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SA businesses warned not to discriminate against people with mask exemptions

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Around 20 South Australians who are exempt from wearing face masks due to medical conditions or disabilities have approached the Equal Opportunity Commission over the past two months alleging that businesses have unlawfully refused them entry or service.

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Acting Equal Opportunity Commissioner Colin Marsh told InDaily that between July 1 and September 15 this year, his office received around 20 disability discrimination enquiries and complaints from people who are unable to wear face masks while in public.

He said the most common issues resulted from people being refused entry into a business or denied service in a shop.

Under current public health directions, people aged over 12 must wear face masks in indoor public places, health care services, personal care retailers, airports and aeroplanes, aged care facilities and on public transport.

In South Australia it is not unlawful to require a person to wear a face mask to ensure that “an infectious disease is not spread, and is reasonable in all the circumstances”.

But exemptions apply for people who have a disability, medical condition or physical or mental illness that makes wearing a face covering unsuitable.

SA Health says those who are exempt may have obstructed breathing, a serious facial skin condition, an intellectual disability, a mental health condition, or have experienced trauma.

People who are deaf or hard of hearing are also exempt from wearing face masks when visibility of the mouth is essential for communication.

According to the Equal Opportunity Commission, retailers or businesses that refuse service to people with disabilities who are not wearing a face-masks may be unlawfully discriminating against them.

“I appreciate that events interstate have heightened concerns about the potential spread of COVID-19 and its variants, and people are understandably concerned if someone attends their business refusing to wear a face mask, but it’s important to remember that there are legitimate exceptions to the mask mandate and people living with a disability have a right to be treated fairly,” Marsh said.

“We remind everyone that the reasons for not wearing a mask may not be obvious or visible.”

Marsh said that formal complaints lodged with the Equal Opportunity Commission can be conciliated to assist parties to reach an agreement.

He said if an agreement cannot be reached, the complaint can be referred to the Equal Opportunity Tribunal.

Police Commissioner Grant Stevens said business operators have a right to ask their patrons whether they have an exemption not to wear a face mask.

He said people with exemptions should carry evidence with them.

“Clearly, we wouldn’t want blanket bans on people who aren’t wearing masks,” he said.

“Please don’t presume that someone’s just disobeying the direction – there may be a legitimate reason why they’re not wearing a mask.

“Business owners have a right to ask for evidence of that direction.”

The Equal Opportunity Commission has recommended that people carry a letter signed by their doctor confirming they are unable to wear a face mask while in public.

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