Masks can be uncomfortable to wear, it’s true. And as most of us in the U.S. are not used to wearing them, so they’re also an uncomfortable reminder of how the pandemic has changed our lives. But if you’re looking for an excuse not to wear one, please leave the ADA and your fake medical condition out of this. Definitely do not use (or accept) a faux-government “freedom to breathe” card downloaded from the internet.
There are plenty of people with a real medical condition or disability that makes it difficult or dangerous for them to wear a mask. These may include breathing problems like COPD or severe asthma or sensory issues that go along with autism. Severe anxiety or PTSD can make masks a problem for some people, and anyone who has trouble breathing or would not be able to remove the mask by themselves should also not wear a one. The Southeast ADA Center has more information on that here.
We’ve seen videos of maskless people having tantrums in stores, or while trying to enter stores, saying that they “have a medical condition” which they cannot disclose, and insisting that the store owner must allow them to shop maskless. That’s not how this works.
What the ADA actually requires
If a store requires masks and you cannot wear a mask, the Americans with Disabilities Act (the ADA) states that they must offer reasonable modifications to the policy. What’s reasonable will vary according to the business, but the Southeast ADA Center gives some examples:
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- allowing a loose scarf instead of a mask
- offering online ordering and curbside pickup
- offering phone or video appointments for a service that’s normally offered in person
In the viral Gelson’s video, the store employee offers to shop for the woman who says she cannot wear a mask. She declines that option, but that would be considered a reasonable modification under the law.
Those “freedom to breathe” cards are garbage
A photo of a “freedom to breathe” card has been floating around social media— something you can print out and carry in your pocket to make your fake medical condition look more convincing. It looks official, in a photoshoppy way: there’s a Justice Department seal on it, along with a phone number to report violations to the ADA.
It should go without saying that these self-issued cards are not legally binding, and the Justice Department has issued a warning about them. The phone number is actually the ADA’s information line where you can learn how to file a discrimination complaint; it’s not some kind of instant complaint hotline. But honestly, if you’re going to make a fuss about your mask, go ahead and waste your time calling this number instead of yelling at a store employee.
What’s more, the fake “Freedom to Breathe Agency” has borrowed a phrase that’s often used when discussing air pollution and climate justice. People do have a right to breathable air, but ensuring that right is a larger, systemic problem that has nothing to do with whether you feel a little stifled when you are required to put on a mask to buy your groceries.
I wanted to laugh off the idea of the card when I first saw one of them, but they—and the Karen energy they represent—are harmful, ableist, discriminatory nonsense. If you pretend to have a disability and are willing to harass store workers about it, you clearly aren’t thinking about the effect you’re having on people with actual disabilities. It’s in the same category as pretending your pet is an emotional support animal or faking an injury to hop to the front of the line at an amusement park. Already, people with actual medical conditions are getting yelled at by people on the street who assume everybody without a mask is just being an asshole. On behalf of society, I beg you, please: don’t try to use one of these bullshit cards.
Accommodations exist in the world so that people with disabilities and medical conditions can enjoy some of the same experiences and conveniences as nondisabled people; they’re not there for nondisabled jerks to demand that the world revolves around them even more than it already does.