Vaccine Web sites Violate Incapacity Legal guidelines, Create Inequality

(TNS) – Many federal, state, and local vaccine registration and information websites violate disability rights laws and impede the ability of blind people to sign up for a potentially life-saving vaccine, according to a KHN investigation.

Across the country, people using specialized software to make the internet accessible have not been able to sign up for the vaccines or get critical information about COVID-19 due to the lack of accessibility features on many government websites. In the United States, at least 7.6 million people over the age of 16 are visually impaired.

WebAIM, a nonprofit internet accessibility organization, reviewed the COVID vaccine websites collected by KHN from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. As of January 27, accessibility issues were identified on almost all 94 websites, including general vaccine information, lists of vaccine providers, and registration forms.

In at least seven states, blind residents reported that they could not register for the vaccine through their state or local governments without assistance. Telephone alternatives, when available, have their own set of problems, e.g. B. Long hold times, and are not always available like websites.

Even the vaccine administration system used by the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which a small number of states and counties chose after its inception, was inaccessible to blind users.

These issues violate the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which established the right to communicate in an accessible format, said several legal experts and advocates of disability. The Federal Americans with Disabilities Act, a civil rights law that prohibits governments and private companies from discriminating on the basis of disability, further enshrined this protection in 1990.

Doris Ray, 72, who is blind and has significant hearing loss, encountered such issues last month while trying to enroll for a vaccine using the CDC system used by Arlington County, Virginia. As the outreach director for the ENDependence Center in Northern Virginia, an advocacy center run by and for people with disabilities, she had qualified for the vaccine through her personal work with clients.

When she used screen reading technology that reads the text of a website, the drop-down box to identify her county didn’t work. She couldn’t sign up for over two weeks until a colleague helped her.

“In times of a public health emergency, this is outrageous as blind people cannot have access to get vaccinated,” said Ray.

Mark Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind, wrote to the U.S. Department of Health in early December expressing concerns about vaccine accessibility.

“A national emergency does not exempt federal, state and local governments from equal access,” he wrote.

Dr. Robert Redfield, who headed the CDC at the time, replied that the preliminary vaccine playbook for health departments included a reminder of the legal requirements for accessible information.

CDC spokeswoman Jasmine Reed said in an email that VAMS complies with federal accessibility laws and that the agency requires testing of their services.

But more than two months after the start of a national vaccination campaign, local people are reporting problems at all levels.

Some local officials who use VAMS are aware of the ongoing problems and blame the federal government. Arlington deputy district manager Bryna Helfer said that since VAMS is run by the federal government, the district cannot access internal operations to fix the system for blind residents.

Maura Fitzgerald, spokeswoman for the Connecticut Department of Health, said the state is aware of “many accessibility issues” with VAMS. She said it had staffed its call center to resolve the issues and was working with the federal government “to improve VAMS and enable the functionality it promised”.

Deanna O’Brien, president of the National Association of the Blind for New Hampshire, said she had heard of blind people unable to use the system. The New Hampshire Health Department did not answer KHN questions about the problems.

Blind people are particularly susceptible to contracting the COVID virus because they are often unable to physically distance themselves from others.

“When I go to the grocery store, I have no way of walking around and not being around someone,” said Albert Elia, a blind attorney who works with the San Francisco-based TRE Legal Practice on accessibility cases. “I need someone in the store to help me with my shopping.”

There is no standardized way to register for a COVID vaccine nationwide or to troubleshoot online accessibility issues. Some states use VAMS; Some states have centralized online vaccination registries. others have a mix of state and locally run websites, or leave everything to the local health departments or hospitals. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of state and local governments to make their vaccination systems available, whether or not they use the VAMS system.

“Once these portals are open, it’s a race to see who can click the fastest,” said Riccobono. “We don’t have time to file a lawsuit, for example, because we ultimately have to fix it today.”

Common programming errors that make websites difficult for the visually impaired to use include text with insufficient contrast to distinguish words from the background of the page and images with no alternate text to explain what they were showing. Worse still, portions of the forms on the pages of 19 states were designed in such a way that screen readers could not decipher what information a user should enter in search bars or vaccine registration forms.

The new vaccine pages had more bugs than major state coronavirus pages, but slightly fewer than state websites in general, said Jared Smith, associate director of WebAIM.

When trying to register for his vaccine appointment on February 9th in Alameda County, California, 65-year-old Bryan Bashin, who is blind and is CEO of the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco, encountered several hurdles. The appointments were lost. That night he received an email from the city of Berkeley offering vaccinations. But after two hours of struggling with the inaccessible website, all the slots were filled again, he said in an email.

He couldn’t get an appointment until his sighted sister registered him and has since received his first shot.

“It’s a terrible piece of discrimination, one that is as stinging as anything I’ve experienced,” said Bashin.

Susan Jones, a 69-year-old blind in Indianapolis, had to rely on the Aira app, which allows a sighted person to remotely operate their computer, when trying to sign up for their vaccine appointment.

“I decline the assumption that a fairy godmother should always be there,” said Sheela Gunn-Cushman, a 49-year-old also in Alameda County who also relied on Aira to pre-register for one to complete vaccine.

Emily Creasy, 23, a visually impaired woman in Polk County, Oregon, said she had tried unsuccessfully for a month to get the scheduler working with her screen reader. She eventually got her first shot after her mother and roommate helped her.

Even Sachin Dev Pavithran, 43, who is blind and is executive director of the US Access Board, an independent federal agency committed to improving accessibility, said he was having difficulty accessing vaccine registration information in Logan, Utah.

The Indiana Health Department, Berkeley Public Health Division, and Oregon’s Polk County Public Health did not respond to requests for comment. The Bear River Health Department in Utah did not answer questions on the subject.

After Alameda County received complaints from users that its website was incompatible with screen readers, officials decided to move away from its pre-registration technology, Department of Health spokesman Neetu Balram said in mid-February. The district has now changed to a new form.

Unless vaccine accessibility issues are addressed across the country, lawsuits could come next, Elijah said. Members of the blind community recently won landmark lawsuits against Domino’s Pizza and the Winn Dixie grocery chain after failing to order online.

And Elijah said, “This is not an order for a pizza – this is capable of receiving a potentially life-saving vaccine.


(Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)

© 2021 Kaiser Health News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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