Face Masks and Persons with Disabilities

by Tricia Luker, Senior Staff Advocate

Take a moment to think back to New Year’s Day, 2020 and the world we lived in then. We had not heard of wearing masks in public, except for medical and dental institutions. Social distancing was choosing who you wanted to hang out with. Staying home was a luxury that required advance planning because of outside work, family and community commitments. For families who had family members with disabilities, there also was the continual regimen of appointments, treatments, special education services and other activities designed to maximize family life despite the challenges.

The novel coronavirus [COVID-19] pandemic we all have been living through these past several months has changed our lives forever. Families who have members with disabilities are being forced to think about things we never knew were out there just six short months ago. Parents, family members and the professional and volunteer agencies and advocates who support them have scrambled to understand and adjust to this new world and how it has impacted people with disabilities.

The Arc of Oakland County is offering a series of newsletter articles that anticipate new challenges and offer practical solutions. This month’s topic is about face masks. What happens when a person with a disability cannot wear or tolerate a face mask? How does that person and/or her/his family members or advocates “fix” the problem?

May a Government or Business Require Persons to Wear Face Masks?

Yes. People can have and transmit the COVID-19 virus without showing virus symptoms or knowing they are infected. Recent research shows that when everyone in an indoor area is wearing a mask, the likelihood that COVID-19 will be transmitted to an uninfected person is reduced to under 1%. Wearing masks provides only marginal protection to people who do not have the virus. When the person wearing the mask has the virus, a mask provides greater protection to uninfected persons who are not wearing masks than if only the uninfected person was wearing a mask. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all persons over age two wear face masks in public whenever it becomes difficult for persons to stay at least six feet away from other people. Masks arguably are the least intrusive protection measure while affording the greatest protection when all persons are wearing masks.

State laws vary in their approach to the issue. Some states, including Michigan, give governors the authority to order members of the public to wear masks in indoor or outdoor public areas. States and/or governors may have the ability to give local mayors, town councils and other municipal leaders the authority to mandate that persons within their jurisdictional boundaries wear masks in public in specific situations. Business owners who operate their businesses on private property have the right to establish their own rules for whether employees, customers and others must wear masks while on their property.

Why Might Wearing a Mask Be a Problem for People with Disabilities?

There are many disabilities and conditions that can impair a person’s ability to wear a mask. These disabilities and conditions can include the following:
• The person is unconscious, incapacitated or unable to remove the face mask without help.
• The person has respiratory disabilities like asthma, COPD, or cystic fibrosis and wearing a mask would further restrict breathing.
• The person has post-trauma stress disorder [PTSD], claustrophobia, severe anxiety or other disorder that can cause fear or terror when wearing a face mask.
• The person has a sensory disorder like autism that makes the person hypersensitive to touch and texture, causing the wearer to experience sensory overload, panic or extreme anxiety.
• The person has gross, fine motor skill or mobility deficits that impair the person’s ability to put on, take off or adjust the mask without help from others.

May a Person with a Disability Who Cannot Wear a Mask Still Be Allowed to Enter a Public Office or a Private Business Without a Mask?

Yes. The Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA], a federal law, requires public and private entities to accommodate people with disabilities so that they can access and use services open to the general public. Many, perhaps even most, states have laws that create rights and procedures like those required by the ADA. Michigan has the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act [MPWDCRA].

The core provision of the ADA and similar state laws is the requirement that a governmental office or public business must accommodate the disabilities of prospective customers or building users. People often see wheelchair ramps, elevators, curb cuts, parking places and similar devices as ways to accommodate people who use wheelchairs, walkers or other mobility supports to gain access to spaces.

The mask requirement might be solved by any one of the following accommodations:
• Allow the person to wear a scarf, loose face covering or full-face shield.
• Allow phone or on-line orders with curbside pickup or no-contact delivery.
• Allow outside or in-car waiting for appointment times with building entry when the appointment time has arrived.
• Allow phone or on-line appointments.

How Does a Person Request a Reasonable Accommodation to a Mask Rule?

The ADA and similar state laws do not require governmental and business entities to accommodate disabilities they do not know about. The duty to secure ADA accommodations rests with the person seeking the accommodation. The request pattern looks like this:
• The person with the disability must disclose the disability to the entity and request that the entity accommodate the disability.
• The person should be prepared to provide documentation proving the disability and the need for a reasonable accommodation, along with professional support for the accommodation being requested.
• The person should make the request in writing if possible and include requests for specific accommodations like those suggested above.
• The person should work with the business entity to ensure all essential information has been provided.

If the governmental or business entity grants the reasonable accommodation request, the parties should put the agreement in writing and apply it to present and future uses of the office or store.

If the entity denies the accommodation request, call a local office of The Arc and ask for help to address the denial.






I am writing on behalf of my patient, PATIENT’S NAME, DOB ________. PATIENT’S NAME has been diagnosed with LIST ALL DIAGNOSES. PATIENT’S NAME would [STATE REASON FOR NOT WEARING MASK] (e.g., not be able to understand the importance of keeping on a face mask or medically tolerate wearing one for any length of time because of (e.g., anxiety, sensory, obstruction, etc.)

COVID-19 Mask Exemptions Under the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA]: According to “ADA.gov,” one must have a disability, which is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; a person who has a history or record of such impairment; or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.

PATIENT’S NAME qualifies under the ADA Covid-19 Face Mask Exemption (as well as the Michigan Governor’s Executive Orders #110 and #115) and should be allowed to attend —–. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact me at —- phone number.