How wearing masks is impacting people with disability

Last updated


Face masks have become a common accessory on the faces of Australians over two years. Whether a stylish mask or not, they are an important safety precaution for the general public to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Key points:

  • Face masks can create a number of issues for people with disability, like communication barriers or adverse health impacts

  • Some people with disability may not be able to wear a mask

  • Consult your doctor if you are concerned about the health risks of wearing a mask

However, masks are creating problems for people with disability, as face masks can be a literal barrier to proper communication for some or a sensory concern for others.

And just because your State or Territory may have mask mandates, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to wear one. There are exemptions for people with disability so they are not impacted by these barriers or their health conditions are not aggravated.

Importance of a mask

Face masks are not only an important protection for yourself against COVID-19, it is also a form of protection from others around you, especially those who may not be able to wear a mask themselves.

In places where you can’t socially distance, a face mask can be one of the best ways to protect yourself.

COVID-19 can be a sneaky virus, as you may have the virus but not have any symptoms. If you are walking around in public while infected, there is a huge potential to spread the virus further.

Restricting the movement of COVID-19 is really important and a face mask has the potential to stop the virus in its tracks. In the case of the recent Omicron variant, it is more important than ever to protect yourself and others against COVID-19 by wearing a mask.

Wearing a mask will also help keep people with disability, who are unable to wear their mask, safe.

And if a person isn’t wearing a mask, it doesn’t automatically mean they don’t want to, it may be because they have a condition or disability that’s not clearly visible and they simply can’t wear a mask.

Exemptions for masks

If you have a disability or medical reason that conflicts with the use of a mask, then you will likely be eligible for exemption to not wear a mask.

Some examples for not wearing a mask include a skin condition, an intellectual disability, autism or experience of trauma.

The Government has been encouraging people to be aware that others may have a legitimate reason to not be wearing a mask, even if the reason is not visible to the eye. However, there still have been cases of people being confronted by others for not wearing a mask.

Just remember that your reason for not wearing a mask is valid. In most cases, it is likely you would like to be able to wear a mask, but are unable to.

To get an exemption from wearing a mask, you will need a medical certificate or letter from your doctor or a signed letter from your registered National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) provider. Otherwise, you can get a statutory declaration, which is a document that states for a fact that you have a reason (disability or medical reason) for not wearing a mask.

You will need to carry your exemption document with you anywhere you go that requires a mask, as well as evidence of your name and address, like a drivers licence or passport.

If you are asked by a police officer to provide evidence of your exemption, produce your letter or certificate. They may ask for your personal information as well for their notes.

Reasons for not wearing a mask

Autism – Since people with autism can be really sensitive to sensory overload, like odd textures or new experiences, wearing a mask can be really difficult. It may also interfere with their ability to communicate or feel comfortable.

Deaf or hard of hearing – Face coverings can be a struggle for people who are deaf or hard of hearing as most people with these conditions tend to rely on lipreading to assist with communication.

Hearing aid wearers – Sometimes regular masks may not be possible to wear because of the style of your hearing aids. Some hearing aids have ear loops that can interfere with the straps of a mask.

Intellectual disability – People with an intellectual or developmental disability may be confused about why they are wearing a mask, or why others are wearing a mask, and experience fear, anxious feelings, or sensory issues if they wear a face covering.

Mental health conditions – Some people with mental health conditions may not need to wear a mask. For instance, if you have dementia and struggle to remember the mask. Or if you have experienced trauma and find the masks triggering. Masks can also destress people with claustrophobia. People with panic attack disorders can also receive an exemption, as a mask can become a hazard during a panic attack.

Skin conditions – If you have a skin condition that could be impacted, then you can get an exemption from wearing masks. For example, Epidermolysis bullosa (EB) is a skin condition where you easily blister on the skin and the mucous membranes.

Breathing issues – A mask may be a breathing problem for people who have asthma, breathing difficulties, or utilise breathing apparatus’.

People who are unable to remove the cloth mask themselves – If you have limited mobility or are an amputee, you may be exempt from wearing a mask if you are unable to remove the mask without assistance.

Seizure disorders – Wearing a mask may be a hazard for a person with seizures, as they could become a choking or strangulation risk if you have a seizure.

These exemptions may differ between States and Territories, so it’s best to double check with your State or Territory Health Department about what falls under an exemption.

If you have a disability but can still wear a mask and don’t fit within any of the disabilities or issues listed above, then you will be required to wear a mask.

If you are concerned about wearing a mask, consult with your doctor about whether face masks are safe to be worn for yourself, whether there are alternatives, or if you should get an exemption.

Current restrictions

At the moment, masks are being encouraged or are mandatory in a number of States and Territories, although New South Wales is moving to get rid of masks.

Generally, masks need to be worn in indoor public environments where the air is not circulated enough to limit the risk of COVID-19 spreading.

Most mask mandates do not apply in outdoor public environments as the virus is not contained in the space.

If you need to wear a mask to feel safe in an environment you should still do so, even if there is no requirement for you to do it – do what you need to feel comfortable and stay safe.

As a person with a disability, in what ways does a mask create barriers for yourself? Tell us in the comments below.

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