Mandatory masks have been introduced in indoor spaces and public transport in the UK for the alleged reason of ‘fighting the Covid-19 pandemic’. Many people have been critical of the mask mandates on various grounds, including civil liberties and the poor evidence base that they stop the transmission of viruses. This article will discuss an underacknowledged aspect of the mask mandate: that it amounts to discrimination against those who cannot wear masks because of disabilities.
The obvious objection to this position is that the law does state that there are exemptions on disability grounds. The ‘Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings on Public Transport) (England) Regulations 2020‘ states that:
For the purposes of regulation 3(1), the circumstances in which a person (“P”) has a reasonable excuse include those where—
(a)P cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering—
(i)because of any physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability (within the meaning of section 6 of the Equality Act 2010(1)), or
(ii)without severe distress;
(b)P is travelling with, or providing assistance to, another person (“B”) and B relies on lip reading to communicate with P.
The argument would follow, that because the law recognises exemptions, it is not discrimination. However, in practice this is not the case. In reality the law forces disabled people to make unfair choices, all of which can be plausibly argued to amount to discrimination. As a disabled person (autism) I have tried all of these choices and all of them make me feel like a second class citizen.
Choice 1: Don’t wear a mask
The media and the government have worked up the public into a lather about the alleged ‘pandemic’, all but claiming that if you walk past someone not wearing a mask in a supermarket that you are going to drop dead. The government has also done everything in its power to promote the idea that mask wearers are virtuous and good people and that by implication people who don’t wear masks are horrible and selfish. The British police chief, Cressida Dick, even stated that people who aren’t wearing masks in shops should be shamed:
My hope is that the vast majority of people will comply, and that people who are not complying will be shamed into complying or shamed to leave the store by the store keepers or by other members of the public.
All of this opens up disabled people for abuse and police harrassment. There have been cases where this has happened. Even if abuse does not take place, disabled people are forced to worry about the possibility every time they do in a shop.
Choice 2: Wear a Sunflower Lanyard
The next suggestion would be to wear a ‘Sunflower Lanyard’, which is a card designed for people with hidden disabilities to signal that they have a disability. There are versions that can be bought which say ‘Face Covering Exempt’.
Putting disabled people in a position where they feel pressured to reveal a hidden disability to everyone through the use of a lanyard or else risk abuse cannot be considered a solution. Most people don’t want to go around declaring they have health conditions to random members of the public and that also applies to people with hidden disabilities. It makes many people feel embarrassed, ashamed, awkward and self-conscious. That’s because health data is generally considered to be private information that we only feel comfortable revealing to a doctor (and sometimes not even then!).
Choice 3: Avoid Public Spaces
The mandating of masks can become a barrier to the participation of disabled people in society. I have heard many individuals say something along the lines of ‘If you can’t wear a mask in a shop, you should stay at home’. This is arguing for the exclusion of disabled people from society.
Many disabled people are already avoiding shops over masks. I have avoided going into shops when I otherwise would have because of the mask mandates and not wanting to deal with questions, dirty looks or abuse.
Choice 4: Wear a mask
The option of trying to wear a mask anyway in order to avoid the three scenarios outlined above is also discriminatory. Someone with asthma for example, may struggle to breathe through a mask and put themselves at a higher risk of an attack. Sensory issues can mean people with autism suffer from significant anxiety from wearing a mask. Masks can have a negative effect on a number of different medical conditions so pressure on disabled people to wear them regardless – putting people in a position where they are forced to possibly harm their health to avoid confrontation – is discriminatory.
Whichever option you want to choose, then, you are faced with discrimination.
But maybe you want to object that we are ‘in the middle of a deadly pandemic’ and disabled people should just suck it up. If you want to do make this argument, at least be honest about what you are arguing for.