Christopher KnausThu, 25 March 2021, 4:30 pm
Blind and low-vision Australians are being shut out of the Covid-19 vaccination process because the government’s eligibility checker and clinic finder website fail to meet basic web accessibility standards, according to Australia’s biggest provider of low-vision services.
Vision Australia has slammed the federal government for the failing, saying it is “particularly frustrating” given the time it has had to prepare for the vaccine rollout.
Last week, the government launched a website that checks a person’s eligibility for the vaccine and links them with nearby general practitioner clinics participating in the rollout.
But large sections of the site are incompatible with accessibility software like screen readers, according to Vision Australia, meaning it fails to comply with the national and international benchmark for web content accessibility, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines [WCAG].
The site also uses poor colour contrast and excessive alt text.
Vision Australia’s manager of government relations and advocacy, Chris Edwards, said blind and low-vision Australians were left unable to determine where and when to get their vaccination, unless they had others to support them.
“Myself, I use a screen reader, the screen reader talks the information that appears on the computer, and I’m unable to complete the process to actually understand where I can get vaccinated,” Edwards told the Guardian.
“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.”
Vision Australia’s chief executive, Ron Hooton, said the government’s first priority should have been to ensure the platform was accessible to all Australians.
“People who are blind or have low vision or live with other disability have been some of the hardest hit during the Covid-19 pandemic and to be denied the ability to access information about how and when they might receive their vaccine is a further blow,” he said.
The Department of Health said the vaccine clinic finder was based on an existing web service, the HealthDirect service finder. A spokeswoman said the existing service finder was audited in 2018 and found to meet accessibility standards.
“Healthdirect ran an additional WCAG compliance test on the Eligibility Checker before launch on March 16. Testing confirmed the Eligibility Checker was WCAG compliant,” she said. “The audit identified three links to further information on the site needed to be improved for full compliance on the website. These links are currently being updated to address this issue.”
Despite this, the department said it would now engage an external agency to conduct a broader audit across the website and “seek input from Vision Australia” to check if further improvements can be made.
It’s not the only problem identified with the website. The Guardian last week revealed that the design of the website suggested to regional Australians they would need to drive hundreds of kilometres, in some cases across state borders, to find a clinic that was participating in the rollout.
No disclaimer was given that more clinics would be added to the website in coming weeks. The Department of Health has since revised the website to add such a disclaimer.
A separate, privately run doctor booking website, HealthEngine, is also allowing users to book in for their second dose within days of their first, despite government recommendations that a three-month interval is needed between the two jabs.
It’s also not the first critical government website to fail to meet basic web accessibility standards.
In 2018, during the troubled My Health Record rollout, Vision Australia reported that the website failed a range of vision accessibility requirements, including failing to work with common screen reading software, and using large amounts of alt text and poor contrasting colours.
On Jaws, the most commonly used screenreader in Australia, the section “I do not want a My Health Record created for me” was read out as “I do not want a My Health Record created for link graphic Info Icon – Open Help for whom you do not want to register a health record me checkbox not checked”.
At the time, Vision Australia warned it may make it impossible for blind or vision-impaired Australians to opt out of the process.
Similar issues were experienced with the Covidsafe app. But Edwards said that was more understandable, because of the urgency with which it was launched.
The government’s vaccine rollout has been anticipated for many months, he said, and still it had failed to deliver accessibility on its most critical website.
“We all recognise on occasions the need to get information out quickly, but in this case, they had a long time to prepare for this and getting it right the first time is a lot easier than fixing it,” he said.
“Accessibility needs to be an essential part of design, not an afterthought. When it’s an afterthought, it becomes more expensive for government to fix and creates unnecessary barriers for people with blind and low vision.”
Edwards said it should not be up to organisations like Vision Australia to identify these problems and report them to government.
“We need government to actually take accessibility seriously and ensure that when they develop websites and provide information for the community, to not forget people who are blind and low vision that rely on technology to access the information that everyone else has.”
The health minister, Greg Hunt, was approached for a response.