Inaccessible information from the beginning
Inaccessible COVID-19 websites have been a problem from the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic. Government and public health websites struggled to provide accessible information about a new and unknown virus. However, many organizations prioritized publishing information as quickly as possible over making that information accessible. Inaccessible websites, graphics, PDFs, and files prevented people with disabilities from accessing essential virus- and vaccine-related information.
Problems with inaccessible COVID-19 websites
Charts and graphs make information quick and easy to grasp, and PDFs allow website owners to move the files around without changing the format. While convenient, these formats only help people who can see them. People with visual and other disabilities who use assistive technology to access digital files often can’t use PDFs unless they have been specifically coded for accessibility. Inaccessible PDF files prevented people with disabilities from accessing important information such as social distancing guidelines and local mask policies, as well as symptoms and COVID-19 cases in their area.
Inaccessible vaccine websites
Widely available vaccines shine a light at the end of the tunnel, but once again people with disabilities are excluded. Information about vaccine locations, appointment scheduling procedures and times, possible side effects, and more is again presented visually or in PDF formats, which often haven’t been coded for accessibility. The vaccine appointment registration process has been notoriously difficult as well. It has caused accessibility problems for people who use assistive technology, as well as people who are unfamiliar with using the internet and those who do not have internet access.
Inaccessible COVID-19 Websites Block People from Accessing Vaccines
A study completed by Kaiser Health News and WebAIM found that nearly 100 government vaccine websites weren’t coded to be accessible with assistive technology. According to the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), even websites that are accessible may link to additional necessary information on inaccessible websites. The vaccine distribution software developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), called Vaccine Administration Management System (VAMS), is inaccessible as well. While only a few states and counties use VAMS, an inaccessible nationally available program sets a bad precedent.
Bryan Bashin is the Chief Executive Officer of the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, located in California. He tried to schedule a vaccine appointment in February, but the inaccessible elements prevented him from completing the process in a timely manner. Meanwhile, the appointment times had quickly filled up by those able to complete the process more quickly. Later that night, he tried to schedule a vaccine appointment through a nearby city’s website, but once again faced accessibility issues. He tried for hours to work past the barriers, but in the end, quicker registrants booked all the appointmentstimes. Bashin had no choice but to rely on a sighted relative to secure a vaccine spot for him. Bashin says, “It’s an awful bit of discrimination, one as stinging as anything I’ve experienced.”
Susan Jones, of Indiana, and Sheila Gunn-Cushan, of California, both wanted to schedule vaccine appointments independently without having to rely on or share personal information with a sighted person.
When they were unable to register using their normal assistive technology, they reluctantly used a paid service called Aira to complete the registration process. Aira connects people with visual disabilities to sighted agents who help them complete visual tasks. It helps when exploring an unfamiliar place by accessing a smartphone camera, or navigating inaccessible websites by allowing agents to virtually access their computers.
Aira does provide somewhat more independence than having to rely on a sighted friend or relative. However, it still poses privacy and security risks, especially when the Aira agent has to enter medically sensitive information that many vaccine websites require. And it still requires asking a sighted person for help completing a task that the nonvisual person could normally complete on their own, had the website been coded for accessibility. Gunn-Cushman says, “I resent that the assumption is that a sighted fairy godmother ought to be there at all times.”
National Federation of the Blind spokesperson Chris Danielson says, “I should have the same options that anyone else has”… “Booking a shot is frustrating for everybody, with most people trying several times. We’re not asking for special treatment — we just want the same barriers, not more.”
The NFB also identifies other COVID-relief efforts that organizations have failed to make accessible. Many states offer unemployment benefits, small business assistance, and other forms of economic relief, but inaccessible forms and application processes mean people with disabilities are once again left out.
How to fix it
While President Biden is encouraging a fast and efficient rollout for the COVID vaccine, there is no national registration process. VAMS was created by the CDC for nationwide use by public health clinics. Some states use it but it is not a national standard, nor is it accessible. States are responsible for their own vaccine registration sites, and they all approach it differently. Some states leave those websites to state or local government organizations, while others delegate it to health departments or hospitals. But regardless of which organization is in charge of the website, state and local governments are responsible for ensuring that the vaccination systems they use are accessible to everyone.
Build websites for accessibility from the beginning
Building an accessible vaccine website and other necessary health resources should begin with accessible design in mind. Retroactively adding accessibility once the website is finished is less effective, more difficult, and more time consuming. Website designers should code non-text items like charts, graphs, tables, and other visually represented information for accessibility and compatibility with assistive technology. Adding text alternatives for any visually represented material makes content easy to understand for everyone.
Code all PDFs for accessibility
Many health resources present information using PDFs so they can be easily moved around, shared, and replaced without distorting the information. However, without proper tagging, people using assistive technology can’t access PDFs. Tag every element in a PDF so assistive technology can identify those elements. Present complete and accurate information to the end user in the correct order.
Make sure vaccine appointment procedures are accessible
Make sure the entire vaccine registration process is accessible. Use text alternatives to provide addresses for vaccine locations instead of just using a dot on a map. Use accessible calendars so people with disabilities can easily select the date and time they want to schedule.
Make forms accessible
If vaccine registrants are required to enter additional information to complete the process, make sure the forms are coded for accessibility as well. At least some parts of forms on 19 different state vaccine websites were not coded for accessibility, and assistive technology users were unable to identify what information belongs in which section. Learn more about how assistive technology users access and complete fillable PDF forms here.
Failure to provide access can result in lawsuits
Up to this point, disability advocates have not filed digital accessibility lawsuits over vaccine websites because it won’t fix the problem quickly enough. People need access to vaccines now, and lawsuits can take months- even years- to resolve. But that doesn’t mean lawsuits won’t come eventually. “If vaccine accessibility issues are not fixed across the country, though, lawsuits could come next,” says Albert Elia, an attorney who is blind. Plaintiffs have won most of the recent digital accessibility lawsuits, including a landmark case against Domino’s Pizza. Elia adds, “this is not ordering a pizza — this is being able to get a potentially lifesaving vaccine.”