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The impact of face masks on deaf children

Published Date: 13 May 2020
Photo: Ian Noon is Chief Policy Advisor for the National Deaf Children's Society

Lots of people have been getting in touch with us recently at the National Deaf Children’s Society, concerned about whether more and more people are going to be wearing face masks and what this will mean for deaf children and young people.

As a deaf person myself, the use of face masks and coverings is something that worries me. It’s going to make communication much harder. I won’t be able to lipread and, even if people use sign language with me, I won’t be able to understand their facial expressions. Research indicates I’m not alone among other deaf adults in having these concerns.

For deaf children and young people, it’s going to be especially challenging and may leave many feeling even more isolated than they do already.

Where face masks are being used in health to protect people, it’s really important that health professionals – as many already are – think about the communication needs of deaf children and young people. We can’t have a situation where deaf young people miss out on critical information about their health care.

There’s also a separate issue about face masks and coverings by the general public. At the time of writing, UK Governments, depending on where you live, are advising or requiring that people cover their face in some circumstances, such as when in enclosed spaces where social distancing isn't possible (e.g. when shopping or using public transport).

It’s going to be important that in any advice from the UK Governments  on face masks and coverings, there are some clear messages about the impact this will have on deaf people. It will also be important to take action to raise awareness of the steps that can be taken to support communication when people are wearing face masks. These 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 – they don’t always work perfectly though
  • 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 window/glass panel
  • 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, remaining within the social distancing guidelines of staying 2 metres apart).

We have produced an infographic video that summarises the above top tips.

None of this is ideal. It’s going to be really important for everyone to be flexible, creative and patient in how they communicate with deaf children and young people. Doing so will help ensure that deaf children and young people are not further isolated at this challenging time. 

I’ve been asked if we should call on the Government to discourage the general public from wearing face masks. This a difficult one given the impact that face masks will have on deaf children. But, at the same time, face masks have a purpose – which is to help protect people. At the end of the day, any decision on wider use of face masks and coverings must be made by the UK Governments based on what the science says will keep people safe. But it will be important that any government advice on face masks and coverings highlights the needs of deaf children and young people, and we’ll be calling on them to do that.

Some people have also asked about clear face masks – where you can see someone’s mouth. If face masks are going to be used, these would be clearly preferable. Going further, I’ve been talking with colleagues recently over whether face visors or shields might be better still, particularly for professionals working in services for deaf children. We all know from the news that the NHS has been struggling with commissioning of PPE. But even though it might be challenging, we still want the UK Governments to look into this further and review the commissioning and availability of clear face masks and face visors/shields.

In the meantime, my colleague has blogged about how to make DIY clear face masks at home for those that would like to do so. Such DIY face masks would obviously be for use by the general public, and not for use in health settings.

Finally, I’ve also been asked about whether teachers are going to have to wear face masks if and when schools re-open across the UK. It's clear that this would present significant challenges to deaf children. It would also raise questions around how deaf children can meaningfully learn if they can’t see their teacher clearly. In England, where schools are starting to re-open, the use of face masks in education settings is not recommended by the Government. Exceptions to this are if a child has personal care needs which means protective equipment would normally be used anyway, or if a child develops coronavirus symptoms whilst at school. 

We’ll be working hard to share your concerns around face masks and to ask the UK Governments to take action in response.

More information 

This blog was updated on 10th June in light of changes to government guidance.