I know some of you are already heating up the tar and plucking the feathers. I’m bracing for the hate-filled comments as I type this, but out of an abundance of optimism, I’m hoping you will continue reading and hear me out.
I am not going to debate the merits of mask-wearing. I would hope that by now I’ve established myself as a solid supporter of science and anti-pseudoscience (see evidence A, B). I agree with anyone who says all the evidence supports that wearing masks reduces the risk of infection for both the wearer and the people with which they come into contact.
However, when we say “everyone must wear a mask,” we are excluding people who cannot wear a mask due to various disabilities and personal challenges. Perhaps it would be “better” for them to wear a mask, but for whatever reason, they find it difficult or impossible to do so.
Unfortunately, this issue has been muddled by politics. For some reason, the man occupying the White House has decided that he’s anti-mask, and the 35% of the US that blindly follows his lead has taken up the cause. I understand that when we create wiggle room in mask wearing policies, we are creating space for people to decry their losses of personal autonomy in the face of interdependence. I appreciate that making a blanket statement that everyone must wear a mask, we are trying to make it clear to these people that if they want to do business, they need to do what’s right for the common good despite their personal attitudes on the subject.
And still, I remind you that truly not everyone can wear a mask, and I’m asking, what about them?
What about me?
I’m not sure why I find wearing a mask a challenge, but I can confirm with many repeated data points that it’s a problem for me. I nearly passed out at the grocery store on a couple different occasions before I realized that I was hyperventilating in my mask. On a recent outing, I put my mask up while I was running past a group of pedestrians, and according to my watch, my heart rate went from the mid 130’s up to a dangerous 189 bpm in about 10 seconds. It’s possible that this is due to my having a reduced lung capacity. The middle lobe of my right lung was removed many years ago, and on a good day, I get about 75% of the air of a 2-lunged person. It’s also possible that it is a manifestation of my PTSD. Wearing a mask may be triggering some element of my hysterectomy-related trauma (maybe it’s too much like wearing an oxygen mask during surgery?). Repeated attempts at wearing a mask have not made these responses easier over time. And when I talk about them, I’ve noticed some commonalities in how others deflect and deny the problem.
They downplay the seriousness and discredit my experience. “I know, they get really hot,” or “It takes me a few minutes to get used to it, too.”
They decide they know which choices are best for me. “Well, then you should just order groceries online.” “You’re obviously not returning to work then, right?”
They decide that they know which medical conditions are valid reasons and which ones aren’t. “Well, it’s actually not true that you’re getting less air.” “Maybe you just need to get used to it.”
And if I haven’t been given an opportunity to explain myself, most people apparently assume that they can tell by looking at someone if they have a valid reason for not wearing a mask. In these encounters, people just murmur under their breath, and a few times have yelled at me, “Wear a mask!” If I wouldn’t be risking a face-to-face argument with a stranger in a time when the air they breathe puts me at risk for yet another lifelong disability, I’d be more tempted to stop and debate the matter with them.
Equality and equity for folks with disabilities must include giving them the same opportunities and choices as everyone else. Not all disabilities are visible. You can’t tell by looking at someone if their experiences are valid. Trust us when we tell you there’s a problem. Don’t expect to be able to front-manage all the solutions–don’t ask for a list of “reasonable” challenges (defined by whom?) and then preload all your acceptable solutions. For example, don’t decide for me that I have to work from home, give me reasonable choices between certain accommodations at work versus the flexibility to work from home–trust that I can make the best decision for myself. Know that life gets messy and that challenges can be multifaceted and complex.
Mask-wearing is an act of both personal responsibility and a sign of our interdependence. We are being asked to wear masks for our own safety, and even moreso, for the safety of others. Just like getting our vaccinations, our communities benefit from as many of us as possible complying with public health recommendations. You are wearing a mask to keep yourself safe. You are also wearing a mask to keep me safe. Thank you for wearing one whenever you can; thank you for advocating that others wear them. But please, consider saying that “everyone who can, should wear a mask,” and grant me the autonomy to make the best decision for myself that I am able.
(Along those lines, if you are finding yourself about to post some mask-wearing advice to me in the comments, please take a moment to pause and consider if you are the right person to be offering it.)
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found doing her best to wear a mask as much as she can, picking up heavy things and putting them back down again, in Portland, Oregon.