Capitol Correspondence - 03.02.21

Many Federal, State and Local COVID-19 Vaccination Registration Websites Violate Disability Laws

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As reported by Kaiser Health News:

“Many COVID vaccination registration and information websites at the federal, state and local levels violate disability rights laws, hindering the ability of blind people to sign up for a potentially lifesaving vaccine, a KHN investigation has found.

Across the country, people who use special software to make the web accessible have been unable to sign up for the vaccines or obtain vital information about covid-19 because many government websites lack required accessibility features. At least 7.6 million people in the U.S. over age 16 have a visual disability.

WebAIM, a nonprofit web accessibility organization, checked covid vaccine websites gathered by KHN from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. On Jan. 27, it found accessibility issues on nearly all of 94 webpages, which included general vaccine information, lists of vaccine providers and registration forms.

In at least seven states, blind residents said they were unable to register for the vaccine through their state or local governments without help. Phone alternatives, when available, have been beset with their own issues, such as long hold times and not being available at all hours like websites.

Even the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Vaccine Administration Management System, which a small number of states and counties opted to use after its rocky rollout, has been inaccessible for blind users.

Those problems violate the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which established the right to communications in an accessible format, multiple legal experts and disability advocates said. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act, a civil rights law that prohibits governments and private businesses from discriminating based on disability, further enshrined this protection in 1990.

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Dr. Robert Redfield, who was then leading the CDC, responded that the interim vaccine playbook for health departments included a reminder of the legal requirements for accessible information.

CDC spokesperson Jasmine Reed said in an email that VAMS is compliant with federal accessibility laws and that the agency requires testing of its services.

But more than two months into a national vaccine campaign, those on the ground report problems at all levels.

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There is no standardized way to register for a covid vaccine nationwide — or fix the online accessibility problems. Some states use VAMS; some states have centralized online vaccination registration sites; others have a mix of state-run and locally run websites, or leave it all to local health departments or hospitals. Ultimately, state and local governments are responsible for making their vaccination systems accessible, whether they use the VAMS system or not.

‘Once those portals open, it’s a race to see who can click the fastest,’ [said Mark Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind]. ‘We don’t have time to do things like file a lawsuit, because, at the end of the day, we need to fix it today.’

Common programming failures that make sites hard to use for the visually impaired included text without enough contrast to distinguish words from the page’s background and images without alternative text explaining what they showed, the WebAIM survey showed. Even worse, portions of the forms on 19 states’ pages were built so that screen readers couldn’t decipher what information a user should enter on search bars or vaccine registration forms.

The new vaccine pages had more errors than states’ main coronavirus pages but slightly fewer than state government websites in general, said WebAIM Associate Director Jared Smith.”

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