One of the first considerations that entered my mind when the Government announced the mandatory use of face coverings in shops from 24th July – apart from how much non-recyclable waste will be produced – was that of people with conditions that are unseen.
I’m talking about that thing that as a society we have a problem with discussing: Hidden disabilities. You don’t always know that someone has a disability or condition that would prevent them from comfortably or safely (in some cases for you, too) from wearing a face covering. In fact, you rarely do. Mental health across the entire spectrum from anxiety to schizophrenia, people who have to take medication at a specific time, people who can’t use them for respiratory purposes, deafness, problems with processing auditory speech (separate from deafness), the list goes on.
These people don’t make the choice that either someone needs to see their face or they need to see others’. They don’t make the choice that breathing in a dreadfully uncomfortable way from the beginning may cause them severe anxiety. However, lots of people in society who commit crimes against these people do choose to commit those crimes.
Herein lies the problem: If you have some knuckle-dragger who has no empathy for anyone and no education about disability or health conditions (and growing up where I did, you certainly know there are a few around), how are they going to react?
A person who has just entered a shop with an exemption based on these rules would understandably instantly feel as though they are being looked at. Because that is precisely what will happen. It’s a basic function of psychology to have in and out groups. Those who are not wearing masks will be in the ‘out’ group.
Where people with anger issues or a lack of education about understanding ‘out’ groups — or the toxic blend of both — encounter people with these disabilities and conditions, they’re likely to respond aggressively. The anxious, depressed, autistic, deaf, and people with SLDs in this situation will naturally panic. Sometimes, anxiety makes you run. Others, it makes you fight. Sometimes, people who are deaf or have SLDs can’t communicate, and so someone gets even nastier with them.
I can already see the headlines of people being attacked for “being selfish”. The fact is, if the vast majority of people in the shop are wearing masks, then the coughing and mucus from their mouths will prevent infection. That will not stop a mass misunderstanding by a certain segment of the population — and ones who tend to get violent.
We need to do this, of course. We have to provide these exemptions but I am so worried about unintended consequence and people potentially getting beaten to a pulp as they’re walking back up the street. After all, it is the most selfish of us all who would claim that others are being selfish in that scenario because they just will not realise.
I also worry for people who are going to have to ask for the exemption when standing in queues. It can’t be a pleasant experience to know that, despite the fact you are suffering from extreme anxiety and rarely want to talk to anyone as a consequence, you then have to explain yourself over and over again.
I’ve been there with anxiety. I sometimes do go back to that place owing to autism. It isn’t pleasant.
What I don’t want to see as a result of the compassionate and requisite exemptions here (important for all – they may apply to you) is violence. And I can just see that coming around the corner.
I hope I am proven wrong for everyone’s sake.