What Medical/Disability Reasons are There for Not Wearing a Mask?

I read a fair bit, and I dabble in all sorts of topics, but I’ll be the first to admit that I’m ignorant about a whooooole ton of things. When I realize there’s a gap in my knowledge, I like to correct it, especially when it’s about something as important (right now) as “Should people wear masks?”

As I’ve been involved in discussions about opening things up again (whether it’s the state, church, campus, circles of friends, or more), one issue that keeps cropping up is, “What about people who can’t wear a mask?” Not people who don’t want to. What if there are people who literally can’t wear a mask for religious or medical or some other reason? I want to be as fair and open as I can, but I also want everyone around me to be safe.

I’ve poked around a bit about this online, and I’ve seen plenty of people claiming “If you don’t want to wear a mask, just say you can’t wear one for medical reasons, and the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires people to let you in, no more questions asked!” Of course, I’m also seeing articles that says that’s not the case if the restrictions are done for health reasons.

My knee-jerk reaction (which is often wrong) is to bristle at the people who are claiming they can’t wear a face mask. I am concerned they’re using a law that’s designed to protect the vulnerable as a sort of sledgehammer to let them do what they want. So I’m trying to broaden my horizons some and see if there are valid reasons I’m not thinking of. (Quite possible.) But let me preface this call for input with some of the things I don’t think are valid, medical reasons. (Not that these aren’t potentially problematic, but from the research I’ve done so far, they’re all issues that can be dealt with in one form or another, typically by switching the type of mask being worn. They might be valid reasons, but I’d want them backed up by an actual doctor, and not just a self evaluation.):

  • Masks are uncomfortable
  • Masks irritate my skin
  • Masks make me feel claustrophobic
  • Masks make me feel like it’s harder to breathe

Again, I want to protect people who have real vulnerabilities in this area, but a big part of me thinks this is a case where, to not wear a mask, you’d need to carry around some sort of a piece of paper signed by a doctor indicating you have a real medical issue. Even then, I would think there might be ways around the issue, whether it’s through distance learning on campus, curbside pickup at the store, or other workarounds. After all, there are rules about having shirts and shoes on or else not being allowed inside a store. There’s precedent for exceptions to the “all are welcome” general rule.

America tries very hard to be “fair” in a way many other countries do not. There are laws to ensure entrances and exits are accessible. There are laws to make sure people are treated equally. (They don’t always work, but the ideal is there.) COVID-19 seems to be an area where this pressing desire to be fair might be conflicting with the need to be safe. Other countries have issued edicts: if you’re out of your house, you have to wear a mask. No exceptions. I worry that a lot of the anti-maskers have watched people with real disabilities get exceptions, and they view this as a time they can do the same thing.

I apologize in advance if any of this came across as callous or mean-spirited. I’m genuinely trying to understand if there’s a hole in my “can’t wear a mask” experience. So with that as a preamble, I’ll shut up now and see what other people have to say. Please keep remarks civil.


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