Earlier this month, I was waiting to catch a bus so I could deliver some urgent PPE supplies to a learning disabilities and autism support service I work for called Dimensions.
Everything seemed normal. The bus arrived on time so I boarded it and scanned my pass. But as I started to look for a seat, the driver immediately asked where my face mask was.
I wasn’t surprised because I’ve been confronted about it before – I just hoped it wouldn’t escalate.
The reason I wasn’t wearing one is because I am autistic and classed as disabled so I find it difficult to wear them.
I have various sensory problems that make wearing masks extremely uncomfortable. I struggle having any kind of hat or accessory on me so wearing a face covering involves a lot of new stimuli that can cause me distress.
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There’s also psychological factors. Something you may perceive as simple can be a huge change to autistic people’s normal lives, and change is a natural trigger for anguish.
Face coverings also make it much more difficult to communicate effectively, and being hindered in this way can be really debilitating for people with autism.
On 15 June, it became mandatory to wear face masks on public transport in London, but there are exemptions for disabled people like me. Official guidance states you can be exempt if you have a ‘physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability’. I welcomed this exemption.
But this clearly wasn’t understood by the people on the bus.
My explanations were refused, despite me showing my autism card and my disabled concessionary travel pass, and I was sternly told by the bus driver that I needed to wear a face mask – no matter what. This was upsetting because I didn’t want to cause any arguments.
I was even told I was endangering myself and those around me by not wearing one, which was devastating. Of course, face coverings are very important right now but thousands of people like me have a much-needed legal right not to wear one.
I tried to calmly explain the situation and avoid any confrontation by explaining the official guidance but before I knew it, the bus was full of people shouting things like ‘throw him off’ and ‘he should have an official ID’. It felt horrible.
I want to make sure no one else like me is made to feel that their disability isn’t valid, or isn’t believed
It escalated into a hostile and frightening situation that was completely out of my control. My anxiety skyrocketed and I was shaking.
At this point, with everyone now on the bus, I went to present more ID to prove my disability – documentation of my autism diagnoses from medical professionals, as well as a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions confirming my autism. I was desperate to be taken seriously but because I was shaking, it was hard for the driver to read my ID.
I did end up taking the bus journey – and delivering the PPE thankfully – after we realised we were going round in circles and the situation calmed down a bit. But because of societal pressure, I am now making a big effort to wear one on public transport to avoid that happening again, even though I find it really challenging.
I am lucky that I can try to do this because my disability is milder than most. But for lots of people, wearing a face mask simply isn’t an option because their disabilities make it impossible to manage.
I understand the driver and bus company are trying to make things as safe as possible, but it’s important that people approach these situations considerately, being polite and kind.
Of course, people who are able to wear them should be doing so, but despite appearances, lots and lots of people will find wearing a face covering very difficult, and the Government has told us that we don’t have to.
I want everyone to understand this, so they think twice before calling someone out who’s not wearing a mask. I want to make sure no one else like me is made to feel that their disability isn’t valid, or isn’t believed.
With hidden disabilities like mine, people often don’t believe that they exist. Thanks to the great efforts of my many networks and support workers, I’m a lot more capable than I was a few years ago.
Nevertheless, people often say I ‘speak too well’ or ‘nothing looks wrong with you’. Someone can still have a disability even if it isn’t obvious.
There needs to be a greater understanding of hidden disabilities like mine – only then will people like me feel safe and included in society.
Face masks are now required in shops and supermarkets too, so if we’re not careful there will be more instances like the one I experienced, and in more settings.
People with hidden disabilities are likely to feel much more on edge in these spaces because of the possibility of being challenged for not wearing one. I’ve only taken the bus once since the incident took place, and I felt quite anxious. I’m sure I’m not alone.
I want to make sure that staff who are working in transport, retail and supermarkets are given clear guidance over the exemptions, and are given the training and support they need to support disabled passengers and customers.
We all want society to be as safe as possible and to come out the other side of the pandemic. But we also need to protect the many people that flat out won’t be able to wear a face mask whatsoever, through no fault of their own.
Dimensions is a not-for-profit support provider for people with learning disabilities and autism.
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