The following is an open letter sent by National Federation of the Blind President Mark A. Riccobono in which he addresses concerns and demands immediate action regarding equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and ongoing testing. It was sent in February 2021 to governors in all fifty states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico.
I write to you on behalf of the National Federation of the Blind, America’s civil rights organization of the blind, with state affiliates in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, and several hundred local chapters in cities all across America. Of great concern to us is equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and ongoing testing.
We have become aware of critical access barriers to getting vaccinated or tested. Many states and municipalities have implemented an online COVID-19 vaccination and testing registration/appointment tool. Some of these registration tools are inaccessible with the screen access software blind people use to read and access information. This means that blind people cannot independently register for a COVID-19 test or vaccination. Telephone support may be insufficient or nonexistent, as per a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post1. In such cases, blind individuals must find a sighted person to help, often within the limited window of time open to them to register. Additional barriers can arise when blind people may be required to fill out forms either in hardcopy or electronically when they arrive at a testing or vaccination site.
As you know, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) considers states and local governments to be “public entities,” and that law specifically says that “no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.” 42 U.S.C. § 12132. The corresponding regulation makes it clear that states must effectively communicate with individuals who have disabilities. “A public entity shall take appropriate steps to ensure that communications with applicants, participants, members of the public, and companions with disabilities are as effective as communications with others.” 28 C.F.R. § 35.160(1).
It is our experience that although state and local governments acknowledge their obligations under the ADA and other similar laws, they often do not have the knowledge to provide effective communication to the blind, especially in the digital arena. Thus we want to make you aware of resources that we offer. One such resource is our Center of Excellence in Nonvisual Access. Center of Excellence in Nonvisual Access | National Federation of the Blind. There you will find resources for training and best practices for making digital content accessible to those of us who are blind or have low vision.
Beyond information access, we have received reports that some testing and vaccination sites are physically inaccessible to the blind. This is particularly true of drive-up-only locations. Essentially there is no independent way a blind or low-vision person can access these sites. Public transportation or ride-sharing services on which our population largely rely cannot be used to drive up and either get tested or vaccinated. Therefore it is critical that states provide alternative locations that we can access using public transportation or other services not reliant on private vehicles. Additionally, some mechanism should be in place whereby blind or low-vision individuals can request individual accommodations to get tested or receive the vaccine, such as sending public health personnel directly to their homes.
We understand that the states have implemented a variety of approaches to distributing and administering testing and vaccine programs ranging from direct control of such programs to subcontracting or otherwise cooperating with local governments and private entities. The Title II ADA obligations apply to the states whether a state directly operates a particular program or subcontracts in some manner. Regardless of the circumstances, we hope you will take the lead in spreading best practices to all entities in your state that are offering testing and/or vaccines with respect to making the whole experience accessible to those who are blind or have low vision.
I am sharing this letter with our affiliate president in your state, and our affiliate will follow up with you to determine how we can be of assistance. You are also more than welcome to reach out directly to me with questions or to discuss this matter further. As the death toll from the Coronavirus surpasses 500,000 in our country and with the hope that widespread vaccination will finally defeat this awful pandemic, it is imperative that blind and low-vision Americans receive the same opportunities and tools to participate in ending this public-health threat as others do. I thank you sincerely for your attention to this message.
Mark A. Riccobono, President
National Federation of the Blind