by Michelle Diament, Disability Scoop | March 8, 2021
Federal authorities are being asked to step in amid concerns that sensory sensitivities, physical access and other barriers may be keeping people with disabilities from receiving COVID-19 vaccines.
A group of 13 U.S. senators sent a letter early this month to top officials at the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights asking them to ensure that each state’s process for distributing vaccines is in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.
“In order to make sure that everyone in the United States is able to access these vaccines, we must attend to sectors of the population that have access needs, in particular individuals with disabilities who may need accommodations to access vaccination sites and register for an appointment,” reads the correspondence from Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., and a dozen of her colleagues. “In particular, we ask that you determine that registration websites, vaccination sites and vaccine information have four types of access: physical, sensory, cognitive and technological.”
The lawmakers cited a recent report from Kaiser Health News, which found that nearly all of the 94 federal, state and local websites with COVID-19 vaccine sign-ups or information that they checked did not meet accessibility standards.
The senators want the Justice Department and HHS to work with states to make sure that the registration process — online or by phone — is fully accessible and that vaccination locations are equipped to meet various physical needs.
There should be socially distanced places for people to sit if they cannot stand for long periods and individuals with disabilities should be able to be accompanied by a caregiver, the lawmakers said. In addition, distribution sites should account for people who may not be able to wait for a long time due to sensory issues.
“For example, some people with autism or who have experienced trauma are sensitive to lights, sounds, smells or touch, which makes waiting in lines in busy settings and wearing masks for long periods of time more difficult,” the letter states. “Sensory access requires that vaccination sites proactively accommodate these needs with alternatives for those who need them.”
Plain language, visual storyboards and other easy to understand explanations should be provided both on vaccine-related websites and at distribution locations to ensure cognitive access, the correspondence indicates.
Beyond access alone, the senators said that “states should conduct outreach to individuals with disabilities and caregivers to assure them that their needs can be accommodated.”
Officials from the Justice Department and HHS did not respond to requests for comment about the senators’ letter.
However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recently updated its guidance for COVID-19 vaccine distribution to emphasize the importance of disability access.
“Jurisdictions should consider the unique needs of residents, such as people with disabilities or cognitive decline (and their caretakers), as well as those with limited access to technology, when evaluating vaccination location accessibility, communicating vaccine information and scheduling appointments,” reads the update posted early this month.