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

Published Date: 02 Dec 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 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.

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.

Across the UK, face coverings must be worn when using public transport. 

In addition:

  • In England, face coverings must also be worn if visiting a hospital, in shops, supermarkets, shopping centres, any ‘transport hubs’ (for example, an airport or train station), cinemas, museums, libraries, etc. In terms of secondary schools and colleges, if you live in an area where the level of coronavirus is high or very high (tier 2 and above, or during any national lockdowns), face coverings should be worn by students in year 7 or above and staff when moving around the school or in communal areas. In other areas, schools and colleges can require that face coverings be worn in communal areas. Pupils in year 7 or above should also wear face coverings when using school transport. However, in terms of face masks in classrooms, the Government has said that face coverings are “not necessary” in classrooms and “should be avoided”. 
  • In Northern Ireland, face coverings must be worn when shopping or using public transport. In education, it is strongly recommended that students over the age of 11 wear face coverings in school corridors and communal areas. Face coverings must be worn by post-primary pupils when travelling to school, and are strongly encouraged for children of any age when travelling, if they can do so safely. Face coverings are not recommended in routine classroom settings but the Government has said that it is “acceptable” for staff and pupils to use face coverings during the routine school day if they wish.
  • 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. In education, face coverings should be worn in the classroom by senior secondary-aged pupils (in S4 to S6) and teachers/other staff if your child’s school is in a level 3 or 4 area under the Scotland Covid Protection Level. Elsewhere, they should be worn by pupils aged over 12 when moving around the school (such as in corridors) and in communal areas. They should also be worn when using school transport (if aged over 5). They should also be worn by parents when drop-off or picking-up children at any school. Apart from S4 to S6 pupils in level 3 or 4 areas, the Government has advised that face coverings are not necessary when in the classroom. At the same time, teachers and pupils can wear face masks or coverings if they would like to. Schools have been told to specifically consider the impact of using face coverings with deaf children and should explore reasonable adjustments when these present a barrier to learning.
  • In Wales,  face coverings must worn in shops or other indoor public spaces. Otherwise, the Government recommends that members of the public use face coverings in situations where social distancing is not possible. In education, face coverings should be worn by staff and pupils over the age of 11 in communal areas and/or on school transport. However, Government guidance does not require their use in the classroom. Schools have also been told to specifically consider the implications around face coverings for deaf children, as well as other learners.

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).

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

Face masks/coverings in education 

If a decision is made to allow face mask/coverings to be worn inside 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 masks/coverings in education, our vlog on face masks and our blog on education support.

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/coverings with clear panels where the mouth can be seen. Our website includes information about how you can make DIY clear face masks/coverings at home, as well as information on where you can buy clear face masks/coverings and what to look out for.
  • 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.

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 masks/coverings are being worn by colleagues, a reasonable adjustment would 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.

What we’re doing

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,  our campaigns page and our briefing on face masks/coverings and deaf children.