This past week has seen conspiracy theorists deliberately refusing to wear a mask in parts of the country where it is mandatory.
The “anti-maskers” of the nation have universally been denounced as selfish, irresponsible and dangerous for consciously refusing to covering their mouths during one of the world’s worst health crises.
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Mandatory face coverings now apply in regional Victoria, as well as metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire, under new rules announced by Premier Daniel Andrews on Thursday.
But for some minority groups, who insist they genuinely want to do the right thing and follow all the health advice, wearing a mask isn’t as simple as that.
‘WE’RE NOT A COMMUNITY OF KARENS’
For people who are deaf and hard of hearing, lip-reading can be a key means of communication.
Deaf Victoria advocacy officer Catherine Dunn, who is deaf, said many people in the community have experienced further isolation based on the pandemic rules.
“All deaf and hard of hearing people have been impacted by the wearing of masks,” she told news.com.au. “Even if you lip-read, you rely on facial cues and facial expressions. If you’re an Auslan reader, wearing the mask has a huge impact on communicating, which really adds to the isolation aspect of everything.”
There has been a rise of cases in Victoria where people have been discriminated against – either for not wearing a mask, or requesting that a mask be removed so they can communicate, according to Deaf Victoria general manager Maxine Buxton.
“Anecdotally, we have had people contact us and share their stories,” she told news.com.au. “We’ve had people tell us, ‘I was kicked out of this place’, or ‘This security guard refused to communicate with me’.”
“By and large, like the rest of the community, we’re not a community of ‘Karens’,” she said. “We want to do the right thing. But we also want people to do right by us.
“The burden (of communication) is squarely placed on deaf people and has been for a long time there.”
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Ms Dunn said she herself has faced verbal abuse at her local supermarket. She didn’t hear it, but she said her housemate, who was shopping with her, was horrified. “I didn’t see that there was someone standing next to me. I walked around them and they yelled at me and I just didn’t know.”
Ms Dunn noted that, while communication with deaf people about the pandemic has been generally of a high standard, there is some vagueness around how the mask-wearing rules are communicated.
“A lot of people with a disability or pre-existing health conditions, or medical conditions, are able to remove their masks to modify their communication for whatever their needs are, and that includes Deaf and hard of hearing people,” she said.
“It’s funny, because some people are recommending us to wear masks with the clear panel around the mouth, so we can be lip-read.
“But for me as a deaf person, I don’t need to wear a clear-panel mask; I need the other people in the community to wear the clear panel mask, so that I can lip-read them. So it’s creating a bit of awareness but not enough as to who needs to make these accommodations for accessibility.
“For me, I’ve been deaf my entire life. I’m able to adjust how I communicate to the people I talk to. But this time through the COVID pandemic, it’s really interesting to see that everybody now has to take on that responsibility to become accessible – it’s not just those with a disability or communication needs that need to work hard.”
There have also been global reports of abuse against deaf and hard of hearing people based on the mask rule. Earlier this week, sisters Karolina and Saule Pakenaite were abused on a train in the UK, after Saule lifted her mask so her deaf-blind sister could read her lips.
When she lifted her mask to speak to her sister, who had Usher syndrome and was deaf-blind, a woman began to shout verbal abuse.
In footage that was posted online, the woman refuses to accept their explanation that the older sister is hard of hearing.
She then questions whether the woman is actually disabled after she is able to respond to her comments.
Saule is then heard saying: “There’s a spectrum … You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Saint Louis University researchers in the United States said mask-wearing had “become a political flashpoint, putting people with disabilities at risk”.
“There are reports emerging that people with disabilities have been challenged, excluded from retail establishments, and even threatened with arrest for not wearing masks,” the researchers said. “Some anti-mask activists encourage their followers to falsely represent themselves as disabled to confound mask requirements, which has the potential to amplify scepticism and mistrust of people with non-obvious disabilities.
“Reports of violent conflict over mask-wearing add to these tensions. The first lawsuit challenging a mask requirement under federal disability rights law was filed in late May, and more are likely to follow.”
‘DON’T MAKE THEM THE SUBJECT OF YOUR IRE’
Masks are now mandatory across Victoria, but the state’s chief health officer Brett Sutton has acknowledged there are good reasons why some people can’t wear one.
“A number are legitimately not able to wear masks so please don’t vilify individuals or don’t make the assumption they are simply stubborn,” he said. “There will be people with medical, behavioural, psychological reasons. Certainly don’t make an assumption that they should be the subject of your ire.”
Dr Holly Seale, Senior Lecturer at the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at UNSW, explained that some people also find wearing a mask “difficult or distressing”.
This can include people living with autism, who may experience extreme anxiety from covering their nose and mouth with fabric; people with limited mobility who cannot put on or remove a mask from their face without help; people with severe claustrophobia; and people with facial deformities or physical trauma.
“This is not a list of exemptions,” she said. “Nor should we assume all people who fall into these categories can’t wear masks.”
“While there are people who genuinely cannot wear masks, for others, it may just take extra time, resources, adaptations, alternatives and support to feel comfortable wearing one.
“Remember, the goal of the public wearing a mask when leaving the house is to reduce the risk of community transmission. If we can do that without vilifying people who genuinely can’t wear masks, or need a bit of extra support to do so, we all benefit.”