Two disabled women have described how they felt “mask shamed” by a bus driver after getting on without wearing a face covering.
The women, who are legally deafblind, thought they might be attacked after the driver refused to let them on unless they wore masks.
They say the driver then pointed them out to every new passenger who got on the bus, despite them having guide dogs with them.
Helen Colson, 30, complained after the Arriva bus service driver questioned her and her friends’ disabilities.
The women couldn’t wear masks because they lip-read each other to communicate, as well as Helen’s asthma.
Helen, from Southport, has shared her experience to highlight to the public how mask shaming affects disabled people.
She said: “I don’t think either of us really even thought this would happen. But now these things are happening I feel like we are beginning to expect it.
Receive newsletters with the latest news, sport and what’s on updates from the Liverpool ECHO by signing up here.
“If a guide dog or a long cane doesn’t tell you a person is visually impaired I’m worried it won’t make any difference.
“I could have a flashing neon sign that says ‘deafblind’ and people still would not get the message I’m disabled – I don’t know what to do.”
Bus operator Arriva has since apologised to her over the July 11 incident – saying its drivers are being educated on coronavirus face covering exemptions.
Helen has Usher syndrome – and was forced to explain to the doubting driver that being legally “deafblind” doesn’t mean someone can’t see or hear at all.
The friends had boarded a bus to head out for a meal, and because they had guide dogs they didn’t need their canes.
Her friend had already been anxious about heading out in public, Helen said.
She said: “I was trying to cheer her up – someone had shouted at her for not socially distancing even when she had a guide dog.”
Helen boarded first and the driver immediately asked where her mask was.
Helen explained she was asthmatic but was told she needed an exemption card.
Keep up to date with coronavirus cases in your area by adding your postcode below
At that time the government cards were not officially available, and Arriva’s own rules stated they were not required for boarding.
She was allowed to board, but when her friend went to do the same, she was challenged too.
Helen’s friend explained that they were travelling together and both needed to lip-read so they could communicate.
The pair then explained to the driver they were both deafblind – but when Helen’s friend took out her phone to show the bus company’s own rules on its website, they say the driver kicked off.
Helen said: “At this point both of us were being quite calm and trying to explain this about driver – but she got quite angry.”
According to Helen, the driver said: “If you’re blind, how can you read your phone?”
Helen explained their phones have large font sizes, and pointed out their guide dogs’ harnesses are red and white to show they are deafblind, and they showed their disabled bus passes.
Helen said: “I was so upset that she kept challenging us- I said ‘you have to listen to us’.”
The driver then changed tack and told them they could be transmitting the virus, insisting for several minutes they needed masks, despite their explanations.
Helen said she answered back and the driver told them: “I’m not driving you then.”
They sat down anyway but could say they could tell the driver was unhappy. Helen said: “I could see she was gesturing, using her fingers and face and gesturing towards us.”
The driver eventually relented and drove on – but the worse was yet to come.
To their horror, every time the bus stopped to let on more passengers, they claim the driver pointed them out.
Helen said: “Every time someone got on she would say ‘there’s two girls back there who haven’t got their masks on’.
“We felt this is incredibly unprofessional and caused us both further distress and anger.
“This left us at risk of being attacked by other passengers who may not be aware of the exemptions and our right to privacy in not having to disclose our conditions.”
They managed to get to their meal without being shamed by any other passengers – but it left them worried it would keep happening, Helen said.
She continued: “Obviously after that happened we had to catch the bus to get back into Liverpool and I was scared that I was going to go in for another round but it was fine.
“I thought if that’s already happening to me when I’m with someone what’s going to happen when I’m on my own and there’s not going to be someone to defend me – it’s made me scared to step outside my door.”
The government had to introduce official exemption cards after disability rights groups campaigned for them amid reports of a rise in hostility toward people not wearing face coverings as they became mandatory on public transport and in shops.
Helen has also urged people to also be aware of sunflower lanyard or badge which indicate someone has a hidden disability.
A statement from Arriva said: “Our drivers have clear guidance in regards to passengers wearing face coverings for their journeys. Drivers are also aware of exemptions, particularly those linked to medical conditions.
“In this instance, Arriva offered a full apology to the customer for the distress caused and the incident was fully investigated at the relevant depot.
“We continue to closely monitor the Covid-19 crisis, particularly guidance for public transport users and our staff are regularly provided with training on how to ensure these safety measures are adhered to on board our buses.”