Some Australians must allegedly overcome unnecessary barriers to schedule COVID-19 vaccinations due to accessibility issues. Vision Australia, a national provider of low vision and blindness services in Australia, claims that the government’s clinic finder and eligibility checker fail to meet important criteria of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
Specific issues cited by Vision Australia include:
- Poor color contrast ratios
- Excessive use of alt text
- Certain sections of the site are inaccessible with a screen reader
Chris Edwards, the manager of government relations and advocacy for Vision Australia, told The Guardian that the vaccination tools can be frustrating for people who use assistive technologies. Edwards uses a screen reader (software that translates text content to audio or braille) and says that while using the site, he was unable to determine where he could schedule a vaccination.
"I’m just really frustrated that I have to rely on others to let me know the basic information that everyone else can access quite easily," Edwards said.
Australia's vaccine scheduler may suffer from several common accessibility problems
According to Vision Australia, the site contains poor alt text — an attribute used to describe the function and appearance of on-page images. When accessing the site with a screen reader, the software reads out the provided alt text, which can create confusion if the alt text is unnecessarily descriptive. Some sections of the site were also alleged to have poor color contrast ratios (the site has been updated since the issues were reported).
A spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Health told The Guardian that the vaccine finder was based on another website that successfully passed a WCAG accessibility audit in 2018. However, the spokesperson says that the department will engage additional audits and work with Vision Australian to ensure that the vaccine finder is accessible.
Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act of 1992 requires organizations to provide equal access to people with disabilities; the law has been interpreted to apply to websites and other digital resources. In June 2010, the Australian government released the Web Accessibility National Transition Strategy (NTS) to transition public websites to meet WCAG 2.0 Level AA (read How Widely Used is WCAG?).
Covid vaccine distribution has highlighted serious accessibility issues worldwide
Unfortunately, accessibility concerns aren’t confined to a single website — or a single country. On March 13, NBC reported issues with the Pennsylvania Health Department’s vaccination website that limit access for people who use assistive tech.
"[The vaccination finder] 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,” said Chris Reighard, a 62-year-old retiree who uses a screen reader. “Of course, the screen readers won’t [read] colored dots, they pretty much do text, and the colored dots did not have any text associated with them. That was a problem.”
And in February, Kaiser Health News tested 94 state COVID vaccine information pages and found accessibility barriers on 80 of those sites.
The issues demonstrate the importance of one of the central principles of accessible design: Accessibility must remain a priority throughout development and cannot be treated as an afterthought. Even when a site passes an accessibility audit, minor changes to a page may frustrate users with disabilities — changing a color, for instance, could create a contrast issue, and adding a large block of alt text could create a confusing experience for someone accessing the page with a screen reader.
Testing sites regularly (and particularly after updates) can highlight many of these issues. Limiting access to COVID-19 resources can have serious real-world effects, and every person has the right to access these tools without encountering unnecessary barriers.
All organizations have a responsibility to make their websites and mobile applications accessible. That process starts with careful auditing to prevent usability issues from affecting real users. To take the first important steps, schedule a WCAG 2.1 accessibility audit or start with a free compliance summary for your website.