Disability community outraged after autistic man denied entry to store for not wearing mask despite exemption

An autistic man says he felt humiliated after he was denied entry into a popular retail shop in Christchurch for not wearing a mask, despite having an exemption. 

The man, who lives with adult Asperger's syndrome, holds an exemption from wearing a mask. 

Karol Dell, like 8000 other New Zealanders, has a mask exemption - in his case because he suffers from sensory overload which can cause serious panic attacks.

"I don't technically have to display it but I've chosen to display it because that way everyone knows 'Oh he's one, he can't wear a mask," he says.

But while shopping for a new pair of shoes in Christchurch on Saturday, his proof didn't go far enough for staff. He says they demanded he wore a mask - or they'd call the police.

"I could barely breathe that day... and I couldn't handle it and yet he was asking for a Governmental letter to say that I was exempt and by rights I do not have to provide my disability to anyone."

And that's where the confusion lies - from the shop to the top.

"I actually thought we were asking people to carry proof. It's issued by a third party, I'm not as familiar with the requirements on issuing of documentation on that to give you a hard and fast," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said.

"My understanding was that people are issued with a document and encouraged to carry that with them to show their proof of an exemption," Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield added.

However MBIE clearly states on its website that those unable to wear a mask "can get an exemption card but are not required to carry it or show it".

The confusion is creating angst for both retailers and customers.

"It's hugely challenging for retailers to try and police the mask requirements and in fact the enforcement is actually down to the police. Ultimately it's a police issue if you're not wearing a mask," Retail NZ CEO Greg Harford says.

"I think the onus with the whole mask exemption has gone on to those people who actually have the exemption and I think that shouldn't be the case - and that can be really really difficult for a lot of our community," Autism NZ CEO Dane Dougan says.

The muddy waters are victimising our most vulnerable.

"They are made to prove themselves, to explain themselves, to reveal personal details about themselves, when in fact the Health Order doesn't require any of that," Disabled Persons Assembly​ CEO Prudence Walker says.

An Order that needs to be better understood to help others be more understanding.

"What is the point in having the exemption when people aren't being friendly or being kind to those who are exempt?" Dell asks.