I am writing to you regarding a deeply distressing incident that occurred at [name] dental surgery on [date].
I was attending the surgery as my children, aged [under eleven], had an appointment for a check-up. My younger child has autism, and so was wearing a sunflower lanyard alerting observers to the fact he has a hidden disability and is therefore exempt from wearing a face covering. Although Public Health England has clearly stated children under eleven are not required to wear face coverings at all, and the government's guidance states showing proof of exemption is not required, my son wears a lanyard anyway, due to the bigotry and discrimination that is regrettably so rife in our society. It concerns me very deeply to know that, by not wearing a face covering, my son could attract harassment or worse from ignorant and intolerant individuals who are not conversant with the law. Therefore, I encourage him to wear a lanyard.
However, I certainly did not expect to encounter the very bigotry and discrimination I am so concerned about in a professional medical setting such as a dental surgery.
When my children and I arrived at the surgery, we were greeted outside on the entrance path by a woman wielding a temperature gun. I am not comfortable with the psychological connotations of strangers aiming guns at my children's heads, as many would not be. Staff at [dentist's name] should be given appropriate sensitivity training regarding the fact that this could be highly alarming and disturbing to some individuals, especially children and especially children with sensory issues such as autism. Nevertheless, despite the unprofessional and insensitive nature of our reception, we allowed the woman to take our temperatures.
I realised at this point I would be unable to "check in" to the surgery via my phone, as the battery had expired, which I explained to the woman who had greeted us. In response, she began loudly asking me personal medical questions regarding COVID. We were outside in public and any passersby could easily overhear the conversation.
She then asked me to put on a mask. I explained that I, like my son, am exempt. She asked me for proof of this. I told her that the government has clearly stated that the mask-exempt are not required to provide proof, and, in fact, to request proof is a breach of the Equality Act 2010 and can render businesses liable for a fine of up to £9,000. The woman, evidently unaware of these binding legal facts, told me she would go inside to speak to the dentist. My children and I were left to wait outside in the rain.
A few minutes later, she returned to reiterate her initial position that I could not enter the surgery without a mask. She said the practice follows the "dentistry regulations", which are that everyone must wear a mask. I explained once again that there are clear and unequivocal exemptions to mask-wearing under the law, including for those with hidden disabilities.
The woman once again requested proof. I told her that the law does not require the mask-exempt to produce proof, and that it quite rightly protects those with hidden disabilities from disclosing private and confidential medical information to strangers. I did show her a laminated exemption card I carry with me, as the government advises the mask-exempt are at liberty to do if it gives them peace of mind, but she said this was not sufficient, and I must produce a medical certificate.
I enquired how this would be possible, when doctors have stated categorically that they will not provide such certification? (Please see below.)
The woman then returned inside to once again speak to the dentist. When she came back out, she informed me that the dentist would permit my children to enter individually, and without me present, and he would see them alone. I was stunned and aghast at this suggestion. My children are minors, far below the age of majority, and it is therefore thoroughly inappropriate to suggest they undergo invasive medical checks without the presence of a parent, particularly given my younger child suffers with autism. I made it abundantly clear to the woman that this certainly would not be happening.
By this point, we had been standing outside in the rain for about 15 minutes, and my children were becoming visibly agitated and distressed. I pointed out to the woman that I am a paying private patient, and that this was hardly the appropriate way to treat valued customers. My son in particular was becoming very upset, and was frightened we would all be forced to wear masks. As a child with autism, he would find it particularly distressing not to be able to see his mother's face.
The woman then asked me if I would like to speak to the dentist myself so he could "clarify things" for me. I told her I did not need anything clarifying as I was quite clear on what the legal position regarding mask exemptions was, but that I would certainly like to speak to him myself.
The dentist then emerged from the surgery, and I immediately felt intimidated, as his body language was very aggressive and his fists were clenched. As he is a large and imposing man and I am a very petite woman, this further exacerbated my sense of deep unease. He said:
"I hear you have a problem with wearing a mask."
The combined factors of his wearing a face covering, and my suffering from a hearing impairment, meant it was difficult for me to hear him clearly, so I moved a little closer, though still kept an appropriate "social distance". I explained to him that I had alerted his female colleague to my exemption, and that she was in breach of the law to ask me for proof. I further expounded that this could result in a fine for the business of up to £9,000. The dentist appeared to find this an amusing suggestion, and said with some levity:
"Is that right?"
He then said something else I couldn't hear, so I asked him to remove his mask so I could hear him properly. He refused. I questioned him on his refusal, explaining that I have a hearing impairment and struggle to understand what people are saying when they cover their faces. I asked him to write his name down so I could take the matter further, but he refused.
He then said something else, but I told him again that I couldn't hear him. He laughed at me and told me I could hear fine. I told him several times that I couldn't understand him properly with his mask on, but he repeatedly ignored this and continued to address things to me. I told him that I found him incredibly intimidating, to which he replied that I was being abusive. He then said something about CCTV (I didn't hear this, my daughter did and told me later), and then told me to leave the premises or he would call the police. He then returned inside and shut the door.
By this point, both my children were in tears. My daughter was so frightened she had curled herself up into a ball on the floor, as she was terrified the police were going to arrive and take me to jail. I had to spend some significant time comforting and consoling my sobbing children and assuring them that I was not going to go to jail. This is a shocking indictment of the atrocious behaviour of [dental surgery's] staff, and certainly not an experience any family should have to endure when attempting something as routine and unremarkable as a dental check-up.
As soon as we returned home, I reported this incident to the police, and they confirmed it would be recorded as a hate crime.
As an autism parent, I am used to dealing with challenging and confrontational situations when trying to secure the best services for my son, and I generally regard myself as a strong person. However, this incident has left me deeply distressed and traumatised. Trying to comfort terrified children and assure them their mother is not going to be apprehended by the police and thrown in jail is not an experience any law-abiding parent should ever have to endure, whilst the callous disregard demonstrated by the dental staff where it came to my private medical information was utterly abhorrent.
I am only [under forty] years old and that I suffer from a hearing impairment is a source of considerable distress and embarrassment for me. As a result, it is something I choose only to disclose to close family and friends. That I should have been coerced into disclosing this highly sensitive information publicly and to a complete stranger, followed by enduring the ignominy of being mocked and disbelieved, is utterly outrageous.
I expect a comprehensive response to this letter within 14 days of today's date, assuring me that the issues raised will be addressed fully and as a matter of urgency, and that [dentist's name] and all dental surgeries regulated by the General Dental Council will be appropriately instructed on the law regarding mask exemptions and disabilities discrimination.
Such instruction must clearly underline that to breach disabilities discrimination legislation can carry with it a personal fine of up to £5,000 and punitive damages of between £900 and £9,000, as per section 19 (Remedies) of the Equality Act 2010.
This letter is being sent by recorded delivery to [dentist's name] and to the General Dental Council.