Photo: covid-19 from Prachatai flickr

Deaf people are not, by nature of their hearing impairment, at any increased risk from COVID than the general population.  However, the strategy developed and implemented by the government to control the spread of the virus disproportionately disadvantages D/deaf people.

There are several strands to this disadvantage.  Advice changes regularly, often with very little notice, and schools, universities, businesses and members of the public are expected to comply with measures put in place.  At a time when information is vital and rules that we are expected or required to follow are changing on a daily or weekly basis, communication is key.  And yet, despite social media campaigns and a legal challenge, the UK government refuses to provide a BSL interpreter for live briefings (although the live briefings from the Scottish First Minister are routinely signed)  When challenged on this the size of the room was identified as the problem.  This blatant disregard for the reasonable adjustment (of moving to a different room) required by the 2010 Equality Act illustrates a generalised lack of concern for disabled people displayed by the government throughout their handling of the pandemic.  This was outlined by Janice McLaughlin in a fantastic but harrowing plenary presentation at the recent BSA Medical Sociology virtual conference.  This approach also places the government at odds with many other countries where sign language interpreters are a standard part of live briefings, albeit sometimes after legal campaigns.

Communication is key at a public level but also at an individual level.  One of the main COVID related issues for D/deaf people comes with the mandated wearing of masks in public spaces.

With a deaf son starting his GCSE’s in September, we waited anxiously to see what the guidance would be on mask wearing in schools.  We responded with relief when his school announced that masks would not be worn in his school (not the case in other local schools) in line with DfE guidance at that time.  Three weeks into term we were concerned when the wearing of masks became optional in communal areas outside the classroom.  We still wait, knowing that guidance could change at any time and mask wearing in schools could be mandated.  Even with the best technology, cochlear implants and a radio aid, if a teacher wears a mask in the classroom my son will not be able to hear what is being said.  He will be directly excluded from the education the school is providing.  And he won’t be the only one.  Research from the National Deaf Children’s Society shows that as many as 2 in 3 deaf children will be actively discriminated against in terms of their ability to take part in classroom learning, and will be forced to stay away and engage with lessons online if masks become mandatory.  Furthermore, If students are required to wear a mask in communal spaces outside the classroom my son will not be able to hear his peers are saying and will be socially isolated from his friends.

This illustrates the three main issues.  Firstly, guidance is unclear, changes frequently and is open to interpretation.  Secondly, communication is key and is problematic and exclusionary. And thirdly, the response to COVID is ill thought out, further disadvantaging already vulnerable groups.  Routine use of sign language interpreters, widespread use of clear masks, and a rhetoric towards acceptance rather than vilification of those unable to wear masks would all help.  But none of this has been implemented. Instead, those within the population who are disadvantaged by the adopted measures – most obviously the mandated use of facemasks – are forced to self-identify and self-advocate in an attempt to avoid disadvantage.

My son could ask friends to remove masks so that he can lip read.  When he is in public spaces where masks are mandated he could ask those around him to remove their masks to allow him to lip read.  These actions are included in the guidance on exemptions to mask wearing.  To do this would require both that my son explicitly identifies his deafness as an issue and that he asks others to remove their masks.  It would also require others to acknowledge his right to ask, and potentially to comply with his request.  They may or may not do this, placing him in a position of uncertainty and vulnerability in being forced to make overt his deafness and potentially to having his request ignored.    This is not a reasonable position to place a 15 year old in.

Yet it is a position that deaf people of all ages have been placed in, forced to self-label and publicly identify as deaf.  This is evidenced by the range of badges that are now available to enable people to self-label.  From new cards that can be added to the Sunflower invisible disability lanyards to a range of badges and masks declaring everything from deafness to the need to lip read, many of which carry explicit signposting to the wearing of masks.

A recent commentary in the journal Critical Public Health looked in some detail at the evidence for the government’s strategy of mandated mask wearing.  This is not a debate I want to enter in to here except to highlight their point that the closing down of academic and expert debate also failed to allow those disproportionately affected by the strategy to enter the debate.  And yet I find myself repeatedly, reluctantly, engaging in debates where the rights of teachers and students to wear masks to protect themselves from the virus are pitted against the right of my son and other deaf children to an education.  His rights are falsely set against the rights of others and even relatively simple (although clearly imperfect) solutions such as see through masks are not forthcoming as routine.

This strengthens the narrative that those with non-normative bodies are excludable.  In the words of Hughes and Patterson (2007)

“Any barrier is a potent reminder that disabled people are always excludable, as inclusion is always conditional on someone else’s perception of who belongs where.” 

In this case the mask is a literal barrier as well as a symbolic one.  Illustrating the inability to lip read and symbolising the rhetoric of exclusion seen throughout the coverage of the pandemic.  And to complicate things further, this barrier has two sides.  Potentially excludable D/deaf people and lipreaders are on one side and potentially excludable vulnerable people with underlying conditions are on the other.  We are repeatedly told that the majority of those who have died have underlying conditions or are old, as if this somehow lessens the tragedy of these deaths.  The assumptions that these lives are less valuable is inherent, repeated and socially normalised.

The government’s approach to tackling COVID thus forces D/deaf people, and other people from exempt groups, into a position where they are (yet again) viewed as deviant or othered.  Where they have to prove their exempt status or risk being vilified or abused.    This is an attack on self, on identity and on the right to participation in public/social spaces.  It is not Covid-19 that disproportionately disadvantages D/deaf people at this time.  Their disadvantage is socially constructed by a government that has continually shown little regard for vulnerable groups and has failed to implement simple responses, such as the widespread use of clear masks, or BSL interpreters in Covid-19 briefings.

About the author: Elliot Reeves is 15 years old and studying for his GCSE’s.  He likes sailing and watching and playing football.  Elliot is profoundly deaf and uses cochlear implants.