OPINION
27/08/2020 10:37 BST

Face Coverings In Schools Risk Isolation For Deaf Young People Like Me

Hearing people are seemingly unaware of the crisis unfolding in deaf education, Liam O'Dell writes.

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Girl with hearing aid studying and use mobile phone

We are at risk of creating a devastating postcode lottery in education for Britain’s deaf children.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, prompted by Scotland taking a similar approach, has u-turned on his decision not to introduce face coverings in England’s schools.

Students in areas of concern must wear them in corridors and communal areas. Elsewhere, it’s at the headteacher’s discretion.

Many members of the public are, of course, aware of the communication barriers opaque face masks can create for deaf people.

In covering up a person’s mouth, lipreading is rendered impossible. Yet, a lot of hearing people aren’t aware of the crisis unfolding in deaf education.

Just last week, students were opening up envelopes containing their GCSE results – grades obtained in the most extraordinary and unexpected circumstances. For deaf pupils, the work is likely to have been even harder. 

In the current pandemic, pupils are facing incredible challenges no one could have anticipated. The government must do more to ensure deaf students do not face another unnecessary barrier on top of that.

Analysis of last year’s figures by the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) has found that on average, deaf children have fallen a whole grade behind their hearing peers - for the past five years, at least.

The new rules don’t apply in classrooms at the moment, but the change is still significant, with communal areas being the place where deaf students can chat with peers. These pupils now face a preventable barrier to everyday conversation, one can be devastating to their emotional and mental wellbeing.

It’s an impact which I have felt as a deaf young person myself, when face coverings were introduced in shops. When I visited the chemist recently, a fellow customer tried to speak through her mask, leaving me confused. It was only when she gestured that I realised that she was making a joke.

It shouldn’t, but misunderstandings often come with a sense of embarrassment when you’re deaf. The awkwardness, although brief, is draining. It’s probably why the visit to the chemist was my first overdue trip outside after lockdown restrictions were lifted. The anxiety around a potential communication breakdown led to me avoiding public conversations.

It’s a feeling backed up by research. 69% of deaf people surveyed by the not-for-profit Ideas For Ears said the growing use of face coverings makes them worried they’ll mishear or misunderstand conversations more regularly.

Almost half (45%) worried that it will make them more isolated, and a third feared their usage will reduce their independence. 

If this is the case for deaf people in public, imagine the isolation and disconnect deaf students will experience. Many will be withdrawn in social environments, or avoid them completely. One deaf student has said they want to refuse to return to school on Monday, when new rules come into place in Scotland.

My concerns are echoed by Ian Noon, Chief Policy Advisor at NDCS, who says that face masks in education would have “serious consequences” for the UK’s 50,000 deaf children. 

For many, there may be little benefit in even attending school or college because they won’t understand their teachers and classmates, with loneliness and isolation a tragic result,” he said. 

“Public health must always be the priority, so if face masks are introduced, schools and colleges must be ready to meet deaf pupils’ needs by investing in clear face masks, making every reasonable adjustment possible and urgently discussing the best way forward with specialist teachers, parents and deaf pupils themselves.”

As Noon mentions, clear masks offer a solution to the communication barriers deaf people like me face with opaque masks, as they contain a plastic window for lipreading. 

They are also a much safer alternative to current government guidance, which allows for the removal of face coverings to communicate with someone relying on lipreading. 

Even though this still requires people to social distance while doing so, it’s likely many people will contaminate the inside of their masks by lowering it to their chin or neck, or potentially spread droplets by raising their voice. In a pre-Covid situation, shouting isn’t helpful in terms of deaf awareness, but right now, without a mask, it can be highly dangerous.

On top of this, the investment into clear masks which NDCS calls for is moving at too slow a pace from the UK government. Health minister Jo Churchill said a transparent mask has been approved for use in the NHS supply chain, but that the availability of this equipment in health and care settings will be announced “as soon as possible”. 

We are still waiting.

This, of course, relates to medical and clinical environments. The government is yet to detail the situation regarding clear masks in UK schools, and what they’re doing to support deaf students negatively impacted by their latest decision.

In the current pandemic, pupils are facing incredible challenges no one could have anticipated. The government must do more to ensure deaf students do not face another unnecessary barrier on top of that.

Liam O’Dell is a freelance journalist.