Australia’s largest provider of low vision services is disappointed it has to act as the government’s “accessibility watchdog” after its community had trouble accessing a new online COVID-19 vaccine eligibility checker that it says failed to meet basic standards.
Vision Australia says the needs of Australia’s blind and low vision community have been ignored amid the pandemic, with its latest criticism aimed at the Department of Health’s website that checks vaccination eligibility and links people with nearby clinics involved in the program.
The low vision organisation said the website fell short of the government’s own accessibility requirements, sparking the website’s administrator to conduct an external audit.
Specifically, an assessment by Vision Australia’s Digital Access team has shown it does not meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 Level AA requirements, which is considered is the national and international benchmark for web accessibility.
Mr Ron Hooton, Vision Australia CEO, said it was disappointing the platform had been launched in its current form.
“Ensuring this platform was accessible to all Australians should have been the first priority when it was designed. 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,” Hooton said.
Chris Edwards, Vision Australia manager of government relations and advocacy, said it was frustrating the government hadn’t learned from similar failures in the past.
“Unfortunately, there is a history of the disability community being neglected when it comes to accessing important health information and services. The government’s COVIDSafe app was not accessible when it was first released and in 2018 the online My Health Record opt-out process also failed to meet the needs of our community,” he said.
“Those issues were only resolved after Vision Australia brought them to the government’s attention and it’s disappointing that we have to be the accessibility watchdog, rather than the government doing their bit from the beginning.”
According to Vision Australia, the vaccine eligibility checker failed to meet WCAG requirements on several fronts, including large sections being incompatible with screen-reading software, poor colour contrast and excessive alt-text.
Josh Crawford, Vision Australia Digital Access acting national manager, said these issues indicate the government did not properly consider accessibility and the needs of people who are blind or have low vision throughout the design and development of the platform.
“The accessibility issues present on the platform aren’t difficult to fix, but the government should have followed best practice by emphasising accessibility from the outset and carrying out the appropriate user-testing and accessibility audits,” he said.
“Not only would that ensure all Australians can use and access it, it would also mean a better user experience for everyone, regardless of if they live with disability or not.”
Department of health responds
A Department of Health spokesperson told Insight the service is comprised of two components; the Eligibility Checker and the Vaccine Clinic Finder.
They said the Vaccine Clinic Finder is based on the existing HealthDirect Service Finder which was audited against WCAG compliance in 2018. Issues identified in that audit were corrected and the Service Finder was assessed as WCAG compliant.
HealthDirect also ran a WCAG compliance test on the Eligibility Checker before launching on March 16. Although testing confirmed the Eligibility Checker was WCAG compliant, the audit identified three links to further information that needed to be improved for full compliance.
“These links are currently being updated to address this issue,” the spokesperson said.
“Following reports in the media that Vision Australia is concerned the system doesn’t meet the needs of vision impaired Australians, HealthDirect is engaging an external agency for an additional WCAG audit across the tools and will seek input from Vision Australia to assess whether improvements can be made to ensure the accessibility of this service.”