Are face masks policies covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

COVID-19 has changed life as we know in many ways. Safety measures such as social distancing, stay at home orders, and the wearing of face masks or cloth face coverings are now part of our daily lives. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends wearing a face mask or facial covering in public places/retail establishments (i.e., grocery stores, pharmacies, etc.) where it is difficult to maintain the six feet of physical distance (social distancing) from others. In addition to the CDC recommendations, many state and local governments have required the use of a face mask or facial covering in indoor and outdoor public spaces.

Are face mask policies covered under the ADA? 

Yes and no.  The ADA has no specific rules addressing the required use of face masks by state and local governments or private businesses; however, government agencies and private businesses are required under the ADA to provide reasonable accommodations and/or consider modifications to state or local ordinances or company policies (such as these mask requirements) for individuals with disabilities who may be unable to comply. These ADA protections preclude individuals without disabilities or those who simply do not wish to comply, as they are not protected under the ADA.

Is there a reason a person may be unable to wear a face mask?

Yes, there are various conditions that people with disabilities may experience that may make it difficult or impossible to wear a face mask including: individuals with respiratory illness/disease; mental conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, or claustrophobia; individuals with sensory disabilities (i.e., autism spectrum disorder) who are sensitive to touch and texture that may result in sensory overload, feelings of panic, and extreme anxiety; and individuals with mobility/movement disorders that may make it difficult to put on, adjust, and/or remove a face mask without great difficulty or without assistance.

I’m a person with a disability and cannot wear a face mask, what should I do?

If an individual with disability is unable to wear a face mask, they can request a reasonable modification to existing policies and practices. To request an accommodation, contact the government agency or private business designated contact person who oversees accommodation requests.  When speaking with the agency or business, let them know you are a person with a disability and unable to wear a face mask and ask what options are available to you. The responsibility falls to state and local government agencies and private businesses to provide those reasonable modifications so that individuals with disabilities can participate in or benefit from offered programs, and/or to obtain goods and services.

What types of reasonable modifications/accommodations can businesses or agencies offer?

Businesses, organizations, and agencies may provide any number of reasonable modifications to face masks policies. Some examples include:

  • Allowing individuals to wear a scarf, loose face covering, or a full-face shield instead of a face mask;
  • Allowing individuals to utilize online ordering with curbside pick-up or no contact delivery in a timely manner;
  • Allowing individuals to order by phone with curb side pick-up or no contact delivery in a timely manner;
  • Allowing individuals to wait in their vehicle for an appointment and enter the building when called or texted;
  • Offer appointments by telephone or video calls.

It is important to know what questions you may ask a person with a disability who requests a modification. See the At Your Service link below for more information on customer service.

Are there any situations when an agency or business does not have to provide reasonable modification?

Yes, there are three exceptions under the ADA whereby state or local agencies or private businesses may decline to provide a reasonable modification(s): (1) the requested modification would result in a fundamental alteration/change to the nature of a service, program, activity, goods, services, or facilities; (2) an undue burden where the requested modification would cause significant difficulty or expense; and (3) a requested modification that poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others.

Organizations and agencies who wish to learn more about their responsibilities and examples of reasonable accommodations to mask policies may contact the ADA National Network. Find the nearest regional center online or call 800/949-4232 to be connected to the center serving your area.

Additional Resources:

About cgraves34

Media Specialist for the National Rehabilitation Information Center (NARIC) funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR) through Administration for Community Living (ACL) under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
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