Misunderstanding about the role of face covering exemption cards has led the Disabled Persons Assembly - DPA - NZ to stop sending out the cards.
People who are unable to wear a mask because of their disability or health condition are currently exempt under the health order.
However, there is no legal requirement for a face covering exemption card, a medical certificate or any other documentation.
“The Face Covering Exemption Card was developed by the Ministry of Health in 2020 for those people who are exempt from wearing a face covering under the health order simply as a tool to aid people to communicate exemption,” says DPA Chief Executive Prudence Walker.
“At that time, DPA as well as a small number of other national Disabled People’s Organisations were tasked with distributing the cards.”
Prudence says the cards was increasingly referred to, or demanded to be seen, as ‘proof’ of exemption.
“The card was never designed to be used in this way, and the existence of the card appears now to be adding to the widespread misunderstanding of the fact that face covering exemptions exist in the public health order and no proof is required," says Prudence.
“This misunderstanding has led to discrimination and has been detrimental to the wellbeing of those who are legitimately exempt, including people with sensory sensitivities, mental health conditions, those who have experienced trauma, and people with physical conditions such as respiratory disorders.
“We have been calling for over six months for a public education campaign to ensure that people who are exempt under the public health order are not further marginalised, however this has not happened. The general misunderstanding around exemptions should have been addressed by now."
Prudence says that if anything the misunderstanding appears to be growing.
"Last month this was highlighted by the thousands of parents who approached us requesting cards for their children, the majority appearing to mistakenly believe that an exemption from wearing a face covering is something that could be granted to their child by our organisation and that it was needed to show to a school," says Prudence.
"In our communications with the people, organisations, Government agencies and businesses who we have been in contact with regarding face covering exemptions, we have attempted to address many of the misunderstandings that exist, however we believe what is required is leadership by Government on this issue."
Prudence says that continuing to send out exemption cards while there are still misconceptions about their purpose appears to be perpetuating confusion about face covering exemptions.
“DPA have therefore made the difficult decision to stop distribution of the cards. We advised the Ministry of Health early in February that we would be no longer distributing the cards, and will stop distribution of the cards at the end of this month," says Prudence.
Since the end of last year the Government has been reviewing face covering exemptions and DPA, alongside other disability organisations and business community representatives have been consulted around this.
“We will continue to do everything we can to ensure that people who are genuinely exempt are recognised. This work includes input and communication with ministers, government agencies, business organisations, and others,” says Prudence.