Exempt student ‘harassed’ and ‘discriminated’ against by uni staff for not wearing mask

‘The whole point of the hidden disabilities policy is that people should not be challenged’

A Lancaster student exempt from wearing a face covering due to having a hidden disability has stepped forward and told The Lancaster Tab that they have been “harassed” and “discriminated” against by Lancaster University staff members for not wearing a mask on campus.

The university’s policy regarding face coverings states that “Nobody is expected to provide evidence that they are exempt from wearing a face covering” and “It is up to all of us at Lancaster to be mindful and respectful in these circumstances.”

However, Emma* told us that despite not being legally required by law and by the university’s guidelines to provide evidence for being exempt, she has experienced “distress” after staff members on campus have argued and insisted that she wear a mask or vacate the premises.

‘I was being discriminated against and I was clearly very distressed’

On the 25th January , Emma went into Central on campus and was “shouted” at by one of the staff members to put a mask on. Emma explained that she was exempt but she didn’t have a lanyard on. Emma said: “I tried to explain I did not need to wear a lanyard or show him I am exempt and ask him to let me carry on with my shop. He refused and said I either wear a mask or leave.”

The two members of staff working at the shop didn’t let her explain herself or even allow her to show them her exemption card. Emma said: “I tried to explain that I have a hidden disability that stops me from wearing a mask and he shouted ‘well you don’t’ referring to my disabilities, in front of everyone at the shop. I told them I felt I was being discriminated against and I was clearly very distressed. They did not want to listen or care about anything I had to say and they proceeded to call the porters on me and accused me of being aggressive, which is absolutely not true.

“He also made a really hurtful and dangerous comment, he shouted at me saying I am putting people at risk. This was extremely unfair and discriminatory as he should not be telling people who are exempt due to disabilities or severe distress caused by wearing a face covering that their disabilities are something to be feared upon.”

Emma felt too distressed to go to another shop to buy dinner on campus.

‘The whole point of the hidden disabilities policy is that people should not be challenged’

As the Students’ Union is student-run, it should be supporting students as opposed to making students feel uncomfortable. Many disabilities are hidden, so people should not be questioned about why they are exempt or feel pressured to provide evidence.

Emma said: “Students’ Union members should not be questioning people’s disabilities and it should not be their role to tell someone whether they are disabled or not, especially as many disabilities are hidden. I do not know how to proceed with this matter.

“The porters were extremely unhelpful and asked me to leave Central. Once I showed the porters my government exemption card he said he did not recognise it and anyone could do that on a computer. I think they have missed the point, as the whole point of the hidden disabilities policy is that people should not be challenged, especially when they have already stated they are exempt.”

‘My mental health has declined’

After a formal complaint, Emma received an apology from Central and was given a £10 voucher to compensate. But when Emma went back a week or so later, the same staff member wasn’t wearing a mask behind the till. Emma said: “I felt completely humiliated, given that since the incident I have been seeing a counsellor and a therapist because my mental health has declined.”

Emma was once again asked to wear a mask by a different staff member. The next day she received an email saying she was banned from Central because she went in and took a photo of the member of staff not wearing a mask, and for telling him that his behaviour was disgusting after doing the same to her.

‘In the end I burst into tears’

Another incident occurred in the library when a security man approached Emma and asked her to put on a mask. After saying that she was exempt, the security man argued with her until she became very upset. The security man didn’t respect her when she explained the uni policy regarding face coverings.

Emma said: “In the end I burst into tears, I was so upset and asked him for his supervisor. He was so rude. I tried to show him what the law stipulates and what the uni policy is regarding face coverings but he didn’t even look at it and flung it onto his desk in a really patronising way.”

There are many signs around campus saying “no mask no service” which discriminates against those who are exempt.

A spokesperson from Lancaster University told The Lancaster Tab: “Everyone has the right to feel safe on campus.

 “While we can’t give details about the individuals in this case, Lancaster University Students’ Union – which runs Central Supermarket – is aware and has already launched an investigation into the alleged incident.

 “Face coverings remain an important part of protecting ourselves and others from the spread of Coronavirus in line with current national guidelines and we expect everyone who is able to wear a face covering to do so in indoor spaces, especially if it is not possible to maintain social distancing.  For the protection and safety of all our community, those that are able to do so must wear a face mask in The Library, shops and supermarkets on campus, on public transport, in the Underpass or inside bars, restaurants and cafes (when you are standing up).

 “We recognise that some people may have a justifiable reason to not wear a face covering. To support our students we are engaging with the national Sunflower Lanyard Scheme and developing our own e-exemption card which will be optional to those who find it useful. Find out more about mask exemptions for students here.

 “Staff, students and employees on campus have worked incredibly hard over the last year to enable us to help keep infection rates low – we urge everyone in our community to continue to show kindness to one another as we move forward.”

To find information about charities helping people who are exempt from wearing face coverings due to hidden disabilities, click here.

*Name changed to protect identity 

Recommended articles by this writer:

• ‘Improve your learning’ campaign fights to help students with disabilities at uni

• ‘I know women are underrepresented’: Lancaster Alumni on being a successful woman in STEM 

• The bigoted responses to renaming Sugar is only one part of racism in Lancaster