On October 5, 2021, the United States Justice Department announced agreements with New York State and local government agencies to improve accessibility on COVID-19 vaccination websites. The Justice Department began investigations following the publication of a Kaiser Health News article in February 2020. The story identified numerous website accessibility barriers that affected people with visual impairments.
Following the investigations, the Justice Department entered into written agreements with five agencies with vaccination websites that are allegedly noncompliant with Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA):
- New York State’s Department of Health
- The City of New York’s Department of Health
- New York City Health + Hospitals
- Nassau County
- Suffolk County
In a press release announcing the agreements, the Department of Justice listed several specific issues that affected users with disabilities. Some of the websites were not fully accessible with screen readers (software that converts onscreen text to audio or braille), which prevented users from completing forms or navigating the site without help. Some sites had poor color contrast ratios, which prevented people with low vision and other disabilities from reading text.
“In the midst of the ongoing global pandemic, people with vision impairments must be able to access information about how and where to obtain COVID-19 vaccinations,” said Acting United States Attorney Kasulis. “Our Office thanks the New York State Department of Health, the City of New York, New York Health + Hospitals, and Nassau and Suffolk counties for their cooperation in complying with the requirements of the ADA and for ensuring that these vital websites are accessible to the visually impaired.”
Other COVID-19 vaccination websites have created unnecessary barriers for people with disabilities
On November 3, 2020, the Bureau of Internet Accessibility issued a call to make all COVID-19 vaccine information accessible. In that article, we warned that accessibility barriers on public health websites could prevent people with disabilities from scheduling appointments or finding important info — and that despite federal accessibility laws, many public health websites ignore their real-world users.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen several high-profile examples of this trend during the pandemic. In March 2021, Vision Australia, a national provider of low vision and blindness services in Australia, claimed that the government’s clinic finder and eligibility checker failed to meet important criteria of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The organization noted that Australia’s website had poor color contrast ratios, poor screen reader accessibility, and other significant issues.
And according to Kaiser Health News, as of February 2021, blind residents in at least seven U.S. states were unable to register for vaccination through their state or local government websites without help.
Website accessibility plays a crucial role in COVID-19 vaccination efforts
Many public health officials have cited digital accessibility barriers as an important consideration for boosting vaccination rates. An October 2021 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that COVID-19 vaccination coverage is lower among U.S. adults with a disability than among those without a disability — even though people with disabilities reported less vaccine hesitancy overall.
“A recent exploratory analysis of official state and territorial COVID-19 vaccination registration websites found substantial variability and suboptimal compliance with basic accessibility recommendations,” the CDC report notes. " … Public health efforts that make COVID-19 vaccination information, scheduling, and sites more easily accessible for persons with disabilities might help to address health inequities and increase vaccination demand and coverage.”
To restore equity, government websites need to treat accessibility as a priority instead of tackling remediation (and paying for legal settlements) after publishing their content. Websites that follow established standards like WCAG can provide users with equal access to important information and resources — potentially improving vaccination rates in the process.