Masks are Helping Control COVID-19, but They are Creating Problems for People With Disabilities

By Patrick Martin
Posted August 1, 2021

While masks are a vital barrier against the spread of COVID-19, they have also added a layer of complexity to even the most simple of tasks for people with a disability.

Key points:

Masks have been mandatory or “strongly” recommended in many settings across Australia
For people with disabilities, an unintended consequence has been social exclusion

Some are now calling for a permit system to prove they are entitled to exemptions

Masks are currently required in all indoor public spaces in South Australia and, since the state emerged from its week-long lockdown on Wednesday, have been “strongly” recommended in workplaces.

Similar rules have been introduced in other jurisdictions across the country.

While there are exemptions for people with mental or physical disabilities, some health conditions and sensory issues, there has been a rise in instances of social exclusion.

Some have said they have struggled to communicate with others who refuse to remove their own masks to speak with them, or do not accept that they are exempt from wearing one.

“There’s a lot of judgement from people in the community when, for example, I don’t wear a mask or if I have to ask someone else to take their mask off so that I can communicate,” said Flinders University academic Ellen Fraser-Barbour, who is deaf and has low vision.

The ABC has been told one child in South Australia – who is exempt from wearing a mask because of a disability – was refused access to a bus service, because the driver would not accept anyone not wearing a mask.

Some of those affected are now calling on health authorities to introduce a formal permit system, allowing people with disabilities to show that they are exempt from mandatory mask-wearing.

Ms Fraser-Barbour said being unable to communicate with people wearing masks had been highly stressful.

She supports the new mask-wearing rules, but said everyday tasks had become “100 times harder”.

A recent medical appointment in which a doctor refused to take his mask off to speak with her was a typical instance of what she and others have been up against, Ms Fraser-Barbour said.

“I was like, ‘I can’t hear you, I can’t communicate with you, I don’t know what you’re asking me to do’,” she said.

“He just kept getting more and more frustrated, and kept saying, ‘I can’t take my mask off, I can’t’.”

Barry Priori is deaf and uses sign language to communicate and, through an Auslan interpreter, said he encountered similar problems during a recent hospital visit.

“The nursing staff were talking to me and I thought, ‘Huh? You know I am a deaf person, why are you talking to me with a mask on?’,” he said.

He said being able to see someone’s face was critical when trying to speak with them.

“With a mask we can’t see the complete face, and we need to see the face to get clear communication,” he said.

Calls for permit system

Clothing designer Ben Paior-Smith has an intellectual disability and said that masks made life more difficult for him.

“They make your glasses foggy,” Mr Paior-Smith said.

“It makes it hard to talk with muffled voices.”

Ms Fraser-Barbour said a permit system that exempted people from wearing masks would make a big difference.

“Not everyone has a visible disability,” she said.

“Some people have sensory issues, asthma, other types of conditions that might not be visible and so it would be really helpful to have some sort of exemption that you could show.”

She said “common sense” would also go a long way in the meantime.

“Wear a mask but also be aware that there are circumstances where it’s okay to remove the mask to communicate with someone,” she said.

“That’s much safer than the stressful situation of shouting or getting aggressive or stressed about the communication breakdown.”

Mr Priori agreed, and urged greater awareness of, and tolerance for, the needs of those with disabilities.

“Other people, if they’re allowed to communicate with us, should remove the mask,” he said.

“I think it’s really good manners to ask and check, to make sure that everyone is comfortable, to come to an agreement and then remove the mask and then have a chat.

“We really do need to see that face.”

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