IT was late March last year when the First Minister suggested mask wearing might be a useful choice for people when using public transport, say, or visiting essential shops.

It was July before face coverings became mandatory in shops in Scotland, having already been mandatory on transport, giving a few months for people to mull over the pros and cons and make a personal choice in the matter.

Masks feel like such a routine part of daily business now that it's strange to think it was only last year that every talk radio station under the Scottish sun was having caller debates about whether masks were a vital move in restricting covid or a pointless folly.

Now those who question the issue are seen as niche, a bit controversial. There was an anti-mask march down Buchanan Street in Glasgow the other week and a woman approached to scream in my face, "Take your mask down". I wasn't quite persuaded by the argument but then, I was raised to think you catch more bees with honey.

My personal concern about mask wearing was how it would affect the Deaf community, as my mum is a lip reader and I was alert to how difficult it would make communication for those who use British Sign Language (BSL) or who lip read.

BSL was recognised as a minority language in the UK in 2003 and the BSL (Scotland) Act 2015 was introduced to promote the language and improve access to services. Despite these efforts, thanks to campaigning and championing from the Deaf community, it's always a surprise to learn how gappy people's knowledge is.

So, BSL is incredibly expressive and signs require lip patterns and facial expressions to fully convey meaning - no easy task behind a mask.

Poor Ma Stewart hasn't been able to go out and about much over the past 18 months without "my minder", as she put it in a stage whisper to a vaccinator at her first jab.

Being the constant companion of a person with a hidden disability has given ample opportunity to observe how other people respond, and how their reactions have shifted during the pandemic months.

We started, last year, with so little empathy for individual situations that charities and the children and young people's commissioner for Scotland felt compelled to write to supermarkets to ask that parents with children weren't turned away from shops after reports of adults being harassed and shamed for not shopping alone.

With tensions high and people fearful, there was little patience for my poor mum, cut off from easy communication. Occasionally there was a bright spot, such as the shop assistant in Next who performed an entire mime about pyjamas to make sure Ma Stewart went home with the right ones.

Where there was little patience, more often there was little knowledge. Like much of the pandemic so far, it was like being stuck on endless repeat: "Sorry, she lip reads, so she doesn't know what you're saying with the mask on." Over and over, each time feeling more than a little daft for the "sorry" but it's an automatic response, isn't it? Sorry you've stood on my foot, sorry you've hit me with your basket, sorry for this disability.

If we can look for silver linings then one is that the public discussion of mask issues for deaf people has made such a positive difference.

The last few weeks, in particular, have seen real proactive kindness and common sense. On the way into Lush at Glasgow Fort recently, the shop assistant at the door noticed Ma Stewart and I doing a bit of BSL and asked if it would help for one shop assistant to remove her mask and act like a personal shopper from shelf to till. Yes, it really would.

Now, in shops, staff proactively offer to take their mask down. In Paperchase on Buchanan Street just before Christmas the worker asked me how to say "thank you" in BSL so she could wave my mum off as with any other customer.

I'm only a bystander, I'm only enjoying this by proxy. But from over here, it looks like progress.

Which takes us, of course, to the magnificent Rosie Ayling-Ellis. Ma Stewart has never watched Strictly in her life, but she saw a clip of Ayling-Ellis in the final and told me about it with tears in her eyes. It was a good week after the final so she'd taken a while to catch up with the rest of the country but she was delighted.

There is no equality legislation covering BSL in the UK as a whole – Scotland and Wales have legislation where England does not – and a campaign is currently underway to address that.

Rosie Cooper MP is bringing a new BSL Bill to the Commons that will make sure the language is treated equitably in England to English. There is one month left to show support for the Bill and people are asked to write to their MPs before January 28 so the BSL conversation looks set to remain in the public eye for some time.

It was well reported that Google searches for BSL classes increased by 488% during her time on Strictly, an astonishing stat showing the power of representation in the media and the importance of awareness raising.

I'd started BSL classes in January last year, finally, finally getting round to acting on a long held ambition to learn more, but they were stopped short thanks to the pandemic.

I am, like thousands of others, motivated to get back to it at long last. Ayling-Ellis is an inspiration for Deaf people, showing that, when institutions act meaningfully to remove barriers, anything can be achieved.

For hearing people, let her be a motivation to learn more about a beautiful language we can use to help also remove barriers for people in our communities.