more?” James quickly replied: “Why – do you think I need more?”

In 1978 he married Carrie (Caroline) Schofield. After a spell as a research fellow at Guy’s hospital, in 1979 he moved to Carrie’s native Guernsey to run a farm with her, and later also worked as an economics teacher at the Ladies college, St Peter Port. In 1990 his book Changing Faces: The Challenge of Facial Disfigurement appeared, and two years later he founded Changing Faces, which became the UK’s leading charity for anyone with a scar, mark or condition that affects their appearance; this is more than 500,000 people in the UK alone.

Its approach depends on providing specialist psychosocial support and to lead the way in campaigning for face equality – the fair and equal treatment of all, irrespective of appearance. James’s campaigns led to ensuring that facial disfigurement was included in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and more recently in the 2010 Equality Act.

An influential figure in the disability sector, he co-created a unique awareness course called Dining With a Difference, introducing corporate chief executives and their boards to disability opinion formers.

James believed that professionals played a key role in helping people adjust to their changed appearance; whether it was surgeons, doctors, teachers or HR departments, they all needed to become skilled in creating a society where face equality was at its heart.

He led Changing Faces for 25 years, building up a germ of an idea to an organisation with far-reaching international impact. As a former treasurer of Changing Faces and a friend, I found James generous, demanding and loyal.

Persistent in asking for what was needed, he deployed an irresistible charm. When the TV series Downton Abbey ran a storyline about a first world war burns victim that jarred, James immediately got in touch. He did so with such grace that the cast all offered their unqualified support and hosted two wonderful fund-raising evenings.

He enabled many people whose inclination might have been to hide from the world to find confidence and to be visible. In 2009, he read the lunchtime television news bulletin on Channel 5 for a week as part of the charity’s campaign work. “I live with my very distinctive face with pride,” he said. His ambition was for all those with some sort of facial difference to feel the same.

Partridge in a jacket sitting in a TV news studio
Partridge in 2009 as part of his week-long stint reading the lunchtime TV news on Channel 5. Photograph: PA/Sky News/EPA

Born in Chipping Sodbury, Gloucestershire, and brought up in Flax Bourton, near Bristol, James was the son of Sir John Partridge, a chairman of the Imperial Tobacco Group, and his wife Johnnie (Joan, nee Johnson). Family life was vitally important to James, and he imbued his three children with his own drive and can-do philosophy.

As farmers, he and Carrie started with organic vegetables, then gradually built up a dairy herd of pedigree Guernsey cows. James brought his customary passion to the boards of many island organisations, including the Business Disability Forum.

The media round that accompanied the Changing Faces book brought James into contact with Nicola Rumsey of the University of the West of England, Bristol, when they were both guests on Gloria Hunniford’s programme on Radio 2. They found that they had similar ideas, and James developed programmes with the NHS, businesses and the government. From these came the development of the charity, and James’s family moved to Redland, Bristol.

A Changing Faces research unit was established at UWE Bristol in 1992, and it led to the creation six years later of the Centre for Appearance Research. James received honorary doctorates from UWE Bristol in 1999 and Bristol University in 2005. In 2002 he was appointed OBE.

His understanding of the power of collective action led him in 2018 to launch Face Equality International, and it now has 38 member organisations around the world. By this time he was undergoing cancer treatment, but still hosted its first conference. This year he published his second book, Face It: Facial Disfigurement and My Fight For Face Equality – part memoir, part manual and part manifesto for change.

James is survived by Carrie, their children, Simon, Charlotte and Harriet, six grandchildren and his sisters, Alison and Clare.

• James Richard John Partridge, disability rights campaigner and organiser, born 30 October 1952; died 16 August 2020

• This article was amended on 28 September 2020. Chipping Sodbury is in Gloucestershire, not Wiltshire as stated in an earlier version.

Andrew Jarvis

The GuardianTramp

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