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

Published Date: 24 Jul 2020

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

Government advice on face masks and coverings

Face masks are widely used in health settings for public health reasons. Outside of health settings, the UK Governments have taken different approaches in their advice on this issue.

At the time of writing, face coverings must be worn when using public transport in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and (from 27th July) Wales. There are some exemptions or ‘reasonable excuses’ to the requirement to wear face coverings on public transport in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. 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.
  • If you are under the age of 11 (England), 5 (Scotland) or 13 (Northern Ireland).

In addition:

  • In England, face coverings must also be worn if visiting a hospital, in shops, supermarkets, shopping centres and any ‘transport hubs’ (for example, an airport or train station). The use of face masks in education settings is not recommended by the Government, except in specific circumstances (for example, where a child demonstrates symptoms of coronavirus whilst at school).
  • In Northern Ireland, the Government has advised that people consider covering their face when in enclosed spaces (for example, when shopping). In education, the Government instructs that PPE is only needed if working with pupils whose care routinely already involves the use of PPE, due to intimate care needs, or when giving children medication.
  • In Scotland, face coverings must also be worn when shopping though discretion can be applied if, for example, you are shopping with someone who needs to communicate with you. . More generally, the Government also recommends that people cover their face when in enclosed spaces. Face masks are permitted in education in limited situations, depending on the level of risk to individuals and in the setting.
  • In Wales, the Government recommends that members of the public use face coverings in situations where social distancing is not possible. Face coverings can be used in education where social distancing is difficult. However, schools are expected to take steps to avoid this being necessary. Schools have also been told to specifically consider the implications around face coverings for deaf children, as well as other learners.  

Government guidance on face coverings and any exemptions can be found on the following websites:

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

Where it is necessary to wear face masks or coverings to comply with public health guidance, we encourage families and professionals 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 with clear panels where the mouth can be seen or, better still, using face visors/shields. Our website includes information about how you can make DIY clear face masks at home if you would like to do so. Such DIY face masks would be for use by the general public, and not for use in health settings.
  • 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 face-to-face meeting, and whether a video call could work as an alternative for individual deaf children.
  • Temporarily removing the face mask and communicating within the current safety guidance (e.g. ensuring hand washing before and after, not touching the face when the mask is removed, adhering to the social distancing guidelines of staying 2 metres apart).

We have produced an infographic video that 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.

Face coverings should not be used by children under the age of two or those who may find it difficult to manage them correctly, such as primary school age children unassisted, or those with respiratory conditions.

Face masks or coverings may also present particular challenges to deaf children with speech impediments and/or facial disfigurements. More widely, it would significantly change the way that all children communicate. Some deaf children may therefore need emotional support and patience to get used to this. We will signpost to any useful resources we find on this.

We are calling on UK Governments to review the commissioning and availability of clear face masks. You can read more about this issue in our separate blog on face masks.