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Coronavirus: Toronto man calls for awareness, understanding of medical-related mask exemptions

Coronavirus: Toronto man claims he faces discrimination over face masks
WATCH ABOVE: A Toronto man living with autism says he’s experienced more discrimination in three weeks than since his diagnosis more than 20 years ago. Chris Sherk says his medical condition prevents him from wearing a face mask into stores and other businesses. Despite his legal right not to wear a mask, he says he’s facing abuse. Sean O’Shea reports.

Christopher Sherk says he’d like to wear a mask when he goes inside a store or office, but for medical reasons he says he can’t do so.

“I’m on the autism spectrum, and for that reason I don’t wear a mask,” Sherk told Global News in an interview, adding he was diagnosed more than two decades ago.

“I have sensory issues that can lead to panic attacks and anxiety, it can lead to hyperventilating, and that’s a breathing issue.”

Under City of Toronto bylaw 541-2020, which requires masks to be worn in public buildings, there was an exemption that gave Sherk and others the right to abstain from wearing a face covering. People can be exempt on the basis of “medical condition, mental health condition, cognitive condition or disability that prevents wearing a mask or face covering.”

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Read more: Montreal woman with health condition says she was turned away from store for not wearing mask

In addition, a City of Toronto spokesperson confirmed to Global News that “proof of exemption is not required for individuals due to medical reasons and this is personal health information and it is important to people’s privacy.”

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Despite the fact that businesses are not allowed to ask for any specifics, Sherk said he proactively advises security staff or management upon entering the building and explains, in detail if necessary, his autism diagnosis and reasons why he is not masked.

When he recently advised a security officer at a Toronto shopping mall, Sherk said he was rebuffed and told he could not enter without a mask.

“He told me autism spectrum disorder is not considered an exemption from the bylaw,” Sherk said.

READ MORE: Face masks spark ‘fear and anxiety’ among deaf, hard of hearing

But the bylaw as well as expert medical opinion support Sherk’s position that he does not need to wear a mask.

“There are going to be some people who, frankly, are not going to be able to comply and put something on their face,” said Dr. Michael Gardam, an infectious disease specialist.

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“It’s a reasonable exemption that people, for their own mental health reasons, can’t do it,” Gardam added.

But in practice, Sherk said employees and customers in businesses are frequently not sympathetic, even when he explains his medical condition.

“I’ve had more discrimination in the last three weeks than I’ve had since I was diagnosed,” he said.

Sherk said he carries a letter from his medical doctor with a list of medications used to treat his condition and shows it whenever necessary. Even so, he said many are quick to blame him for not being responsible during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They cast judgment without all the information,” Sherk said.