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Face masks and communication - coronavirus info for families of deaf children

Published Date: 24 Mar 2022

This blog has been left online for background and reference only - please note the information included may not reflect the current position in your nation

How face masks can affect communication for deaf children and young people

Communication for virtually all deaf children and young people, including those who use sign language, relies in part on being able to see someone’s face clearly – whether this is for lip-reading, understanding facial expressions or for understanding non-verbal communication more widely (e.g. seeing whether someone is smiling or looks upset).

Face masks and coverings can have the effect of obscuring speech, making it harder for deaf children and young people to make use of any residual hearing they have. They therefore present specific challenges for deaf children and young people.

Our tips on how to communicate when wearing face masks or coverings

Where face coverings are being worn, it will be important for everyone to be flexible and creative in how they communicate with deaf children and young people, depending on the resources they have to hand and the situation they find themselves in. Options might include:

  • Using alternative forms of communication – such as writing things down or via text messages, depending on the individual needs of the child.
  • Dictation or translation apps can sometimes provide a speech–to-text option when out and about – however, they do not always work perfectly, particularly if someone has a strong accent or if speech is muffled.
  • Using face masks/coverings with clear panels where the mouth can be seen. 
  • Ensuring the listening environment is as quiet as possible and making use of any other hearing technology used by a child (such as a radio aid).
  • Communicating via a Perspex panel or screen.
  • Considering the need for a face-to-face meeting, and whether a video call could work as an alternative for individual deaf children.
  • Temporarily removing the face mask/covering and communicating within the current safety guidance (e.g. ensuring hand washing before and after, not touching the face when the mask/covering is removed, adhering to the social distancing guidelines of staying 2 metres apart).

Our infographic summarises the above top tips. These steps will help ensure that deaf children and young people can continue to communicate with others around them and access key information at this challenging time.

Where people are exempt from wearing a face covering, some have chosen to wear a badge or lanyard to say why they are exempt. However, this not a requirement anywhere in the UK and should be seen as optional only. We expect those ‘enforcing’ any rules around face covering to be flexible and patient around this, and to recognise that it may not be readily apparent why someone is exempt.

If you are forbidden entry or stopped from doing something because someone did not accept you were exempt from wearing a face covering (even after you informed them why), this could be seen as discriminatory towards disabled people and therefore unlawful under the Equality Act (Great Britain) or Disability Discrimination Act (Northern Ireland). In the first instance, you should consider asking to speak to the manager and/or making a formal complaint.

Government advice on face masks and coverings

Information on the rules where you live can be found in UK government guidance:

You may not need to wear a face covering if you are exempt or have a ‘reasonable excuse’. For example:

  • If you have a health condition, or a disability that means you cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering.
  • If you are travelling with, or providing assistance to, someone who relies on lip reading to communicate. It is important to emphasise that this exemption applies to the person being lip-read, and not the person who needs to lipread.
  • If you are under the age of 11 (England/Wales), 5 (Scotland) or 13 (Northern Ireland).

Some companies or transport providers may still require face coverings before you can use their service. They will still be expected to allow the above exemptions. A failure to do so may be seen as discrimination towards disabled people under the Equality Act (or the Disability Discrimination Act in Northern Ireland).

Face masks/coverings in education

There are different rules in place across the UK on face coverings in education.

  • In England, pupils are no longer required to wear face coverings in classrooms in schools and colleges (as of 20 January 2021). Face coverings are also no longer required to be worn in indoor communal areas (as of 27 January 2021). In some areas where there is a localised outbreak of coronavirus, staff and pupils may be asked by the local director of public health to wear face coverings in communal areas and/or classrooms for a temporary period. Guidance states that, in these circumstances, transparent face coverings, which may assist communication with someone who relies on lip reading, clear sound or facial expression to communicate, can be worn.
  • In Northern Ireland, face coverings are no longer required in classrooms. On 25 March 2022 the Minister of Education announced that face coverings are also no longer recommended for use in corridors, communal areas. However, face coverings are still recommended to be worn when using public or school transport. Detailed guidance on mitigating the impact of face coverings on the education of deaf children was issued by the Department of Education as an annex to revised guidance for schools.
  • In Scotland, the Scottish Government has said that from 28 February face coverings will no longer be required in classrooms, including for learners in the senior phase sitting exams. Learners and staff should continue to be supported to wear face coverings if they choose to do so. However, schools have been told to specifically and carefully consider the impact of using face coverings with deaf children and should explore reasonable adjustments when these present a barrier to learning. Schools can also consider the use of transparent or see-through face coverings.
  • In Wales, the Welsh Government has said that from 28 February face coverings will no longer be routinely recommended in classrooms. Guidance states that face coverings should however be worn by secondary aged learners, staff and visitors in all schools when moving around indoor communal areas outside of the classroom, such as corridors, where physical distance cannot be maintained. Schools who, based on their local context and advice need to operate at the ‘Very High’ risk level can continue to recommend that face coverings are used in classrooms by staff and secondary aged learners. Guidance continues to note that some learners and staff are exempt from wearing face coverings and that “the wellbeing of individuals is critical to any considerations around whether staff or learners should wear face coverings.” The guidance particularly highlights the impact of face coverings for deaf children.

Where a face mask or covering is being worn in the classroom, you should discuss with the school and any Teacher of the Deaf how this will impact your child. Education settings are legally required to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that your child is not disadvantaged. For more information on the reasonable adjustments that can be made, you can read our position paper on face coverings in education. You can also read our blog on what you can do if face coverings are being worn in your child’s classroom and our blog on education support.

Face masks in employment

Where deaf young people are at work, the use of face masks and coverings - by colleagues or customers – may cause difficulties in communication. If this is the case, we encourage young people to raise this with their employer and discuss options for working around this. Employers will be legally required to make reasonable adjustment to ensure that deaf young people are not disadvantaged in employment. For example, if face mask/coverings are being worn by colleagues, a reasonable adjustment might be to wear a clear face mask/covering instead. An alternative reasonable adjustment – for deaf young people in customer-facing roles – would be re-assign their responsibilities, as much as possible.

It will be important for employers to be creative, flexible and patient in supporting deaf employees at this time.