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

Published Date: 19 Jul 2021

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. Our website includes information on where you can buy clear face masks/coverings and what to look out for, as well as how you can make DIY clear face masks/coverings at home.
  • 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, face coverings are no longer advised or required by law in classrooms or communal areas. However, the Government has said that face coverings are still recommended in enclosed or crowded spaces (such as school transport). In addition, where there is a localised outbreak of coronavirus, pupils and staff may be asked to wear face coverings in classrooms and/or communal areas for a temporary period. Guidance states that ‘transparent face coverings’ can be worn and sets out the benefits of these in supporting clear communication. It also says that face visors or shields can be worn when communicating with deaf people, as an alternative to the exemption. Guidance also highlights that reasonable adjustments should be made to support disabled young people and that those adjustments should be discussed with the young person and the family. We have produced an infographic for schools and colleges that summarises these possible adjustments.
  • In Northern Ireland, it is compulsory for post primary pupils to wear face coverings in school and at drop off/pick up areas unless an exemption applies. For younger children, face coverings are still 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. 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, face coverings should be worn at all times by staff and young people in secondary schools; including S1-S3 learners (not just the senior phase) in classrooms, in communal areas and when moving about the school.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, from September, the Welsh Government will no longer be recommending the routine wearing of face coverings in the class for staff or learners. Guidance states that schools and settings may wish to encourage face coverings in areas where there is likely to be more social mixing, such as in communal areas. It says face coverings should continue to be worn by learners in secondary schools and settings when travelling on dedicated school transport. The guidance also specifically highlights the importance of talking to deaf learners where face coverings are used.

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.