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Face coverings and stammering

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Last updated 2nd August 2020.

Face coverings and masks can make it more difficult for people who stammer to talk or be understood. Due to Coronavirus (Covid-19), wearing a face covering is legally required on public transport and in shops in England, and the list is to be extended from 8th August. Also some places such as hospitals require the public to wear a face covering, and some employers require staff to do so. What exemptions are there if this causes you difficulties?

Woman putting on face mask.

Summary

Face covering can make communication harder

Face coverings can make it more difficult for people who stammer to talk. They can also make it more difficult for any speaker to be understood, but particularly where the speaker has a stammer. In addition face coverings can make it more likely that someone who stammers will be interrupted because the listener cannot see they are trying to talk. The listener may even walk away thinking the conversation has finished. For example:

There are more quotes by people who stammer on Face coverings (stamma.org), including listeners not being able to see from the lips that the person is struggling, and being more likely to interrupt.

A comic strip of 5 panels. Franky Banky, a cartoon fox, is wearing a mask in the first, second and third panels. In the fourth panel a voice is asking him "Well, how would you like to pay?". It is revealed in the fifth and final panel that Franky Banky is at the cashier in a grocery store. He stutters to the cashier who is also wearing a mask, "Give me some time. I was blocking".
The Masked Stutterer © Daniele Rossi stutteringiscool.com

Transparent face covering may help

Some people who stammer may find it helpful to wear a face covering/mask with a clear panel: www.ideasforears.org.uk/blog/masks-with-a-clear-panel/. The speaker may be less stressed if the listener can see from their mouth that they are trying to speak – and it may discourage listeners from interrupting. However people are different and this will not be a solution for all people who stammer, eg if the voice is too muffled or airflow is restricted.

If the problem is the listener is not being able to see the stammer, another option is to follow the example of someone who has produced their own card saying “I have a stammer. Please be patient”, to show the listener when wearing a face covering.

Card, badge or lanyard to show disability

For those who want something to show they are claiming exemption from wearing a face covering (discussed below), there are various options, though exemption is not dependent on whether you have a card etc:

Even so, there is a risk of disabled people being harassed or challenged for not wearing a face covering, including by other passengers: 40% fear challenge without face masks (disabilityrightsuk.org) and crowdfunding campaign at crowdjustice.com. It may be difficult for someone who stammers to respond.

Removing a face covering only when need to speak?

You might think it is better to remove the face covering only as and when you need to speak, and that may be more socially acceptable. However is it recommended from a health point of view? Government guidance says “avoid taking [the face covering] off and putting it back on a lot in quick succession”, and includes advice on washing or sanitising hands before putting it on, and before and after taking it off www.gov.uk/government/publications/face-coverings-when-to-wear-one-and-how-to-make-your-own/face-coverings-when-to-wear-one-and-how-to-make-your-own#how-to-wear-a-face-covering.

Exemptions or reasonable adjustments

Turning to the question of who can be exempt from wearing a face covering, there is a difference between:

  • customers in situations where the government has passed a legal regulation requiring face coverings, namely Public transport, shops etc (below) in England, and more places from 8th August. Here the key thing is what exemptions are there in the regulations, but also the relevant business or organisation has an obligation to make reasonable adjustments (below);
  • customers/patients in situations such as hospitals and taxis where – in England – there is no legal regulation but the relevant business or organisation decides that its customers etc should wear a face covering. Here again businesses and organisations have a duty to make reasonable adjustments;
  • an employer requiring workers to wear a face covering (below). Here again employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments

Public transport and shops: legal regulations

Scope

Broadly the legal requirement to wear a face covering in England applies to

  • public transport,
  • indoor transport hubs such as (enclosed) stations and airports (from 24th July);
  • shops and indoor shopping centres (from 24th July);
  • banks, post offices and the like (from 24th July).

Face coverings are to become compulsory in many more places in England from 8th August, such as hairdressers, museums and cinemas. Even before then, wearing them in these places is recommended. Regulations for these places are not yet available.

The government guidance is at Face coverings: when to wear one and how to make your own (gov.uk). The current legal regulations are SI 2020/592 for public transport and SI 2020/791 for shops etc. Generally the English regulations contain exemptions for staff of shops, transport operators etc, but the employer may have its own policies on staff wearing face coverings: below Workers required to wear a face covering.

This page focuses on regulations in England, but see below Face covering regulations in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland.

Reasonable excuse

The English legal requirement to wear a face covering in public transport and shops etc does not apply if one has a “reasonable excuse”. Regulation 4 of SI 2020/592 for transport and SI 2020/791 for shops etc contain very similar lists of reasonable excuses (with a couple of extras for shops). However it seems you can have a different reasonable excuse not listed there. Regulation 4 says that a reasonable excuse includes those listed. Also according to the Independent, guidance to the police on public transport says:

“The list of reasonable excuses [in regulation 4] is not exhaustive and officers should use their discretion to determine what may be reasonable in the circumstances with which they are presented.” www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/coronavirus-face-mask-uk-fine-police-public-transport-grant-shapps-tube-bus-train-a9567056.html, 15th June

TfL blue card saying "I am exempt from wearing a face covering."
Face coverings on public transport: can stammering justify exemption?

Excuse in regulation 4

The main excuse relevant to stammering in regulation 4 of both SI 2020/592 and SI 2020/791 is paragraph (a). This applies if you “cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering because of any physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability (within the meaning of section 6 of the Equality Act 2010)” or if you cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering without “severe distress”.

A stammer is very often a disability within s.6 Equality Act. In any event it should be a physical impairment. However paragraph (a) says “cannot” wear, or (even if you do not have a disability or impairment) cannot wear without “severe distress”. It may not be enough that a face covering makes it more difficult to chat to a family member on the bus or train, given that the country is facing a public health crisis. However see the technical note below on a possible argument for a wider interpretation of reasonable excuse.

Frankly it is not clear what regulation 4(a) means for stammering, so one may as well move on to what else might be a reasonable excuse:

Other reasonable excuse: talking to a companion

As explained above, one may have a reasonable excuse not listed in regulation 4.

Perhaps it is enough, for example, if you really find it difficult to speak or be understood when wearing a face covering and want to chat with a companion. On public transport that might be so particularly if it is quite a long journey and there aren’t any other passengers nearby.
Notes: There is a possible argument (below) that communication does not have to be necessary for it to be a reasonable excuse.
If you are with a companion who is not in your household or support bubble and who is only 1m (less than 2m) away, then guidance is probably that you should be wearing a face covering anyway.

However the position is not clear. You could ask an official if one is available. Generally I would come back to it being safer to wear a face covering if possible. There is a lack of official guidance on people with speech conditions, and it rather looks like the government has not considered them.

The argument for having a reasonable excuse, either under regulation 4 or generally, seems stronger if for example:

You cannot communicate as needed to control children if you wear a face covering.

Other reasonable excuse: talking to staff

The argument for having a reasonable excuse, either under regulation 4 or generally, also seems stronger if for example:

You need to speak to the driver, shop assistant or another staff member and really find it difficult with a face covering on. Here though you might be able to write instead, eg if asking for a ticket, or for something in a shop.

Other reasonable excuse: longer conversations with staff, professionals etc

From 8th August regulations in England are to require a face covering in more types of places, and face coverings there are recommended now (Face coverings: when to wear one and how to make your own (gov.uk)). The list includes for example:

  • premises providing professional, legal or financial services,
  • funeral directors,
  • vets.

Here clients typically have a longer conversation with the professional. If a particular person who stammers would really find this difficult wearing a face covering, that might be a reasonable excuse for not wearing one.

It seems sensible to discuss the situation with the business in advance if possible. They may wish to take extra precautions, and potentially have a duty under the Equality Act to make reasonable adjusments: see below Making reasonable adjustments even if face coverings are required by regulations. Alternatively it may be practicable (and a reasonable adjustment) to have a remote meeting via video conferencing.

We do not yet know whether there will be any specific listed reasonable excuses in regulations, or guidance on them, for this kind of service.

Enforcement of the (English) regulations

Where a person is believed to be in breach of the regulations on public transport or shops etc, there are powers to deny boarding or entry, direct them to put on a face covering or leave the transport or premises, or for a constable to remove them. Breaching the regulations is a criminal offence. There is power for police and certain others to issue a fixed penalty notice.

Health services

Hospitals in England generally require patients or visitors to wear a face covering. However so far as I know, this is a policy rather than a legal requirement: Public Health England (PHE) guidance for hospitals is at www.gov.uk/government/publications/wuhan-novel-coronavirus-infection-prevention-and-control/new-government-recommendations-for-england-nhs-hospital-trusts-and-private-hospital-providers. Hospitals have a duty under the Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments (below), while bearing in mind they will want to minimise any risk of infection. I suggest contacting them in advance if it is too difficult to communicate with a face covering on. If you are an outpatient, they may be able to make special arrangements for the consultation. If visiting a patient, it might be possible for example to meet them outside, or otherwise with suitable distancing. (If you don’t feel your speech is up to phoning the hospital, you might try the Relay UK service Telephone>Relay UK – typing instead of speaking.)

Hospitals etc may also have a policy of not allowing anyone to accompany an outpatient. However it may well be a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act to allow someone to accompany an outpatient who stammers, to help communicate what they want to say. I know of a hospital which agreed this. Again it is sensible to try and agree it in advance.

PHE guidance to GP surgeries recommends patients and members of the public should be advised to use face coverings “where a COVID-19 secure environment cannot be maintained” www.gov.uk/government/publications/wuhan-novel-coronavirus-infection-prevention-and-control/new-recommendations-for-primary-and-community-health-care-providers-in-england. Again there is a duty under the Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments (below). If a surgery says you need to wear a face covering, I suggest contacting them in advance if possible if you need a face-to-face appointment and it is too difficult to communicate with a face covering on.

There is more on adjustments by health services at Coronavirus (Covid-19)>Services, including health.

Service providers: duty to make reasonable adjustments

Service provider having its own policy of requiring customers to wear face coverings

Some businesses and organisations say customers etc should wear a face covering, even though not required by legal regulations. One example at the time of writing is hairdressers and barbers, but English regulations are to require it there from 8th August. Apart from health services (above), it difficult to think of many examples which won’t be covered by those regulations from 8th August. Possible examples though are taxis (gov.uk), people coming to work in one’s own home such as plumbers or home hairdressers, and universities and colleges.

Where the requirement to wear a face covering is down to the policy of the business or organisation, they have a duty to make reasonable adjustments. (For universities and colleges the reasonable adjustment duty is distinct by similar). How far they must adjust the policy will largely depend on what is reasonable, bearing in mind requirements to keep staff and other customers etc as safe as reasonably possible. See below Reasonableness of requirement to wear face covering. S.15 EqA or indirect discrimination may also apply.

Making reasonable adjustments even if face coverings are required by regulations

Where legal regulations require a face covering to be worn, there can still be a duty on service providers to make reasonable adjustments and otherwise comply with Equality Act duties.

If the customer who stammers is wearing a face covering, extra patience or other steps may be required so that they can communicate.

If the customer is not wearing a face covering because they believe it would be too difficult to speak (bearing in mind how far it is important to speak), it may – depending on the facts – be a breach of s.15 EqA or the EqA duty to make reasonable adjustments if for example:

  • the business or organisation refuses to serve the customer unless they wear a face covering; or
  • the business or organisation fails to take reasonable precautions to minimise risk of customers not wearing a face covering (with a reasonable excuse) getting infected.

Under the reasonable adjustment duty, access to a service should be as close as possible to that enjoyed by others. However so far as it is not feasible to provide the service face-to-face, it may be a reasonable adjustment to provide it in an alternative way (unless that would fundamentally alter the nature of the service or business). Eg it may be reasonable to have an online video conference, or to do part online and meet in person for part which does not involve so much speech.

Reasonableness of requirement to wear face covering

So far as an individual is not required by legal regulations to wear a face covering, these are some brief thoughts on how far it may be reasonable or proportionate under the Equality Act for a business or organisation to require them to do so.

As to how far it is important from a safety point of view for customers to wear a face covering, there is official guidance on how to make workplaces Covid-19 secure (gov.uk) for England. This guidance is a useful place to look on whether the government sees face coverings as important for customers in that context.

A business or organisation may argue that another reason to require customers to wear face coverings if feasible is to build confidence of customers and staff, at least initially after the lockdown. Other customers may be deterred if someone is not wearing a face covering. Also some staff may be fearful, particularly if they or someone they live with is clinically vulnerable (eg if they have an underlying condition).

However people who stammer and other disabled people should not be excluded from services. Generally people who stammer have a right to speak, particularly since access to a service should be as close as possible to that enjoyed by others. Having said that, in the exceptional circumstances of Coronavirus, if the person cannot communicate with a face covering on and a speaking solution without a covering really cannot be found, it may be reasonable for communication to be in writing, or to have a remote conversation, say by video conference if the individual can do that.

The reasonable adjustment duty in the Equality Act also applies in Scotland and Wales, subject to legal regulations on face coverings there. Northern Ireland has a broadly similar reasonable adjustment duty in its Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

Workers required to wear a face covering

If an employer requires you to wear a face covering or mask, and this makes it unduly difficult for you to communicate because of the stammer, the question arises whether the employer should make a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act. This will mainly depend on what is reasonable.

Health and safety is likely to be a key concern of the employer. Most sectors are covered by the official guidance on how to make workplaces Covid-19 secure (gov.uk) for England, so you could look there to see whether a face covering is recommended for your type of workplace.

Assuming the employer has legitimate concerns, you will want to discuss how to reasonably address them in a way that lets you communicate. For example:

  • the employer providing face coverings with a clear panel, if this helps: see General points above;
  • maybe you could wear a plastic visor covering the whole face instead;
  • measures such as greater distancing, dividing screens, and not facing each other;
  • if phone calls are the issue, these might be done somewhere else away from other staff (compare adjustments on open plan offices), or phone duties might be reallocated;
  • shifting to a different job could be a reasonable adjustment if another solution is not available.

Jobs such as front line healthcare will often require greater personal protective equipment (PPE). Here it is likely to be particularly important that any reasonable adjustments still minimise the risk of infection.

Face covering regulations in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland

I don’t deal with these in any detail, and am not familiar with the particular legal systems outside England. However this is an overview of the position as I understand it at 28th July 2020, with links to more detail:

NationWhere compulsoryGovernment guidanceLegal regulation
EnglandPublic transport, shopsGuidance in England (gov.uk)SI 2020/592 for public transport, SI 2020/791 for shops etc.
ScotlandPublic transport (incl taxis), shopsGuidance in Scotland (gov.scot)SSI 2020/103, reasonable excuses in reg 8(5A)
WalesPublic transport (incl taxis)Guidance in Wales (gov.wales)WSI 2020/725, reg 12A
Northern IrelandPublic transportGuidance in Northern Ireland (gov.uk)NISR 2020/151

So far as relevant to stammering, the specific reasonable excuses look similar to England (on a brief look), except that there are various differences in the excuse on people such as lip readers who have difficulty understanding someone wearing a mask: see the Technical note below. There is a notable difference though in the Scottish government guidance (gov.scot) which says you may have a reasonable excuse if “you have a health condition or you are disabled and a face covering would be inappropriate because it would cause difficulty, pain or severe distress or anxiety or because you cannot apply a covering and wear it in the proper manner safely and consistently”. So just having “difficulty” may be enough (though perhaps this sits uneasily with distress or anxiety having to be “severe”). However the actual Scottish legal wording talks of “cannot” wear or “severe distress”, just like in England: SSI 2020/103, reg 8(5A)(d).

Technical note: Argument for wider interpretation of exemption in English face covering regulations?

I say in Public transport and shops in England: legal regulations (above) that there is a possible argument for a wider interpretation of “reasonable excuse“. This is based on regulation 4(b) of both SI 2020/592 and SI 2020/791 which say that a person travelling with or accompanying someone who “relies on lip reading to communicate with” that person has a reasonable excuse for not wearing a face covering. Accordingly one might argue:

  • Perhaps an inability to chat with a family member if wearing a face covering is sufficient excuse not to wear one. However even then, the test is whether you “cannot” wear a face covering, so just making talking rather more difficult may not fall within the excuse. But one might argue it’s enough if you really find it difficult.
  • Perhaps you are not expected to have to write things down, since the regulations apparently do not expect someone accompanying a D/deaf person who lipreads to have to do this. (I suggest “relies on” is not intended to exclude from the exemption a lip reader who could understand written notes from the speaker.)

However, repeating what I’ve said above: The position is not clear. You could ask an official if one is available. Generally I would come back to it being safer to wear a face covering if possible. There is a lack of official guidance on people with speech conditions, and it rather looks like the government has not considered them.

It is interesting to compare the equivalent of the lip reading reasonable excuse in the various parts of the UK:

  • England: “P is travelling with, or providing assistance to, another person (“B”) and B relies on lip reading to communicate with P”, regulation 4(b) of SI 2020/592 and SI 2020/791;
  • Scotland: “to communicate with a person who has difficulties communicating (in relation to speech, language or otherwise)”, SSI 2020/103, reg 8(5A)(e);
  • Wales: “where P has to remove the face covering to communicate with another person who has difficulty communicating (in relation to speech, language or otherwise)”, WSI 2020/803 adding reg 12A(4)(b) to WSI 2020/725;
  • Northern Ireland: “the need to communicate with a person who has difficulties communicating (in relation to speech, language or otherwise), NISR 2020/151 reg 5(2).

The Northern Ireland wording talks about there being a “need” to communicate, whereas England, Scotland and perhaps Wales do not. Wales says “has to remove”, but arguably that just means the listener cannot understand the communication unless the face covering is removed. So there may be a stronger argument in England, Scotland and Wales than in Northern Ireland for non-essential communication being able to justify not wearing a face covering.

Again not directly applicable to stammering, but guidance on the exemptions in England (gov.uk) goes beyond the lip reading mentioned in regulation 4(b) of the English legal regulations. The guidance says you can remove a face covering when asked “If speaking with people who rely on lip reading, facial expressions and clear sound. Some may ask you, either verbally or in writing, to remove a covering to help with communication”.

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