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'My son's been thrown under the bus': Warning that mask rules leave Deaf children 'isolated' in school

Since Wednesday, children aged 9-12 have been required to wear masks in school.

Image: Shutterstock/arrowsmith2

ADVOCATES FOR DEAF children have warned how mask requirements for primary-level pupils will detrimentally impact the development of those who are hard of hearing.

New measures which came into effect on Wednesday require those aged nine and older to wear face masks in schools, shops and public transport.

The move follows a recommendation by NPHET last week in response to high incidence of Covid-19 among five to 12 year-olds, and is subject to a review to take place in mid-February.

However, parents and advocacy groups have said that Deaf and hard of hearing children in primary school will be left behind by the requirement because it will leave them unable to lip-read.

Brendan Lennon, head of advocacy at Chime, says the measure will exacerbate socio-emotional challenges among Deaf and hard of hearing children if it becomes the norm.

“This has to do with being able to make friends,” he explains.

“The age of nine to twelve is a critical period, not just for learning in school, but to be able to engage with your peers, make friends, and have the craic.

“And if you can’t do that, you feel left out and isolated. You might develop long-term mental health and well-being issues that go with adolescence, which could have lifelong implications.”

Chairperson of Our New Ears Laura Grant, whose ten-year-old son James is profoundly Deaf and uses a cochlear implant, feels he has been “thrown under the bus” by the requirement.

She explains that the issue is not with her son wearing a mask but with all the people around him wearing them: her son will be unable to lip-read and will also have difficulty in picking up the sound of voices via his implant because face masks will muffle them.

“If a teacher – wearing a mask – asks a question to the class that’s put out to the floor, a hard of hearing pupil has not got a hope of hearing what the question is, or the response from pupils, who are also wear masks,” she says.

“When this was meant to be for two-week period, I thought ‘Oh my god, let’s just do our best for the next few weeks’. But now we’re looking at two-and-a-half to three months. That’s a whole term of school.”

Grant also says that her son began to worry about going to school wearing a mask, even before the requirement for primary pupils to do so was introduced.

“He’s worried about Friday because he has his spelling test. He’s saying: ‘How am I going to know what the teacher calls? How am I going to do my work in school?’

“What I’ve had to do, which I found really hard, was to message the class parents’ WhatsApp group and explain how challenging this is going to be for him, and to ask them to ask their kids to help James if they don’t think he’s heard something in class.

“We’ve spent last seven years trying to help him become part of the gang and part of his class. And I felt like I was making him different. I have to do this for him, but it broke my heart. I sat in the kitchen and I absolutely bawled my eyes out for 20 minutes.

“He’s just been thrown under the bus, I feel, by the Department of Education.”

Grant also clarifies that she is not “pro-mask or anti-mask”, but that she is wondering why other avenues of preventing Covid-19 circulating among school children haven’t been fully tried out.

“This is our fourth wave of Covid. They’ve had the opportunity to get HEPA filters sorted during the summer: it didn’t happen. What about putting screens put up in schools, which happened in some schools and not others?

“Why has this not been exhausted? The least vulnerable to Covid are taking the burden for everybody, especially children with special educational needs. It’s just appalling.”

Sinn Féin’s education spokesperson Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire said his party had previously called for children who are hard of hearing to be considered in any guidance around mask-wearing and possible exemptions around doing so.

However, he described as “disappointing” the fact that such children were not listed on exemptions to the guidelines.

“The Minister acknowledged that flexibility must be shown by schools in this circumstance,” he said.

“This is welcomed. However, we believe the Minister should consider providing funding to schools to provide masks with clear panels to the teacher and classmates of a child who is hard of hearing.

“This would allow the child to continue to lip-read and remain fully involved in their class.”

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Labour’s education spokesperson Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said that the handling of advice to parents by the Department of Education this week was “absolutely ridiculous”.

“All of this should have been teased out over a number of days, possibly weeks, if this was deemed to be absolutely necessary,” he said.

“It’s been implemented, and now we have to chase all of these issues. It’s just poor communication after a whole litany of poorly managed situations, and principals and school communities are feeling completely disrespected.”

The Department of Education was contacted for comment, but did not respond to The Journal by the time of publication. 

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