Blind Americans face roadblocks booking online vaccine appointments

Blind Americans face roadblocks booking online vaccine appointments
“This has been a real rough year for folks with the kinds of disabilities that affect computer and internet use,” one expert said.

Chris Reighard, a 62-year-old retired employee of the Arkansas Division of Services for the Blind who lives in Altoona, Pennsylvania, considers herself and her husband, Dave, to be pretty tech savvy. But she was unable to book vaccination appointments for them, both who are blind, through the Pennsylvania Health Department website while using one of the most commonly used screen readers.

“Their page is very accessible until you get to where you need to find the locations of the vaccines, and those are done like colored dots on a map,” she said. “Of course, the screen readers won’t do colored dots, they pretty much do text, and the colored dots did not have any text associated with them. That was a problem.”

But the Reighards are far from alone in their struggles to get vaccinated. Blind and visually impaired Americans are finding it difficult, and in some cases impossible, to schedule vaccination appointments because so many are being scheduled online. Even though they have software that enables them to do many things digitally, they’re finding that these new registration sites suffer from low-contrast coloring, minimal text options, screen reader incompatibility and supplemental electronic forms that must be filled out.

Currently, about 12 million people above the age of 40 in the United States have vision impairment, including 1 million who are blind, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Over 3 million people who are top contenders for the shot — aged 65 and older — have a vision disability, according to the 2019 American Community Survey.

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The booking problems are so widespread that a recent survey by nonprofit WebAIM and Kaiser Health News found technological accessibility barriers on all but 13 of 94 state webpages that included information about the vaccine, lists of providers and sign-up forms.

These barriers violate Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all state and local government programs, activities and services.

They also violate Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which requires equal access to the benefits and services of programs, like state and local governments, receiving federal financial assistance.

Cyndi Rowland, WebAIM executive director, estimated that the barrier number is even higher because her group used an automated tool that only identifies “about a third” of accessibility issues. She emphasized that these problems are not new and should have been addressed long ago.

“It is, I think, a sad reflection of our times, that accessibility is still not part of what is top of mind for developers. We’ve had web accessibility guidelines and standards for 20 years,” she said. “This has been a real rough year for folks with the kinds of disabilities that affect computer and internet use.”

Widespread problems

When contacted about the Reighards’ challenges, Pennsylvania Department of Health deputy press secretary Maggi Barton acknowledged that there are problems.

“While our website is accessible for those with vision impairment who are using a screen reader, the vaccine map may not be, as it’s embedded through a different platform,” she said. Barton added that the state also offers help booking through its telephone hotline.

But the problems with these sites are also happening outside of Pennsylvania.

Robert Jaquiss, a 67-year-old blind Montana resident who serves as the state’s National Federation of the Blind chapter secretary, said he had trouble with multiple drop-down or “combo” boxes in both sign-up portals for shot slots provided by the Missoula City-County Health Department and University of Montana that he found on the county’s website. In one instance, Jaquiss said he used a series of keystrokes to try and interact with a box that asked about the number of people requesting a shot slot. But nothing happened.

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