My health condition means I cannot wear a face covering

Gemma Cormican

Gemma Cormican is a Mental Health Adviser & Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist at the University of York

If you’re unable to wear a face covering because of a health condition, it’s understandable that you might worry about how others will respond to you. There are some practical steps that you can take to help with this.

Given the current regulations, not wearing a face covering makes us different, and brings attention to what is often a hidden condition. It’s entirely understandable to experience difficult feelings in response to this.

Some students express fear of being shamed by members of the public or shop workers for not wearing one. This in turn can make social situations difficult and even if you don’t encounter any negative reactions, the worry about this can create anxiety.

The advice below can help you to address these concerns and feel more confident about being out in public without a mask.

Who is exempt from wearing a face covering?

The government states that you don’t need to wear a face covering if you “cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability and where putting on, wearing or removing a face covering will cause you severe distress.”

It also states that “you do not routinely need to show any written evidence of this and you do not need to show an exemption card.” If you have a health condition that prevents you from wearing a mask, you should, therefore, feel confident that you are fully supported by government and medical guidelines. You are entitled to go about your day without a mask.

How to prepare if you’re worried about being shamed

Exemption evidence

In addition to a number of charities, the government has now launched an official exemption from face covering badge that can be downloaded to your mobile phone. Showing this can help to reduce the time spent explaining yourself.

However, please check before you travel, as specific face covering exemption badges are required to be worn on some public transport, for example, when using Transport for London services.

To communicate their hidden disability, some students are also wearing their Sunflower badge in public. Many universities provide them and are running awareness campaigns.

Managing feelings

Feelings of shame, embarrassment or humiliation can put our body in a freeze like state, and can lower our ability to think and act clearly. It can feel like a fog or cloud, that makes it hard to function, and logic can often be overridden by strong feelings:

  • Take the time to acknowledge how you feel
  • Remind yourself of the reasons why you are not able to do something, like wear a mask and that other people’s uninformed reactions are not your responsibility. You are doing the right thing.

Asserting yourself

Being assertive means being able to stand up for your own and other people's rights in a calm and positive way, without being either aggressive or passively accepting. Assertive individuals are able to express their point without upsetting others or becoming upset themselves.

It’s important to remember that any feelings others may have about you not wearing a mask are not yours to carry. By not wearing a mask, you aren’t doing anything wrong. The feelings are being given to you by the other person, and can be given back.

We can do this by assertively telling them ‘I am exempt’, with no need for further explanation. While this might sound difficult, here are a few simple steps that you can follow to help you to become more assertive:

  1. Practise assertiveness. Talk in an assertive way in front of a mirror or with a friend. Notice your body language as well as to the words you say.
  2. Make the decision to positively assert yourself before leaving the house. Commit to being assertive and start practising today.

  3. Listen actively. Try to understand the other person’s point of view. There is lots of uncertainty and fear being experienced in response to coronavirus.

  4. Stay calm. Breathe normally, look the person in the eye, keep your face relaxed and speak in a normal voice.
  5. Use ‘I’. Stick with statements that include ‘I’ in them such as ‘I think’ or ‘I feel’. Don’t use aggressive language such as ‘you always’ or ‘you never’.

  6. Be patient. Being assertive is a skill that needs practice. Sometimes you will have good experiences of being assertives, and other times may not be as good. This is OK, the balance will shift with time and practice.

Sometimes your feelings might be overwhelming, so it's ok to reach out for support. You can use the support available at your university or institution or use Student Space’s support services to talk to a trained volunteer.

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Get free, confidential, one-to-one support by phone, web chat, text message or email.

If you’re unable to wear a face covering, you may also be eligible for reasonable adjustments and support in managing your health condition so that it doesn’t adversely impact your studies. Use the support available at your university or institution to find out more.