HELEN JONES from the York Disability Forum discusses the wearing of face masks and how not everyone can cover up in public

THIS year we have had to get used to a lot, being in lockdown, learning new vocab and in the last couple of months, we’ve had to adjust to face coverings. 

Once limited to dentists and hospitals, they are now a staple of everyday life.

For most people this just means remembering to grab one before leaving the house and putting up with it feeling uncomfortable on a hot day.

But for some disabled people, the impact is much greater.

Not everyone can wear a face covering. While there is not an extensive list of who is exempt, there are certain conditions and disabilities which mean someone is more likely to struggle. Some people can't put one on by themselves. Others may find breathing difficulties are exacerbated by having their face covered.  And there’s people who would experience extreme distress if they were forced to wear one.

Of course, there is also the other side, those people who struggle with others wearing masks.

Research shows that deaf young people often have social and emotional difficulties which can stem from feelings of exclusion, isolation and frustration experienced in everyday life.

York Press:

Just one type of face covering people now wear - but some people are exempt

As face coverings became more common, some members of a local deaf charity (Lollipop) have expressed anxiety and apprehension about how this will affect communication with friends, family, and the wider community. 

Lollipop provides social and emotional support to children, young people and families in York and North Yorkshire with any degree of deafness from mild to profound. 

Helen Martin, teacher of the deaf, Lollipop trustee and education advisor to the Ewing Foundation, said: "Face masks are a real problem for the children we work with.

"For profoundly deaf children, they make it impossible to lip read and for children who use BSL it makes communication really difficult because of not being able to see facial expressions. 

"For children with mild hearing loss it’s tricky too.

"Previously, they often wouldn’t let on to their friends that they had hearing difficulties and would get by with lip-reading.

"Now with face masks, they have to tell their friends, and in some cases, they are finding this really hard.

"We've tried visors, but some deaf children say they are just as bad - people get glare off them, so they can’t lip read in the same way, and they distort the sound.

"We are advising schools to think about where students sit, be conscious of reducing the background noise in classes, be super deaf aware, use more visuals, and give a bit of support and leeway to deaf students." 

York Press:

Visors give off glare making it difficult to lip read

Unfortunately, there are people who are using the face covering exemptions as a loophole to avoid wearing one.

This behaviour has led to assumptions being made about people who aren’t wearing face coverings; that they believe coronavirus is a hoax, that they are selfish or are ignorant.

This attitude is resulting in people being verbally abused in shops when they don’t wear a face covering, even though there is no way to tell if someone is exempt just from looking at them.

Another distressing narrative is that if people are exempt, they shouldn’t be going out in a pandemic.  There are reasons for being exempt that don’t come with an increased vulnerability to the virus and we should trust that people know their body best and are able to make that informed decision. 

Also, as lockdown eased, a lot of the support that was in place for people who were shielding also eased off so we have to go out and get our prescriptions and go to the supermarket etc.

York Press:

Helen Jones, our columnist, who asks us to be mindful not everyone can wear a mask

Unfortunately, this judgemental way of thinking, combined with the threat of abuse, is resulting in anxiety about going out and means some disabled people are avoiding it altogether.

Lockdown and shielding have already created a sense of isolation and loneliness, let’s not create a segregated society where disabled people are told to stay inside.

Please don’t leap to assumptions about people who aren’t covering their face. 

If you are communicating with someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, there are ways to make it easier. 

If you can, step back and remove your mask at a safe distance. If you can’t, make use of gestures, pointing and write things down using the notes app on your smartphone.

If you can’t wear a face covering, and are anxious about how people will react, there are badges and statements you can download to your phone to reiterate you are legally exempt.

You don’t have to do this, but it is one way to ease your anxiety.

If you want to get involved with York Disability Rights Forum, please email yorkdisabilityrights@gmail.com. 

Please note, we are currently working on our offline contact route.