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Impact of NPHET mask mandate on deaf children is breaking our hearts 

The latest recommendations from NPHET to compulsorily mask primary school children landed like an emotional bomb among parents that have children with additional needs or a disability.  

I know this because my son is profoundly deaf and like many other deaf children, he attends mainstream school. I am also in daily contact with many other parents in similar circumstances to my own.

We are all distraught by this latest development. Our children, at least those who are aware of the news, are profoundly anxious and worried.

I have no doubt that the impact of the new mask requirement will be extremely detrimental to my son’s educational and social wellbeing. This is because it is critically important for him and other deaf children to have full visual access to a person’s lips and face when they are communicating with them.

I could cite chapter and verse from the academic literature in this area, but instead I am asking you to trust me on this. Its common sense really, isn’t it?

What compounds the hurt and anger we are feeling is that NPHET chose to make this ‘recommendation’ in the same week that a report from the deaf advocacy organisation, Chime, found that deaf children in Ireland already suffer from alarming degrees of social and emotional difficulties. It was highlighted that deafness in and of itself was not the cause of the problems but rather other factors that were outside the control of deaf and hard of hearing children.

This report found that the rate of socio-emotional difficulties amongst deaf and hard of hearing children is more than three times that of the hearing population.

What NPHET have now done is to ensure that such harm will be even more long-lasting, and possibly irreparable in many instances. The Covid world is already a much more difficult reality for deaf people. Hearing people find it more challenging trying to communicate in daily interactions that include masks or screens. So, think how difficult it must be, if not impossible at times for those that are hard of hearing or are deaf.

Deaf children in the classroom are already at a disadvantage and can struggle to keep up with their hearing peers. I cannot emphasise enough how important it is for our children to see people’s mouths when they are speaking. When I am out with my son and I am required to wear a mask, I regularly have to remove it when I am talking to him so that he can see my face.

I know there are masks with transparent windows available, but even these present difficulties due to their propensity to fog up and reduce the voice quality and volume of the person speaking. Deaf children already battle with listening fatigue, this measure will bring it to an unbearable level and with no benefit to them.

Let’s not forget about open doors and windows and staggered break times, all the additional noise that impact a good listening environment that they did not have to previously contend with. Deaf children will not be able to identify where a voice is coming from if every child is to wear a mask. They will be isolated among their peers; they will miss huge volumes of class interactions.

To place a deaf child in this type of learning environment is unthinkable and even cruel.

A deaf child will only ask a certain number of times, ‘I am sorry, can you say that again? If they are even aware that they have missed something. When a child is placed in this kind of situation long enough, where they cannot make sense of what is going on around them, they will naturally withdraw.

If a mask-wearing Tony Holohan was to sit down in a room full of other children with my child, and speak to my son, he might have some inkling of the challenges that his mandate is creating. Would he care? I am no longer sure. The evidence suggests NPHET are increasingly clinically detached from ordinary reality.

It makes little sense that masks would be introduced for primary school children at this point of the pandemic.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in  the U.S. has published a large-scale study of COVID transmission in American schools which found that student masking was found not to have a statistically significant benefit.

I would argue that this measure harms my child and other deaf children.

Deaf children have suffered enough, between the difficulties of school closures and online learning they have also had many interruptions to their essential services over the course of this pandemic.

They have had enough exclusion in society, they do not need Tony Holohan to have them effectively excluded in their own classrooms.



Margaret Byrne

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