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Face coverings and your disabled customers

Parma Sira, Small Business Disability Adviser, Business Disability Forum

Attention face covering sign

Wearing face coverings, such as masks, has been compulsory for customers inside shops, supermarkets and hospitality venues such as restaurants and cafés (while open) for months, unless someone is exempt from wearing one. As such, front of house staff in many small businesses are now expected to challenge customers entering their premises without them; conversations that are not only awkward and uncomfortable, but can often be confrontational.

While the UK’s biggest retail chains are able to implement widescale training programs to teach their staff how to have these conversations with their customers and are often supported by trained security personnel, for many small businesses this is a huge area of concern.

Face covering exemptions

There could be many reasons as to why someone might be exempt from wearing a face covering: skin conditions, asthma, mental health and autism to name just a few, and many employees have legitimate worries about how they should behave when challenging a disabled person who falls into this category.

Remember that for both customers and employees, the issue of face mask exemptions is a huge deal.

A lot of disabled people don’t want to make their disability public by wearing an exempt badge or lanyards, and many have disabilities that are not obvious. Shopping for essentials right now can bean unpleasant experience already, and even though they can’t medically wear a face covering, disabled people can often be looked at with suspicion whilst doing what should be an everyday task and on the other side you have employees who don’t want to offend anyone, but it’s their job to ensure the safety of people on their premises.

Tips to support employees interacting with customers not wearing face coverings

Here are a few steps small businesses can take to support front facing employees interacting with customers without face coverings:

  • Empower employees to ask questions, but in a non-accusatory manner, whilst also not making any negative assumptions about a customer’s reason for not wearing a face covering. E.g. “Hello, I see you’re not wearing a face mask. Is there a reason for that?” If the customer says they aren’t required to wear one, then accept this answer and allow them to continue. Some customers might point to a badge, card or their phone to show they are exempt – for example the government’s own face coverings exemption badge which can be printed off or shown on a phone. Others might just say that they cannot wear a mask.
  • Assume that a customer has a good reason for not wearing a face covering to avoid putting them ‘on the spot’.
  • Make sure employees don’t ask for details about a disability or condition – it’s sufficient for a customer to say they don’t have to wear a mask, don’t push them on the details.
  • Ensure employees have these conversations from a safe distance and/or with perspex screens in between themselves and the customer.
  • Communicate to your team that they are not responsible for enforcing the law and should err on the side of caution when asking a customer for more information.

When a customer relies on lip-reading to communicate:

  • Empower employees to ask customers if they could lower their face covering when speaking to them after explaining that they are lip reading.
  • Customers should also feel confident to ask a member of staff to do the same – ensure this is done at a safe distance or with a perspex screen in between.
  • Allow employees and customers to refuse if they don’t feel safe lowering their face covering. It then may be necessary to ask another team member to serve the customer.
  • Other measures could be implemented such as employees carrying a notepad and pen to write messages, but they must ensure that they are the only person who touches the pad and pen. Some customers and employees might have mobile phone apps which translate spoken words into text.

Communicating practices to customers

Consider using the following to communicate the practices you would like them to follow around face coverings in your premises:

  • Signage – visual as well as written signs work best e.g. a face without a mask with a cross and a face with a mask with a tick next to it
  • Posters
  • Tannoy announcements
  • State on company website what the protocols are, so that customers can be aware in advance of the procedures that are in place.

Parma heads a free disability Advice Service that amongst other things, offers guidance to Small and Medium businesses in London on how to advise their team to interact with customers around the issue of face coverings.

If you’d like to learn more, you can visit our Smarter London SMEs page to learn how your London-based small business can receive this service or contact Parma Sira on +44-(0)-207-089-2483 or  for further information.

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