One of the Midwest’s largest pharmacy chains will take immediate steps to improve digital accessibility on its COVID-19 vaccine scheduling website.
On December 1, 2021, the United States Justice Department reached a settlement agreement with Hy-Vee, Inc., a supermarket chain with more than 280 stores. Investigators alleged compliance violations with Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities in places of public accommodation.
In previous statements, the Justice Department has consistently said that Title III is applicable to websites and other digital content. While Hy-Vee denies that their website violated Title III of the ADA, the company has agreed to conform with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Version 2.1 at Level AA.
WCAG includes three levels of conformance, and Level AA is generally considered accessible for most web users. As the consensus standard for digital accessibility, the guidelines are frequently cited in ADA lawsuits and structured settlements. WCAG is also the basis for many international accessibility laws — however, the ADA does not explicitly require WCAG conformance.
Related: Is There a Legal Requirement to Implement WCAG?
An Overview of Hy-Vee’s Alleged Digital Accessibility Issues
The Hy-Vee agreement is the result of digital accessibility issues with the chain’s current COVID-19 Vaccine Registration Portal. The portal enables users to manage vaccination appointments, but according to the Justice Department, the website was not accessible for some people with disabilities.
Citing the ADA, federal investigators noted several specific issues with Hy-Vee’s online vaccine scheduling system:
- Many people use a keyboard alone (no mouse) to browse the web. Hy-Vee’s web portal did not allow users to select available appointment times with their keyboard’s tab key. If true, this violates WCAG 2.1 SC 2.1.1, “Keyboard.”
- Medical screening forms were not compatible with screen reader software. While the agreement doesn’t contain much technical information, this is likely due to unlabeled form controls, which would violate WCAG 2.1 SC 3.3.2, “Labels or Instructions.”
- The site did not provide adequate text alternatives for non-text content, which prevented people with visual impairments from perceiving certain elements. This violates WCAG 2.1 SC 1.1, “Text Alternatives.”
In a press release announcing the agreement, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division noted the importance of vaccine accessibility.
“Individuals with disabilities must be able to get potentially lifesaving healthcare like COVID-19 vaccines on equal terms, without sacrificing their privacy or independence,” Clarke said. “Ensuring that people with disabilities can schedule COVID-19 vaccination appointments the same way that people without disabilities can is not only a public health necessity, but a key civil rights issue under the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
Digital Accessibility and COVID-19 Vaccination
In November 2020, the Bureau of Internet Accessibility issued a call to make all COVID-19 vaccine information accessible — long before the vaccines were widely available. We anticipated the potential impact of digital accessibility on vaccination rates, and unfortunately, our predictions were accurate.
People with disabilities are less likely to report vaccine hesitancy. However, according to one CDC study published in October 2021, vaccination rates are measurably lower among U.S. adults with ability than those without a disability. People with disabilities are also more likely to report that it would be “somewhat or very difficult to get vaccinated.”
While website accessibility isn’t the only challenge that needs to be addressed — for example, some people with disabilities may have trouble traveling to get vaccinated — the CDC report highlights digital accessibility as a cause for concern.
The Department of Justice continues to pursue accessibility complaints
Fortunately, federal investigators have taken a tough approach to alleged accessibility issues. In November, the Justice Department announced agreements with state and local government agencies in New York to improve COVID-19 vaccination websites.
We believe that the agreement with Hy-Vee, Inc. is another step in the right direction: Every U.S. resident deserves equal access to the vaccine, and WCAG provides the best framework for ensuring a reasonable level of accessibility.
Ultimately, all public and private organizations have a responsibility to create an internet that works well for everyone — particularly when they offer services that affect public health.
For more information on WCAG 2.1, download our free 29-page Ultimate Guide to Web Accessibility.