Vaccine Registration Websites: Inaccessible to the Blind

"A national emergency does not exempt federal, state, and local governments from providing equal access," wrote Mark Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind, in a letter to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department back in December.

But apparently, many COVID-vaccine information and registration websites are doing exactly that – neglecting to provide equal access for people with visual disabilities. According to the National Federation of the Blind, at least 7.6 million people in the U.S. over the age of 16 have a visual disability.

Kaiser Health News (KHN), a nonprofit news service covering health care policy and politics, along with WebAIM, the nonprofit web accessibility organization located at Utah State University, came together to investigate just how inaccessible these websites are.

KHN collected vaccine webpages from all 50 states and the District of Columbia and asked WebAIM to review and test each one. Out of 94 web pages, WebAIM found accessibility barriers on almost every page. In addition, 19 of those pages were programmed in such a way that a screen reader couldn’t decipher the information a user needed to enter on vaccine registration forms.

Blind people cannot socially distance themselves from others on a regular basis, making them particularly vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus. For instance, Albert Elia, a civil rights attorney with TRE Legal Practice in San Francisco, said, "I need a person at the store to assist me in shopping. ... I do not have the option of walking around and not being near a person." This makes it imperative for blind people to receive the COVID vaccination.

Doris Ray, outreach director for the ENDependence Center of Northern Virginia, is blind and also has significant hearing loss. She tried to register using screen-reading technology, but the drop-down box for "county of residence" failed, and she couldn’t proceed without that information. She eventually had to request assistance from a colleague. That is not equal access.

In order to register for her vaccine appointment, Susan Jones, of Indianapolis, had to rely on the Aira app, which allows a sighted person to operate your computer remotely. That is not equal access.

Sachin Dev Pavithran, executive director of the U.S. Access Board, and blind, said he, too, struggled to access vaccine registration information in Logan, Utah. That is not equal access.

Some common barriers for visually impaired people who use screen readers include:

  • Low contrast between text and background
  • Images lacking ALT text or well-written ALT text
  • Registration forms, the text of a visible label is not programmatically available to assistive technology.
  • The purpose of a link cannot be determined by the link text.
  • Missing language tags in the header. (The language tag tells the screen reader in what language to read the webpage.)

These and many other barriers violate the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which established the right to communications in an accessible format, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a civil rights law that prohibits governments and private businesses from discriminating based on disability.

"I resent that the assumption is that a sighted fairy godmother ought to be there at all times," said Sheela Gunn-Cushman of Alameda County, CA, who also had to rely on Aira to register for her vaccine.

"This is outrageous in the time of a public health emergency, that blind people aren’t able to access something to get vaccinated," Doris Ray, outreach director for the ENDependence Center of Northern Virginia.

 Screenshot of the Vaccinate Virginia website with the WebAIM accessibility checking app, WAVE, showing errors - no language tag and two contrast errors.

The screenshot shown above is from the Vaccinate Virginia website, pre-registration page. Notice the accessibility errors shown on the left. WebAIM's Chrome extension WAVE was used to evaluate this page. The screenshot was taken on February 26, 2021.

Resources

Maggie Vaughan, CPACC
~ friend of DubBot, A11Y practitioner in higher ed