One year on- a year of exclusion!

I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling like the last 12 months have been extremely stressful. A year ago we were in the first month of a national lockdown and I was naively hopeful that things would ‘all be better by the summer.’ Ha, if only I knew!

A year and two more lockdowns later, with a trialled tier system and a faulty test and trace app, we finally have a roadmap to lift us out of the current restrictions as well as a vaccine being rolled out worldwide.

It hasn’t been easy for any of us. On top of dealing with the health crises, losing loves ones and worrying about how to keep safe, one change that has been particularly difficult for me to feel comfortable with is the mandatory face coverings. I’m sure a lot of you who are deaf and rely on lipreading feel the same way.

When it was first announced that face coverings would be compulsory on public transport, I remember feeling horrified. I couldn’t get my head around how incredibly isolating it would be for deaf people when out and about.

Whilst I do appreciate the protective safety measures that face coverings are said to bring, I felt very anxious about other people wearing something that stripped me of my only way of communicating with them.

So when the government then decided that face coverings would now be mandatory in all indoor public spaces, I encouraged my family and friends to purchase those with clear face panels if possible for ease of communication.

Sporting my own fabulous leopard print face covering (made by Suzy’s creations on Facebook!) I would often get stopped by strangers in shops who wanted to know where my mask was from. They’d tell me how they had deaf relatives or a deaf friend in hospital and they wanted to use a covering that was more accessible. It seemed that not many people knew where to get these accessible face coverings from.

Some friends decided to use visors to keep their lips visible, but they had to bear in mind that these aren’t medically safe so would not be used on their own in medical settings without a face covering on top.

The deaf community has had an awful lot of stress to deal with and perhaps even more so than our hearing counterparts. On top of general anxiety regarding the virus, we also worried about the governments resistance to supplying a live BSL interpreter at the briefings, as well as dealing with much more social exclusion and isolation when out and about in public places.

Take queuing up for the supermarket checkout, for example. Pre-covid times, I could simply queue by myself and clearly lipread whoever was calling out ‘next, please!’ But with masked check out assistants, I’ve reverted to being hyper vigilant, keeping my eyes peeled to see which assistant is free first and then giving them a thumbs up to ask if I can approach.

When check out staff mumble through their masks at me and ask whether I ‘want a bag’ or am I ‘paying by cash or card’ I either guess what they’re saying from their gestures, or I do the whole ‘I’m deaf I can’t lipread you’ drill. Their responses to this have been mixed. Some pull their masks down for me to lipread, others do big gestures and some do the famous ignorant hand swipe to signify ‘it doesn’t matter.’ *eye roll*

So when I’m shopping I either feel I have to be really VISIBLE with my deafness to make people around me aware I’m deaf or I just sneak in and out of shops like a ninja, eyes darting back and forth to make sense of what’s happening around me.

I don’t know about you, but I find it all exhausting. The government didn’t really have us in mind when they made the coverings mandatory did they? Sure, you can be exempt if you’re with someone who is lipreading but if you’re medically vulnerable or feeling unsafe – where are the affordable alternatives?

I’ve seen a few companies selling plastic style see-through coverings but the price tends to be 10 times as much as what hearing people pay for the average (non environmentally friendly) pack of disposable masks. Where’s the fairness in that?

The crux of the matter seems to be a general feeling amongst the deaf community that the government have really forgotten about deaf people’s needs throughout the pandemic. Deaf awareness has gone out of the window. BSL interpreters are still not present at live briefings. No viable alternatives to common place face coverings have been distributed. And to top it off a very valuable health service by Sign Health has just had it’s funding cut.

I suppose what I worry about most is a general lack of understanding as to why the rights of deaf people matter. ‘Why can’t you read the subtitles instead’ I’m asked when I mention the lack of live BSL interpreters. ‘Can’t you hear me through my face mask? You’re only a little bit deaf aren’t you’ is another one…

If anything, the face covering rule has made my hearing friends and acquaintances see how all of my communication with them is dependent upon me lipreading. Take their lip pattern away, and I don’t have a clue what’s being said.

Another place where I feel very isolated is at the school pick up and drop off. My children’s school have stated that if you enter the school grounds you must wear a face covering – which is fair enough – but it seems that most people wear them from the moment they step out of their homes/cars to the minute they return. They’re masked the entire time. And not one of them has an accessible or a clear panel covering.

Even the parents that had previously boasted to me about their sign language skills or how they ‘love Mr Tumble!’ or ‘really want to work with deaf children’ – all masked. Nobody actually considered how socially excluded I may feel or come to ask what they could wear instead.

So whilst other parents huddle together to chat outside the school gates or walk together whilst catching up, there’s me stood alone with no idea of what anyone’s saying. Me and my needs are ignored.

It’s no coincidence then that given the last 12 months, mental health illnesses have been on the rise and even more so for those in the deaf community. Dealing with my own frustrations and anxieties has actually given me more compassion towards those who also tend to be excluded or not thought of and I would say it’s also been a very mindful opportunity to practice self care when it comes to nurturing my own mental health.

So if you’re reading this and you’re feeling left out, hard done by or lonely because of the events of the last year, please remember you really aren’t alone. If we can all carry on supporting each other through this, getting our voices heard, and speaking up for ourselves where necessary, we will – all being well – come out the other side feeling more assertive and empowered as a community and accepting of all of our differences.

Take care of yourself.

With love,

Rebecca A Withey

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