Face masks have become a common sight across the UK as we face the Covid-19 pandemic. Since June this year, face masks and coverings have become mandatory in hospitals and on public transport in England. These significant legal changes have caused concern amongst those with hearing and communication difficulties.
Face masks obscure the wearer’s face making communication more difficult for everyone, but especially for deaf/ hard of hearing people. Face masks cover the speaker’s mouth preventing lip-reading, muffling speech and covering facial expressions, all of which are key to effective communication. Difficulties with communication also impact on emotional well-being, pose a risk to care in health and social care settings and may put people at risk if others remove their masks to talk to them.
Charities and professional groups have been working hard to highlight the impact of face coverings on people with hearing loss.
Nottinghamshire Deaf Society has written to local NHS services on behalf of local organisations, including Hear Together calling for national production or procurement of clinically safe transparent masks. The story was aired on BBC East Midlands Today on 22nd June and in response, the Department of Health has said it will announce more details as soon as possible.
The British Academy of Audiologists (BAA) have also called for urgent action to address the risk of significant disadvantage to the 1 in 6 of the UK population who are Deaf or have hearing loss. They are joined by The British Association of Teachers of the Deaf (BATOD) who have been raising awareness of the social and emotional impact of wearing opaque masks and calling for a public campaign to explain the need for transparent masks and to highlight effective communication strategies. The Royal College of Speech & Language Therapists (RCSLT) are also calling for research and procurement of transparent face masks.
Some people have taken matters into their own hands and started making their own masks with ‘windows’, for example Wildgoose designs and Friendly Face Masks. Transparent masks for clinical use may be a while longer; a Swiss scientific organisation have finalised a biomass-based material to manufacture so-called HelloMasks, which are intended to replace the tri-fold green or white ones that healthcare workers usually wear, but currently these are unlikely to be available before early 2021.
LATEST UPDATE!! There is some great news to report! The UK government have listened to the recommendations of charities and professional organisations and amended the law. This means that if people communicating with someone with hearing loss won’t be acting illegally and won’t face a penalty if they remove their face covering to communicate when needed. You can read about this in more detail here