Is Mandatory Mask-Wearing Masking Our Human Rights?

Divisiveness is what makes this world go ’round.
We all need something to be against in order to strengthen our position “for”.

As we move into another month of COVID-19 precautions, mask-wearing is a hot topic that is contributing heavily to the social divide, yet many opinions are uninformed and ignorant, leading to negative outcomes, including fear, anger and violence, and affecting the physical and mental health of so many.

If we do not respect the different abilities that people have, which includes the ability (or inability) to wear a mask, then we contribute further to the detriment that this virus has already caused our society.

Image by Evgeni Tcherkasski (Pixabay)

Last week, I visited a fabric store in Toronto, Ontario.
My child and I were refused entry at the door because we were not wearing masks.
I explained to the person at the front door that we are unable to wear masks due to medical reasons.
The staff member asked if we had asthma, and I said no.
Blank stare.
I then chimed in with “We have mental health conditions, including sensory issues that make it difficult for us, especially my child, to wear a mask, but we are fully aware of physical distancing rules.”
Blank stare.
I was told, again, that it was store policy and that we weren’t allowed to enter.

My child, a bright, perceptive little thing, caught on. My angry muttering may have also tipped her off…
We were rejected because our medical condition wasn’t considered serious enough, and that, had we claimed a physical condition like asthma, we would be permitted to enter, but the stigma and ignorance surrounding serious mental health issues precluded us from buying two meters of fabric for a project we had planned. It was incredibly disappointing.

I walked away from the storefront, which is very out of character for me, preferring to “speak to the manager” and loudly declare my rights.
This is the rejection sensitivity from my [diagnosed] ADHD and the anger flare-up from my BPD.
Using self-control as best as I could, because my child was there and I want to model positive behaviour, and since I’d encountered the staff member before from having shopped there in the past, and knew her to be a nice person, acting only on the directives from the (clearly uninformed) higher-ups in the company, I forced myself to calm down, which is not an easy task for someone with emotional dysregulation.

I dwelled on it for days, frustrated and upset, knowing that my rights had been violated, based upon something that I had no control over.

And then the “mandatory masks” announcement came in, and the fire re-ignited.

I immediately picked up the phone and dialed the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s Legal Hotline, the HRLSC – Human Rights Legal Support Centre.

“The HRLSC provides free legal assistance to people across Ontario who have experienced discrimination contrary to Ontario’s Human Rights Code, and who may want to file an application to the HRTO.”

I waited on hold for over 45 minutes, furiously researching and writing down questions about my rights, both, in this fabric store situation and in going forward, for when my call was answered.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much information available at this time regarding human rights and mask-wearing as it pertains to our mental health and mental disabilities and medical conditions, so my goal was/is to inform others so that they don’t flip out [like I did] at the thought of having to wear a mask to be provided service.

My call was answered by a vivacious and knowledgeable representative who carefully listened to my story and let me know that the fabric store, in fact, violated my human rights by questioning my diagnosis. The OHRC’s stance is that “Service providers are not entitled to be provided with a diagnosis”.

I decided that I wasn’t going to file a claim, but that I did want to obtain more information, straight from the human rights experts, so I asked a bunch of questions, and here are the answers:

Many of the official statements on mask-wearing stipulate that, “The bylaw will include exemptions for those who cannot wear a mask for medical reasons, children under the age of two, and other reasonable accommodations.” (City of Toronto)

Can a service provider (store, office, etc.) ask me to explain my medical condition (and why I’m not wearing a mask)?
No. Service providers are not entitled to be provided with a diagnosis.

Can a service provider refuse me service for not wearing a mask if I have stated a medical condition/accommodation request?
No. Those of us with disabilities and other medical conditions have every right to service, and ableism should not exclude us from access. This protection extends to medical reasons that include both, mental and physical disabilities.

What if I say I have a medical reason but am still denied service?
This is where it got interesting…
A person in Ontario has the right to be accommodated on the ground of disability, under the Ontario Human Rights Code, and it is advised that the person carry a note from a medical professional indicating that there is a medical reason that we cannot wear a mask.
So now I’m supposed to traipse over to my doctor and get a note that I have to show people to prove that I have mental problems? Right there, my “mental problems” started to flare up.
She, then, explained how this is actually a long-standing policy, and used service dogs to explain: in order for business to accommodate service dogs in a space, that dog usually wears a harness that indicates they’re a service dog. If they aren’t wearing a harness, the owner will have a document, stipulating the need for accommodation.

The note doesn’t have to disclose the diagnosis, only state that a medical reason will not allow you to wear a mask.

Makes sense, but there are concerns with this.

Many doctors charge for a note, which puts some people into a tough situation.  In these times of high unemployment and financial decline, paying for that note may not be easy, especially if one is required for multiple family members.
We are also in a time when mental health issues are on the rise, but being able to see a doctor, especially a psychiatrist, is a lengthy wait, and most family doctors aren’t equipped to diagnose anxiety disorders, disabilities or other mental health problems, and an accurate diagnosis would take months, even years.

So, if you can’t go to the doctor and/or get a note, it’s suggested that you explain to the service provider (in as calm a manner as you can), that you have a medical condition, protected under the Ontario Human Rights Code, that makes wearing a mask difficult.
At this point, it will be up to the service provider to decide what they’ll do.
If they deny you service, you can file an application and, if it moves forward, you will most likely have to provide proof of your need for accommodation from your medical professional, so ensure that you are protected.

You can find out if you’re protected, and file your application through the Human Rights Legal Support Centre here:

If you aren’t in Ontario, you can find your local Human Rights organization with an online search. There are often offices at the various levels of government, including Federal.

We all want to stop this virus that’s causing us to be away from our friends and family, that’s closing parks and playgrounds, prompting closures of established businesses and more, but we must accommodate those who need it, and that means having an awareness of mental health conditions that can affect mask-wearing, and how it can trigger a serious episode and cause further harm to the person and those around them.
Ableism must be stopped and compassion must be started.

“Ableism” refers to attitudes in society that devalue and limit the potential of persons with disabilities. The Law Commission of Ontario has stated:

[Ableism] may be defined as a belief system, analogous to racism, sexism or ageism, that sees persons with disabilities as being less worthy of respect and consideration, less able to contribute and participate, or of less inherent value than others. Ableism may be conscious or unconscious, and may be embedded in institutions, systems or the broader culture of a society. It can limit the opportunities of persons with disabilities and reduce their inclusion in the life of their communities.

Sourced from:

So, to all of those people who tell me that I should leave my kid at home (illegal), or in the car (also illegal), use curbside pick-up, not take public transit (please send money for my Uber fees), or ask me what I do in the Winter to protect my face because, if I can wear a scarf, then I can obviously wear a mask (wrong), educate yourselves.
Your ignorance, although probably unintentional, pushes people like me further downward, making us think that we don’t fit into society; that it rejects us, and when we feel rejected, bad things happen to ourselves and those around us.

As we make strides in human rights as they pertain to sexism, racism, ageism and more, we must push ahead with the same fervor in defending our rights, as people with mental disabilities, to be able to participate in society, proudly and confidently.

“Ableism can limit the opportunities of persons with disabilities and reduce their inclusion in the life of their communities.”


Featured image via Pixabay and ivabalk

Leanne M