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Opinion piece

Face coverings and their unintended consequences

Diane Lightfoot, CEO, Business Disability ForumDiane Lightfoot looks at camera

With policy around Covid-19 understandably moving at pace, there is a risk that measures put in place to help protect us are not sufficiently thought through in terms of their impact on some groups of people. And as lockdown eases and measures – including the wearing of face coverings – are implemented to enable a loosening of restrictions, we need to make sure that disabled people are not negatively impacted.

Earlier this month, we published a piece on the impact of face coverings for people who need to lipread. When the wearing of face coverings began to be more widespread, we were contacted by the National Deaf Children’s Society who raised huge concerns that the 12 million people who are deaf or living with a hearing loss in the UK were at risk of being excluded and isolated in society. So, we carried out a survey of our members on awareness and attitudes amongst business to promoting or even mandating the use of face coverings with a clear panel to enable lipreading. We found that 90 per cent of businesses and organisations would recommend the use of clear panel face coverings to their employees, customers and clients and two thirds (63 per cent) also said that they would be prepared to make their use compulsory among staff and customers. However, respondents also highlighted the need for the Government to take urgent action to officially approve the use of transparent face coverings. For health and safety reasons, many organisations felt unable to source and purchase face coverings, without official guidance in place.

From 24 July, the wearing of face coverings was mandated in England for customers in all shops and supermarkets to wear a face covering. Scotland mandated the wearing of face coverings in shops a fortnight earlier. But crucially, there are exemptions to this rule and, just as with public transport, children under 11 and those with certain disabilities are exempt from this rule. For disabled people, an exemption might be because they have a skin condition, asthma or a mental health condition or because they are autistic and, for whatever reason, the wearing of a face covering would cause undue distress. People who need to lower a mask to enable someone to lipread what they are saying are also exempt.

We and others have been supporting Government as they create visuals to help disabled people and others who for whatever reason are exempt from wearing a face mask to communicate this to others. We hope that these visuals will help. But they need to be supported by a largescale public facing communication campaign to raise awareness of exemptions and to prevent abuse and an increase of disability hate crime. We are now – at last – starting to see campaigns to raise awareness that not all disabilities are immediately visible on accessible toilets, blue badge parking bays and via campaigns by train companies to enhance awareness around who can use a priority seat (“Please remember the reason someone may need this seat might not be immediately visible”). We need to learn from this and to act now to prevent such abuse from occurring – and alas, we know that it has already started.

The onus should not be on disabled people to prove that they are exempt but rather we need to change the culture to create a mindset where the reaction to someone who isn’t wearing a mask isn’t to disapprove – or worse – but to consider that there may be a very good reason why they aren’t doing so. Our new guidance in this area recommends that businesses empower staff to ask questions in a non-accusatory manner, whilst also not making any negative assumptions about a customer’s reason for not wearing a face covering and to accept it when customers point to a badge or simply say that they can’t wear a mask. We need to get to a mindset where frontline staff assume that a customer has a good reason for not wearing a face covering to avoid putting a customer ‘on the spot’.

But it is not enough to educate customer facing staff, vital though that is, and so we are calling on Government to run a large-scale public awareness campaign on face coverings and exemptions and the unacceptability of hate crime towards people who are exempt and to work with transport providers and retailers to ensure public education collateral is appropriately implemented and used.

Government needs to act and act fast and we all need to spread the word – and to identify and remove any unintended consequences for disabled people before they happen.

View our Covid-19 toolkit here

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