A charity supporting deaf people in Bedford has said that the impact of mandatory face masks in shops will be vast for the hearing-impaired community.
To combat the spread of coronavirus, the government has made the wearing of face coverings in shops compulsory from 24 July.
Helene Bolton, trustee of Access Bedford, said that anyone relying on lip-reading or facial expressions to communicate will not know if someone wearing a mask is talking to them.
She said, “Face masks are vital, we know that. However, hearing loss is a hidden disability. If someone is in a shop and can’t understand what a shopkeeper is saying, it can lead to confusion, misunderstanding and embarrassment.
“Yes, lip-readers could wear a badge, but not everyone wants to label themselves.
“If the deaf community is exempt from wearing face masks, are they then putting others at risk?
“I’m sure there will be situations nationally where deaf people will be shouted at or kicked out of buildings or off public transport because of the miscommunication.
“Lots of people are already anxious about leaving their homes, so this will lead to greater social isolation for vulnerable people.”
Helene says that there has been a lack of accessible information throughout the pandemic, with no interpretation at the Government’s daily briefing, which has left the deaf community feeling ignored.
“Our world just got tougher,” said Lisa Charlish, who has recently undergone cochlear implant surgery.
A number of organisations are selling clear-panel face coverings, using EN71 certified plastic which is pliable, washable and clear.
The National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) has written a blog about making your own clear-panel mask and are urging the public to support their #Keep it Clear campaign, requiring clear face masks in health, transport and public settings.
They are encouraging people to ‘send a clear message’ to their MP by making a clear-panel face covering to send to their MP to wear.
One mother of a deaf child said, “Rather than levelling the playing field and requiring clear windows in all masks, deaf people are having to risk themselves and people who want to communicate with them because of an inability to see lips.
“At least [the Government] could have used this delay in bringing in the face coverings rule as a means to improve production of deaf-friendly face masks.”
Tim Edwards, owner of Beerfly, a craft beer shop on St Cuthbert’s Street told the Bedford Independent, “I had a hard time understanding a hearing-impaired lady last week who had a mask on.
“I worry that deaf customers might struggle understanding us if we have a mask on, as we have a high liver of interaction with our customers.
“I would also question how five or ten minutes in a shop compares to an hour or two in a pub or restaurant in terms of the risk of infection.”
“We need hearing people to be aware of these issues,” said Helene.
“If shopkeepers are unable to source clear-panel face masks, we would ask them to be more understanding and patient with customers that might be unable to communicate with them while wearing a mask.
“Everyone should be able to go out and feel safe.”
Access Bedford is able to sign-post and support anyone who might need help sourcing a mask or who is concerned about how the new law will affect them.