Reflections on a brother in arms, RIP

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David Partridge blog

My dear brother, the Rev. Canon David Partridge, died a few weeks ago and so many people have shared with the family their memories of his immense life as a pastor in his parish, Warblington with Emsworth, and as a committed pacifist and campaigner on many controversial causes like homelessness, anti-apartheid and the Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement.

Three personal reflections about him:

First, David loathed injustice and instinctively fought against it wherever it occurred – and he often wrote to The Guardian to voice his views.

When I set up Changing Faces in the early 1990s, it was the injustices which I was touching that enraged him most. Every year before our big reception at the Mall Galleries, I took to going for a short walk into St James’ Park to gather my thoughts but also because I knew he would be there. He called the meeting ‘a rite of passage’… I called it his blessing. He would then wander into the Galleries and his hands went out to people with all sorts of disfigurements who were there. I know they felt his empathy.

Second, I was reminded of him last week when in a busy London tube. I was minding my own business but was the subject to one man’s staring and whispered chat to his fellow travellers. It’s a common experience for anyone whose face stands out. I found myself thinking back to the early years after my car-fire accident when David suggested we go for a pint at the local pub.

It was at a time when I was agonising about every single venture into a public place, learning how cruel and intrusive the reactions I would get were, and trying to work out, test and perfect my response. Everyday problems that most people never have to go through which were to become my daily bread.

As we stood at the bar in the pub, I sensed I had attracted the attention of a small group of drinkers further up the bar. “Hi there” I blurted out, “not looking at my best today”. It had the desired effect as my potential tormentors turned away somewhat chastened. And David was impressed. He often mentioned it. But, inside, I didn’t like the throwaway line because it suggested I should like to look ‘better’ and indeed ought to.

It was a rather weak response and a few years ago, I discussed it with David and we spent a few seconds dreaming up some other lines… like “Happy to tell you more about my injuries if you’d like” or “I’m not Niki Lauda in case you’re wondering” or, more assertively, “Would you mind minding your own business?”.

I soon came to realise that having a facial disfigurement meant that I would probably always lack “the civil inattention everyone takes for granted” as Frances Cooke Macgregor put it. Instead I had to learn how to face up to others’ staring, curiosity, anguish, rudeness, embarrassment and dread – their SCAREDness. I was scared too… self-conscious, clueless, awkward, … and was only just realising that, to be really effective and not belittled, I had to be pro-active in the first few seconds of every single encounter.

Taking the initiative had to become second-nature. Not at all easy. My ‘manual’ of how to do this was in my 1990 Penguin book still available [https://www.changingfaces.org.uk/about-us/jp-book] and forms one part of what Changing Faces Practitioners (CFPs) offer to people who get in touch [https://www.changingfaces.org.uk/adviceandsupport].

What David would be really glad about is that the NHS is starting to recognise that the help of a CFP to learn these skills needs to be part of what is offered to patients with disfigurements – as has been shown this week with this excellent piece from the Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board: http://www.nhsggc.org.uk/about-us/health-news/2018/february/stories/changing-faces-changing-lives/

Thirdly, David was so pleased when Changing Faces launched the campaign for face equality in 2008 – see https://www.changingfaces.org.uk/campaigns/face-equality – and he likened it to other campaigns that he was so positive about – for gender equality, race equality and many others.

He knew that we had set out on a long road to familiarise and get imperfect faces valued and respected and so make it unnecessary for people like me to have to endure intrusive attention in so many everyday settings – and at work and in the movies and on social media and…. We agreed there was far to go…

But as I stood in the tube that day deciding whether to sanction the staring, I chuckled… Most of my fellow passengers were not paying me any attention at all. Maybe this was good news! Maybe they were already respecting face equality. In that instance, I chose to hold my head high, keep my body language strong and positive and be on the high moral ground above the intrusive onlooker. I refused to be roused but weathered his attention.

What’s more, I like to think that David, like my fellow passengers, was admiring my choice. Which is not to say I’m always going to let such pesky people off!

RIP, David…

 

Bill Simons, a tribute

Changing Faces Launch Face Equality Day

Bill Simons at Changing Faces’ 25th Anniversary Reception, May 2017

 

William Simons — Bill as he insisted in my first meeting I call him — was a gnarled and highly loveable gem…

Shortly after he became a household name as a star of Heartbeat in the early 1990s, he made contact with Changing Faces, offering to help in any way he could… I was entertained in an actors’ club with his inimitable understated hospitality and he told me his story.

A successful childhood acting career had not developed in his teens or young adulthood because his face was ‘invaded by acne’. He fought its ravages day and night for years but without much success. His face he likened to a WW1 battlefield: pot-marked and cratered and it caused him to seek a career literally behind the scenes as a stage manager. But he was frustrated and determined to try to find his way into theatre and TV. He said little of those years of trying except that they were hard and pitted with disappointment. But little by little and with persistence, he won through. Heartbeat was a perfect vehicle for his talents — and his weathered face too.

And now, he said, he wanted to give back… and help people with what he described — and I continually challenged — as ‘much more difficult’ facial disfigurements. And so it was that in 1997, he became a Patron of Changing Faces and immediately took the role very seriously. His first achievement was to host a delightful Day at York Races, creating a marquee full of friends and auctions. It was lots of fun and raised thousands of pounds.

Over the next 20 years, Bill was a constant source of support, speaking at events, giving his name and story to our publications, bringing guests and finding ingenious auction prizes for our Gala Dinners. Above all, he became a great friend to whom I could turn for advice and support and whom so many champions and supporters of Changing Faces came to love and revere too. He sought them out and laughed with them all…

Bill, you will live long in our memories as a superb Patron and as a very warm and loveable guy whose face glowed with love of life… Rest in peace…

Facing up to the world of AI

You may have missed a Linked In post last week by my great friend and ally, Susan Scott-Parker, founder of Business Disability International (bdi) — and this is a good opportunity for me to thank her profusely for her invaluable support and inspiration over many years. This is almost plagiarism on my part but I have her permission…

Does it matter that all the research and commentary on the emerging ‘diversity crisis’ associated with AI and its use of facial recognition software considers gender, race and sexuality but ignores the implications for people with disabilities and especially those with facial disfigurements?

Or could this actually work to the advantage of people with unusual faces? Might we enjoy a wonderful sense of privacy if we are absent from — do not exist in — the vast new databases that are going to be developed based on facial recognition?

Some might even suggest that we will be one of the lucky few, free from surveillance by cameras that just can’t recognise us. Because there seem to be doubts as to whether the AI systems being developed will be able to handle a face which has a birthmark, a paralysis or scarring. Or is being reconstructed over a period of years or decades.

Part of me hopes they never will be able to do such scans — but then I realise that there could be serious downsides. In a small way, I experience such a problem when entering the United States which has just invented a much-acclaimed and very clever digital immigration system. The problem is that it cannot handle (sic) people with sub-digital (sic) hands like me. The missing digits on my left hand causes me to be rejected — although thankfully, so far, an Immigration Officer has looked at my passport photo and recognised me as me.

So, far from wishing to be a lucky outsider, I hope AI systems will discover cunning methods that can scan, track, and identify those of us with distinctly-different faces with ease. I want us all to be fully included.

If the systems fail — or neglect — to do so, the future could look very bleak indeed.

People with significant facial differences could find that our faces — and therefore, we —do not ‘fit’… not only failing to meet the ever-more-demanding ‘look-perfect’ strictures of our global culture but also failing to ‘fit’ the AI methodology at all. The ultimate discrimination perhaps?

Taking this to extremes, we could even reach the point where we and disabled people generally just don’t count at all — in a world where “not to be in the database is not to be at all”.

If you think this is a joke or something out of a dystopian novel, it isn’t. This is for real.

Which is why I’m delighted that Susan has invited Face Equality International to join her at bdi with the support of IBM in creating a community of thought-leaders to ask ‘humans with disability’-related questions that the AI sector needs to address as of now. Watch this space…

 

Re-activating my blogging

It’s been 15 months since I last wrote a blog – and that’s partly because I’ve been very busy setting up an international alliance of NGOs that want to turn the campaign for Face Equality started by Changing Faces in 2008 into a global movement. It’s called Face Equality International and here’s the link: http://www.faceequalityinternational.org. It’s been going nearly six months now and has already grown from its founding nine Members to a determined 30-strong group. We will be creating and marking the first International Face Equality Week from 17th to 25th May 2019 – more soon on this…

But I have another reason for my quietness – I’ve been somewhat preoccupied by treatment for a non-Hodgkin lymphoma which has required two courses of chemo and earlier this year, a stem cell transplant. With immense gratitude for this amazing medicine and to the superb NHS teams that provided my care, I am now two-thirds of the way through what is reckoned to be a 100 day recovery – and feeling stronger by the day…

So with energy returning, I intend to find my voice again… hoping there are one or two people ‘out there’ interested in what I have to say!

First topic: ‘Facing up to the world of AI’… Please let me know what you think…

 

#WhereIsDisfigurement? Two classic examples

I fear we at Changing Faces* are going to have say this loudly and regularly:

Barely a month passes without a government department, executive agency, public body, company or charity publishing a report or new policy on equality, human rights and/or disability and yet the issue of disfigurement is often ignored, excluded or otherwise forgotten.

Why is this neglect important?

Because people with disfigurements** have a right to expect better.

They are protected from discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 ‘as if they had a disability’ and have rights for awareness of their issues and how to address them to be reported upon in the Public Sector Duty obligations of public sector bodies.

Over 1.3m children, young people and adults in the UK have a disfigurement, including 569,000 (1 in 111 of the population) with significant facial disfigurements – significant psychologically and socially (psycho-socially). Although modern medicine and surgery is increasingly sophisticated, it can rarely remove a disfigurement completely.

Every one of these people has to live in our looks-obsessed society with a face or body that attracts intrusive attention, judgement and the stigma our culture attaches to disfigurement. Because of this, they are vulnerable to low self-esteem, to being isolated and friendless, facing teasing, ridicule and staring in public, low expectations in school and at work, problems getting work, and stereotyping in the media. Just because of the way they look. It’s not just at all.

So ensuring schools, companies and politicians understand disfigurement matters very much.

They also need to recognise that making ‘reasonable adjustments’ in schools, businesses or public bodies is not a matter of ensuring good physical access or smart IT as for many disabled people. No, people with disfigurements – like those with mental health issues – need attitudinal adjustments.

And that’s not a quick fix because independent research indicates that nine out of ten members of the public find it very hard to attach positive attributes to people with facial disfigurements. And that statistic remains the same irrespective of educational status and age.

Everyone in our society has been conditioned – unwittingly – by the stereotyping around disfigurement: it’s a passport to a second-rate life in our good looks = success’ society; many people with disfigurements are odd, villains, nasty and to be avoided; and anyway, modern plastic/cosmetic surgery can fix it. All fallacious but all the reasons why face-ism exists.

Here are two classic recent examples of disfigurement being ignored.

First, at the start of December, the Shaw Trust published its annual ‘Power 100 List 2017, a celebration of Britain’s most influential disabled people‘ – slightly strange that it’s dated 2017 but maybe a clever marking tag – and I was keen to see whether some leading people with disfigurements had got a mention.

I found Katie Piper, the acid survivor and celebrity – good. But no place for Simon Weston. I searched for Adam Pearson, now a star of the TV screen with his documentaries for Channel 4 and the BBC. And Bill Cooper, Managing Director and Global Head of Insurance and Specialist Finance at Lloyds Banking Group who carries a great birthmark which he has used to transform the culture in that company. And Winnie Harlow, a woman with vitiligo who is brilliantly challenging the fashion and cosmetic world. But none of them featured.

#WhereIsDisfigurement

Second, we were pleased to see the eagerly-awaited report of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Disability (APPGD) on the infamous Disability Employment Gap – but I was absolutely staggered to see that some of the main organisations enabling employers to take disability seriously were not consulted: the Business Disability Forum and AbilityNet come to mind – and just three companies and one local authority. Five academics have given their name to this report. They ought to be ashamed at the paltry research that has gone into it.

We gave evidence to the enquiry team about the problems that people with disfigurements face in getting work or retaining their posts, the existence of implicit bias and how we provide training on how employers can and should tackle it – and take our advice on recruitment and retention. But not a word in the report – even though we (and many other disability organisations) would argue that the institutionalised disabilism that the report does mention has bias, stereotyping and prejudice at its root.

What should be done?

Ultimately, Changing Faces believes that people with disfigurements will only get effective rights when disfigurement is listed as a separate protected characteristic in Britain’s equality legislation. That will take some time to bring about but we are pleased to say that the Equality & Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is starting to wake up to the problem.

Right now, though, please, we ask everyone to be our eyes and ears so that we pick up on opportunities to further this campaign.

 

Notes

* Changing Faces is here to help people who have a disfigurement find a way to live the lives they want. We are caring campaigners – empowering people to conquer fears, take the first steps and ultimately take control and realise their dreams. And we challenge prejudice, respect differences and speak to a world that needs to change. Please see: http://www.changingfaces.org.uk

** We use ‘disfigurement’ as a collective word for all the conditions, scars or marks that make a person’s face or body look unusual. Many people, understandably, prefer to specify their condition, for example, ‘I have a birthmark’.

Celebrating the springboard donation to Changing Faces

Greville and Lisa Mitchell

Greville and Lisa Mitchell

Twenty-five years ago this week, on Friday 25th October 1991, I received the very first donation to Changing Faces – and it was a full nine months before the charity was officially ‘launched’ and was therefore of even more significance.

So I was delighted last week to be invited to have coffee with Greville and Lisa Mitchell in their lovely house overlooking Perelle Bay in Guernsey – and to thank them yet again for their immense generosity. Their donation was the trigger, it gave me the confidence – and they didn’t stop there either!

Greville Mitchell is a very well-respected local philanthropist in Guernsey – he’d put up the initial funding for the island’s hospice. I didn’t know him but managed to get an introduction and met him one afternoon in early October 1991.

I explained what I was thinking of doing – creating a charity to fill the void in psycho-social, confidence-building care for people with disfigurements from any cause, to advocate that such care should be a routine of health care after burns, cleft lip and palate, facial cancer or paralysis or skin conditions, and to challenge the prevailing and pervasively negative public attitudes around disfigurement.

A big agenda, I admitted, but it need to be tackled. I asked him if he would advise me on whether he thought it a viable and worthwhile idea. He agreed to review my ‘business plan’ (I shuddered at its paucity) and said he would get back to me.

A few days later, I had just been out spreading slurry on a local field fully-clad in protective oil skins and stopped at the end of our farm track to rescue the post from the mail box. I climbed back into the tractor cab and opened one of the letters, the writing of which I didn’t recognise. It was from Greville: “thank you for your book and your plan… I think it is a very good and exciting idea and needs doing… and here’s £5,000 to get it going… and I’ll go on supporting you if you do get it up and running.”

And so the Andrew Mitchell Christian Charitable Trust became our very first donor – and Greville has been good to his word like the great Christian gentlemen he is. He has given 25 gifts to a total value of £146,000.

But that very first donation was the most important. From a complete outsider, he recognised the need I was talking about and was prepared to put money behind it. That is how charities like Changing Faces start and that is what keeps us going forward:

Because people believe as Greville did – and does – that it “needs doing”.

What is more, I could write to other prospective donors and say “I had already received substantial support”!

Greville and Lisa: you spring-boarded so much – mega thanks!

Kathy Lacy – a woman of huge empathy who inspired thousands

It was with great sadness that I heard of Kathy Lacy’s death last Thursday after she’d been through a series of very difficult health problems. I’d seen her a fortnight ago and she was clearly in agony so it was a mercy.

I first met Kathy (pictured above) at Victoria Station in July 1992 three months after Changing Faces was launched. She had been recommended by a mutual friend who knew I was looking for someone to help me deal with all the enquiries I was receiving and run the workshops we were inventing too.

Kathy was working in health education in London at that time and had, according to my friend, completely mastered her condition – a severe form of Nf1, Neurofibromatosis, which meant that she had what she sometimes referred to as ‘lumps and bumps’ all over her face and body.

Victoria Station was a good choice of venue as it turned out because I could see instantly as I approached her in the coffee shop that she was completely unphased by the reactions of those around her. She greeted me with all the warmth and interest that I soon came to realise were her hallmarks. Despite all the intrusions and bad times she had been through, she had evolved the most wonderful way of seeing the very best in people – and of showing that very directly.

It didn’t take me more than a few minutes to realise that I could work with her – and indeed that I wanted her on the team – as my very first freelancer – and she was soon to become a full-time member of staff, a rock for nearly a decade in what we offered to people and families who contacted us for help. They were looking for someone who understood what they were going through – after the birth of their child, or with their skin condition or facial palsy, or after facial cancer surgery, burns or a car accident. Kathy understood instinctively and intuitively.

Her philosophy of life was a simple one summed up in one of her favourite epithets – and she had lots of them! “The past is gone, the future is yet to come, the present is truly a gift to be enjoyed”… and she passed that on to everyone by osmosis. And her osmosis was extraordinary. People have told me that Kathy could convey her empathy down the phone line like no-one else. Her person-centred approach – she trained with Metanoia and NLP – enabled her to reach people even those in the most serious unhappiness and isolation.

In the first few years, we ran lots of workshops together – and then Kathy ran many on her own. They were always stimulating events bringing people with disfigurements of all kinds together and enabling them, after two intense days, to live life more fully and confidently. People regularly wrote (no email in those days) afterwards thanking her for her kindness and empowerment. She was great one for saying to clients that you have to have tenacity – she had it in spades. Another of her mottos was “there’s no such thing as failure, only feedback” and anyone who had a setback – or experienced the kind of intrusions that she knew only too well – was just unable to resist her certainty! Learn from your experience and move on.

In her nine years at Changing Faces before she retired, Kathy touched the lives of many people – and left a lasting legacy in the Client Service we now have which she was so rightly proud to have pioneered.

Kathy, rest in peace, you earned it.

The birth of modern plastic surgery and the face equality campaign

The centenary of the cataclysmic Great War is happening all around us but is liable to be drowned out by last week’s European events. Let me call for a moment of reflection.

We say on Armistice Day every November ‘we will remember them’ and we should this week. Lest we forget. On Friday 1st July, I will remember the sacrifices of the men and women of the Great War, 1914-18, who gave their lives or were injured in that dreadful event.

One hundred years ago on 1st July, the Battle of the Somme began. There were 60,000 casualties that first day – yes, 60,000 – and by the time the Battle was called off in November, the allies had gained six miles of territory with 420,000 British casualties, 200,000 French and 500,000 Germans. One eye witness account captures the horror on this site.

The reason why this matters to me is that 1st July 1916 is held by those in the dressing stations and hospitals behind the lines on both sides as being the birth day of modern facial and plastic surgery. Never before had so many men been seen with severe facial injuries – and thanks to methods that had evolved in the previous two years of war, never had so many men survived. Governments on both sides were forced to bring together the most ingenious surgeons of the day to tackle the challenge.

On the allied side in the early days of the War, the British New Zealander ENT surgeon, Harold Gillies, worked with Charles Auguste Valadier, a French-American dentist and the French surgeon, Hippolyte Morrestin, to invent new techniques for closing facial wounds and treating the loss of skin and tissue. But as soon as the Somme’s casualty toll became obvious, Gillies was given a whole hospital – Queen Mary’s in Sidcup – to find ways to help the thousands of facially-injured soldiers arriving back in Britain.

Queen Mary's Hospital Sidcup, with Harold Gillies on the right

Queen Mary’s Hospital Sidcup, with Harold Gillies on the right

He assembled an exemplary multi-disciplinary and international team – perhaps better, ‘force’ – and every one of us who have received facial surgery since then owe Gillies and that team a huge vote of gratitude. Gillies’ seminal textbook, Plastic Surgery of the Face, published in 1920 remains a masterpiece.

And it gets even more personal for me because in the Second World War, Gillies again was at the forefront of treating the many casualties and this time created a ‘force’ at Rooksdown House in Basingstoke. My surgeon, Jim Evans, was trained by Gillies there – and when the war ended, the whole team moved, with their archives, to Queen Mary’s Hospital, Roehampton, where I was treated in 1970-75. My last operation in 1974 was a Gillies pedicle, the longest ever attempted according to Jim Evans, from my back to my chin. I wear it with pride.

And it was in the basement of that hospital, next to the medical photographer’s studio which I recall very well, that the archives were found in 1993 and thanks to the brilliant work of Andrew Bamji, have been created into a beautiful archive.

I will also celebrate the work of Henry Tonks, the war artist in Gillies’ work. I count myself privileged to have seen the originals in the vaults of the Royal College of Surgeons in England in connection with a film about Simon Weston’s portrait going on display at the National Portrait Gallery.

But perhaps most of all, my sombre reflection will be about the lives of the men who, after the horrors of the Somme, then went through the pain and agony of those early surgical experiments and then had the strength to try to get back into civvy street. They are the real pioneers, the first generation working for face equality in all walks of life, for respect and fair treatment.

Lest we forget. RIP.

PS: For interest: many books have tried to capture this human experience like Marc Dugain’s The Officer’s Ward (also a fine film), Pat Barker’s Life Class trilogy, The Crimson Portrait by Jody Shields and Louisa Young’s My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You.

Changing Faces sticks to its prinicples

Changing Faces has recently submitted its response to the review of cleft lip and palate surgical care in Scotland. It has been criticised in a few blogs and Facebook posts by some parents for supporting the expert Review Group’s recommendation that there should be a single surgical team based at the new Royal Children’s Hospital in Glasgow in the future rather than two teams as now (one in Glasgow, one in Edinburgh).

This has been a challenging process and it is important that I, as Chief Executive of Changing Faces, explain why the charity has taken this position – and it is the organisation’s view reached after much deliberation and not simply the view held by one or two members of staff.

Our full response is here and should be read in full because it explains that the basis for the decision was our over-riding interest in promoting the best future health care, surgical and psycho-social, for all children with clefts and their families across Scotland.

We reached the conclusion we did after a thorough analysis and careful consideration of all the paperwork in the public domain including all the options appraisal and outcomes papers (see this document and also this document). We also listened to the public meetings and to the views of people who’ve contacted us.

As Chief Executive, I took a close interest in such a contentious issue and subjected the position developed by our Scotland Manager and health policy team to challenge and scrutiny. The position we reached was explicit and unanimous.

We want to be clear on three points:

Firstly, we are very aware of the strong views of individuals and families who have been superbly served by the Edinburgh surgical team over the last decade. They are understandably concerned that they may lose the surgical team’s service and all that goes with it. That is not what the single site proposal would produce because the intention is to bring all the three surgeons and their entire surgical teams together. In doing so, all children in Scotland would have access to the best surgery possible.

We also made it clear that we do not think anything else should change: the integrated and psycho-social care that wraps around patients with clefts and their families is absolutely fundamental. “At present there are eight multi-disciplinary team clinics across Scotland. We believe there should be a cast-iron guarantee in the final report which commits to keeping them as they are…. We also would like to see a commitment to regular follow up psychosocial assessment at all levels of patient care.”

Secondly, our health policy team has submitted evidence to many such consultations over the last twenty years including the original Clinical Standards Advisory Group (CSAG)’s review of cleft care back in the early 1990s. In almost all cases, our view after careful assessment of the evidence and arguments has been that children and adults with relatively rare conditions are better served by and obtain better results from larger teams of surgeons working together, learning from and supporting each other, conducting many operations rather than only a few.

Current surgical opinion is also strongly in favour of the concentration of skills and resources for best outcomes, accessibility and patient safety. We accept that view in this case as bringing the chance that the best surgical expertise will be nurtured, shared and developed for the benefit of all children in Scotland. The two Royal Colleges in Scotland have confirmed that they too accept the expert Review Group’s view (see, for example, this from the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh).

Thirdly, Changing Faces is not ‘playing politics’ in any way here but acting dispassionately in the best interests of patients, present and future, across the whole of Scotland.

The charity rejects completely claims that it has been corrupted or that it is in the pocket of the Scottish Government or has been ‘bought’ by the Review Group. None of these accusations have any truth to them whatsoever.

We also strongly refute the suggestion that our Scotland Manager stated at either of the public consultation meetings that he was in favour of the single site proposal or that he said that he had already made up his or Changing Faces’ mind. He listened carefully to the views expressed at those meetings in his capacity both as our Scotland Manager and as a member of the Stakeholder Consultation Group. This also consisted of Gillian McCarthy, CLAPA, and Emma Ashman, Scottish Health Council. All remained neutral throughout the meetings.

Lastly, should the proposals be accepted by the Scottish Government, Changing Faces urges the Edinburgh surgical team to be open to sharing and developing their great expertise within the context of a single site surgical team in the future for the benefit of all children and young people with clefts in Scotland. Whatever the decision, that benefit will be our focus.

Celebrating excellence in diversity practice

I was delighted to have been asked to speak and give the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Excellence in Diversity Awards in Leeds last week – what a great celebration it was!

I was honoured to speak at the Excellent in Diversity Awards last week

I was honoured to speak at the Excellent in Diversity Awards last week

Congratulations to everyone who was nominated – and the winners should be very proud… and especially to Karin Woodley, Chief Executive of Cambridge House who was given the Lifetime Achievement Award. I salute you!… and what a superb speech you made… “fighting for social justice is our moral obligation”…

Here’s what I said:

I am very pleased to hear that there have been so many excellent submissions for these Awards this year – and that the numbers are rising year on year. This message should go our loud and clear into our society which sadly, is too often characterised as narrow-minded and prejudiced. Not true. Respect, diversity and inclusion are thriving.

What tonight proves is that many many companies and organisations ‘get it’ – they understand the argument that diversity is good for their organisations and good for business – and they want to tap into the strength of the diversity of our society.

At the risk of preaching to the converted, let’s just revisit why investing in diversity can give organisations and companies a competitive edge and bottom-line advantage… three simple reasons:

  • because they can attract the most talented people to work for them
  • because they can retain staff who go through life-changing experiences
  • because they can attract customers who might not shop with them.

Simples.

I am glad to say that Changing Faces has worked with many companies across the UK to help them embed respect for ‘face equality’ and so enable them to attract people with unusual faces into their workplace, retain them if they go through a difficult experience – like a facial cancer or a Bell’s palsy – and ensure that people like me get excellent customer service… and aren’t asked ‘Cor, what happened to you?’ at the check-out desk. Yes it happens.

But we also run into the usual excuses – ‘we are dealing with gender equality this year’ and ‘we are fully trained on disability so don’t worry’. Sadly, it is often not until one of our users reports a bad incident that companies are impelled to do something.

Similarly, in 15 years of Dining with a Difference events, I have been amazed at how the top Boards of big companies frequently do not ‘get it’… They fail to see that disability, disfigurement and diversity are important strategic business issues not just annoying HR problems. Dining has lots of light-bulb moments for them…

I think there is one factor that marks out organisations and companies that ‘get it’ and those that don’t – they have a champion in a senior or high-level position who gets it and is determined to embed ‘it’ into the very fabric of the organisation.

A classic example was a major bank for which we ran a Dining event… we were told that many of the top Board were coming and were tasked with getting one of them as champion… at the end of the evening, the Finance Director got up to say ‘thank you’ and completely unprompted, announced that he’d put his hand up to be the company’s Disability Champion.

He kept his word and went on to become the Chief Executive. The whole company’s approach to disability – and diversity across the board too – changed.

So my message to you this evening is actually a challenge: I task you all with finding and nurturing the next generation of champions on diversity and inclusion in your organisations to take the embedding up to the next level.