As a person with a disability, I celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act this past July 2020. As a legal scholar who has written in the disability law area and stays up-to-date on disability issues, I also felt a bit of heartache knowing that there continue to be many challenges in securing legal rights despite federal disability rights protections to things like access to healthcare as seen in access to organ transplants and website accessibility. In the midst of a pandemic, this reality has become even more evident. In many ways, similar issues that people with disabilities have been advocating to advance were magnified by what could be a deadly virus in Covid-19 to anyone, but particularly to many with disabilities. We are ultimately in the deepening of disability discrimination amidst Covid-19 in the U.S. despite the current protections available in both state and federal anti-discrimination laws that should ensure the contrary.
Last July, I wrote a blog post commemorating the 30th of anniversary of the ADA and pointing out some of the new challenges emerging during the pandemic for people with disabilities including access to drive-thru testing sites as someone who is visually impaired as well as thinking about website accessibility to register for this testing. Flash forward to February 2021, where even more significant issues are emerging such as vaccination prioritization of people with disabilities, especially for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, which are largely dependent on your geographic location. The confusion in this area led to a group of amazing women building a dashboard through Johns Hopkins University to assist people with disabilities and their families to monitor any changes in state vaccination prioritization processes.
As someone who is visually impaired, what has become especially disturbing to me recently was to learn that people who are blind and visually impaired across the country have been unable to even try to register for a vaccine because of inaccessible vaccination websites. This has resulted in many people who are blind or visually impaired in need of the vaccine having to wait weeks and possibly months longer because they did not have access or could not do so until a sighted individual could assist them. And what about those who do not have someone to assist? Many of those individuals who are blind or visually impaired require the use of screen readers but because websites are not made accessible to allow these assistive technologies to read them appropriately, these individuals have been left waiting for a vaccine that could inevitably be lifesaving.
Originally passed in 1990, the ADA was created before the internet or regular use of websites to access a host of needs. This has led to courts coming to different decisions on the standard for whether or not website accessibility is covered under the ADA’s Title III as a “place of public accommodation” under 42 U.S.C. § 12182(a). The U.S. Supreme Court had the chance to rule on the issue but would not take the case. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice has failed to put forward guidance for website accessibility under Title III of the ADA. A bill last October called the Online Accessibility Act which attempted to address these issues was opposed by disability advocates as diminishing the rights of people with disabilities by providing notice to businesses who are in non-compliance and otherwise limiting the scope of ADA’s protections involving technologies. While website accessibility had already been a pressing issue, the stories of people who are blind and visually impaired unable to access websites in order to sign up for vaccine appointments for Covid-19 demonstrates the deepening disability discrimination that is occurring in the U.S. even with federal disability law in place. This has even led to some legal scholars to call for amending the ADA as far as website accessibility. Lawsuits in this area are expected to rise in 2021 and perhaps even more so given this latest news on inaccessible vaccination registration websites.
I consider myself fortunate. I am visually impaired. I need to use a text enlargement program to see text on my laptop. However, websites are still accessible for me. When the time comes for my eligibility, I will be able to register for a vaccination for Covid-19 online. What about others who are visually impaired or blind who depend on screen readers? What about others with disabilities such as auditory, cognitive, neurological, speech, or others who require assistive technologies that are incompatible due to inaccessible websites? Once again, we are left to wonder how many people will be left behind—and how many lives of people with disabilities will be jeopardized and possibly even be lost from a delay in receiving a vaccine for Covid-19 as a result of the deepening of disability discrimination when access to a vaccine and ultimately, access to one’s health and life, depends on whether or not a website is accessible to you. As long as this legal issue of website accessibility in disability law remains unresolved, people with disabilities will continue to be victims where it could cost the most—their lives.