James Partridge OBE, Director of Face Equality International and previously founder and CEO of Changing Faces shares his view on the legacy of Covid-19 and its impact on people with facial disfigurements.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had ghastly effects on people’s lives and across the whole economy – deaths from the virus in the UK at extraordinary high levels, many businesses devastated and unemployment rising inexorably.
Anyone with a disability or facial disfigurement is likely to have found the whole experience scary and unpleasant, many needing to shield and rely on independent living support – and the relaxing of restrictions is going to be daunting too.
Facial disfigurement or ‘facial difference’ can occur for many reasons – like facial cancer, eye problems or Bell’s palsy, birthmarks and cleft lips and palates, psoriasis, rosacea, vitiligo and acne, or scarring from accidents or violence – and it can have long-lasting impacts. My new book Face It is part-memoir of how severe facial burns at the age of 18 profoundly changed my life, threatened my work ambitions and challenged my conditioned prejudices. It took me five years to gain a new mojo.
The lockdown for anyone with a ‘different face’ had one unexpected upside: we could live without the fear of stares, intrusive comments and ridicule which are the everyday risks we expose ourselves to as soon as we leave our homes. But the social isolation which many of us had fought to avoid returned along with heightened anxiety about re-entering the world. Lockdown also exposed us to the Zoom culture, having to reveal our faces on screens without the chance to pro-actively reassure others of our ‘okay-ness’ as we would do face-to-face.
What will life hold as the lockdown eases? Three trends need watching:
First, with unemployment at historically high levels, competition for jobs will pose serious challenges for people with facial disfigurements – all the usual dilemmas like ‘do I declare my face?’ – and there is extremely good advice in the guide for employees Changing Faces produced some years ago.
But there are new challenges too: will prospective employers sustain fair and best-practice recruitment methods in the spirit of the Equality Act 2010 as outlined in the Changing Faces’ guide for employers? And will AI algorithms be brought in to short-cut selection processes but make getting a job much more complicated for people with facial differences and disabilities?
Second, how will people with facial disfigurements feel about being expected to wear face coverings? It’s essential we follow public health advice in public places, shops and transport systems. But I am not keen to cover up my distinctive face in many settings because this prevents me doing the endless ‘awareness-raising’ that goes with the territory. Which is why I favour transparent masks or visors for people with disfigurements especially for those in public-facing work roles. Will businesses be prepared to invest in these?
Third, as we emerge from the lockdown phase of the Covid-19 crisis with the #BlackLivesMatter movement challenging all businesses and service providers to eliminate institutional racism, is this the time when they will also see the sense of embedding ‘face equality’ into their business ethos and practices?
Interestingly, Changing Faces launched the ‘Face Equality at Work’ scheme in 2008 despite the fact that the sub-prime financial crisis was wreaking havoc around the world. As I describe in Face It, over the following five years, the scheme influenced over 100 leading UK employers employing and serving millions of people with household names like Barclays, BA, British Gas, Sainsbury’s, BT, the 2012 Olympics, KPMG and Shell and many more signing up to the Face Equality at Work pledge.
My hope is that, as we exit lockdown, some international companies will see the sense of this and help Face Equality International to set robust global principles to guide best practice. Please contact me if you are interested…
I hope the Business Disability Forum community will address these three issues with focus and fairness.
James can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org