Face coverings: 3 reasons for exemptions

A white lady with wavy brown hair putting on a surgical mask. Text reads: face covering exemptions

Don’t be too quick to judge: not all disabilities are visible

Face coverings are becoming a part of everyday life for us all. For several months now, guidance from the government has been to wear one in most indoor places, to slow down the spread of Covid-19 and protecting those in high-risk categories.

While it’s great that most people are on board with protecting public health, a lack of awareness on face covering exemptions for disabled people has led to people being challenged for not wearing a mask.

At Sense, we have been working closely with other charities and government to improve the communications and information on exemptions and ensure the general public understands this. Despite face coverings and exemptions being introduced much earlier this year, this continues to be a challenge for people with disabilities who are exempt, and we’re continuing to hear from people reporting incidents of abuse linked to this.

A group of smartly dressed adults sitting at a table, dressed smartly.

This is especially true for people with invisible disabilities – like Karolina Pakenaite, who was verbally abused while travelling with her sister, who removed her face covering so she could lip read. Karolina has Usher Syndrome, which affects both her hearing and sight, and relies on lip reading for communication.

What is an invisible disability?

Sometimes known as “hidden disabilities”, these are disabilities that are not immediately apparent – for example, there are no visual cues like the use of a wheelchair.

Invisible disabilities can include conditions impacting vision and hearing, as well as cognitive processing and mental ill health.

Some sensory disabilities that may not be noticeable at a glance include deafblindness, Usher Syndrome and CHARGE Syndrome.

3 situations in which people are exempt from wearing a face covering in the UK

  • People who cannot wear a face covering because of a physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability.
  • Where putting on, wearing or removing a face covering will cause you severe distress.
  • If you are speaking to or providing assistance to someone who relies on lip-reading, clear sound or facial expressions to communicate.

For more information on face covering exemptions, visit the UK government website.

A woman with long hair shopping for fruit in a supermarket

Should I carry an exemption letter (or card)?

Some people may want to consider carrying something that shows they are exempt from wearing a face covering, such as a letter, card, or badge – this is not required by UK law, but it could help someone feel more comfortable when out and about.
Templates for exemption cards and badges are available on the government website.