By Margaret Behrns
Illustration by Baheshta Azizi
We live in a world of mixed messages about wearing masks. “Masked messages”, if you will. In the past few days I’ve read:
Wearing a mask is a sign of love.
Wearing a mask is an act of fear.
It’s like wearing clothes– you do it to be socially acceptable.
You don’t wear masks to protect yourself, you wear masks to protect others.
It’s a statement of solidarity.
It’s my right not to wear one.
A mask could save your life.
Masks lead to a false sense of security.
Masks are recommended or mandated to protect against the spread of COVID-19. However, for some, wearing a mask can present a different type of risk and the decision to wear one is more complex than the philosophical, political, or charitable considerations. Wearing a mask can be a barrier to interacting with the world. For example, many people who are deaf and are accustomed to maneuvering the world by reading lips suddenly find communication cut off. For others, masks can trigger health conditions such as asthma or anxiety. It can even put some children in danger as muffled speech can make it difficult to understand their parents’ directions. Just as some parents are concerned for their children with compromised immune systems and fully support the wearing of masks, other parents are worried that they won’t be able to comply with the regulations and societal expectations. Some parents encompass both.
Take a moment to consider the following:
When you wear a mask I can’t read your lips — your friend who is deaf.
When my mom wears a mask I can’t understand her [potentially life-saving] directions — your friend with auditory processing disorder.
When I wear a mask I can’t breathe — your friend with asthma.
Wearing a mask is unbearable for me — your friend with sensory processing disorder.
Wearing a mask fogs up my glasses and I can’t see where I am going —your friend with visual impairment.
When I wear a mask I panic —your friend with anxiety disorder.
Yes, there are ways to address some of the concerns, like ensuring a proper fit and using tape to keep glasses from fogging up. There are companies developing masks with clear plastic windows to facilitate lip-reading and a woman who designs masks to fit well with hearing aids and cochlear implants. There are articles discussing which masks minimize difficulty breathing. I’ve seen tips on preparing anxious children to wear masks by having them put masks on their teddy bears and found an information session on how to help children wear masks. Yet, health officials such as Canada’s national chief public health officer, Theresa Tam, urge people to consider that those not wearing masks may have a health condition that makes it unsafe for them to do so. “Be very aware of those with different types of cognitive, intellectual disabilities, those who are hearing impaired and others,” Dr. Tam said.
The purpose of this article, in keeping with the empathy-building mission of the Walk In My Shoes Program, is to help you take the perspective of others. I ask you to imagine what it would be like to maneuver the world with each of the conditions listed above and then answer these questions:
What changes would you need to make in your life?
What difficulties would you face?
What would you wish other people understood about your challenges?
How would you like other people to behave towards you?
These simple questions will help you consider situations different from your own and encourage empathy towards others. There is a saying “you never know what someone is going through, so be kind.” In an article of the same title, writer Mary-Frances Makichen says “whenever I get frustrated or annoyed with someone’s actions, I remind myself that I don’t really know what’s going on in their life. I try to take a breath, not take it personally, and trust that they are doing the best they can.”
So be kind, dear friends. We are all navigating uncharted waters but we are not all in the same boat. Consider that parents and kids with complex medical and developmental conditions face additional stress. When you see something you don’t understand, try to walk in their shoes.