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Months Into Pandemic, Blind Coloradans Still Can't Access Some State And County COVID Information

Photo courtesy of Curtis Chong
Curtis Chong, who is blind, cannot access some state and county COVID information because his screen reader, one of the most common in use, cannot intrepret the data as presented on health department websites.

County and state public health agencies in Colorado have posted coronavirus data, public health orders and testing locations on their websites. But many of those documents, forms and graphics are inaccessible for people with vision impairments.

Curtis Chong, a blind person from Aurora who has worked with the National Federation of the Blind on computer accessibility issues, noted that his JAWS screen reader cannot interpret many of the data visualizations on the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s website. JAWS is one of the most widely used screen readers, according to a 2019 survey from the web accessibility organization WebAIM. Screen readers translate coded text and numbers into speech, or, with the aid of additional adaptive technology, into Braille. They are not able to read pictures of text, such as scanned PDF documents.

“You want to make accessibility part of the culture way at the beginning of the process so that it doesn’t  have to be slapped on later and that’s not what is happening,” Chong said. “Accessibility and the thought of blind people doesn’t occur. Ever.” 

The state’s data dashboard website, Chong said, contains a number of graphics that his screen reader reads just as “data visualization.”

“You don’t know, if you activate a link what sort of graph or chart or something is that you’re going to see,” he said.

Other coronavirus resources, like lists of testing sites, were also inaccessible, at a state and local level.

Weld County, for instance, presents a list of testing sites on its website. But while the list contained addresses and testing hours for nine Salud Community Health testing locations, screen reader users could not hear the names or days of operation for the sites, instead only hearing the list as an image of “Salud COVID-19 Testing Sites.”

A day after receiving questions from the Colorado News Collaborative, Weld County replaced the image with an accessible table and fixed another accessibility error on the page. Ryan Rose, the county’s chief information officer, said in a statement that the county conducted an audit of its main site, including its COVID pages. For the most part, he said, the pages did not have significant errors.

“At this time, we are evaluating accessibility on the health — and all other — web pages for major issues that we may have missed,” he said.

Teller County listed its testing schedule in separate locations on its site. In one place, it presented the testing schedule in a PDF as a calendar of events. 

In another location, the county’s health department displayed the same calendar as an image with the name of the file — again, information presented in a way that a blind person cannot easily access. 

The Colorado News Collaborative (COLab) described the accessibility problems and sent a detailed list of questions to Teller County Health Director Jacqueline Revello on Sep. 9. Revello has not responded to those questions. The accessibility problems on the county’s testing site remain over one month later.

COLab emailed Revello again on Tuesday, but the county has not responded.

The governor has an Office of Information Technology and an accessibility architect who is a blind woman, Chong said. The office has a board and he serves on the board along with Scott LaBarre, head of the Colorado affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind. “It’s a good board,” Chong said, “but if you want to be blunt about it, the mountain we must move to achieve accessibility is huge.”  

For example, a page the Department of Public Health and Environment links to that allows people to search for testing sites near their address only contained labels for one of its two fields and had a search button that read in Chong’s screen reader as “button.” Chong said that he was able to enter his address using that page but that it was “more confusing than it needed to be.”

Chong said he understands that money and staffing are nowhere where they need to be to tackle the accessibility gulf, but he and others would welcome more regular communication from and with state information tech specialists so “it’s not just Curtis Chong writing a note asking ‘Why are you doing that?’ They have some tables that work, but we can’t look at trends by day. We can’t see, ‘Oh, the numbers in September went down and then up again.’” 

Something as simple as a text block summarizing the charts would make a difference, he said. 
In a statement, the CDPHE said that it has worked to provide coronavirus data in formats like Excel downloads that are more accessible than data visualizations. In addition, the department said it uses a tool to test the accessibility of its website and that it has a staff member working 15-20 hours each week manually looking for accessibility issues. The department said it also recently developed a guide marking best practices for accessibility and has trained COVID-19 staff to spot common accessibility issues.

“The pandemic has certainly exacerbated health disparities and inequalities, and we are prioritizing accessibility of life-saving information to all communities in our state,” the statement reads.

The issue is by no means limited to Colorado or to COVID-19 information, said Chris Danielsen, director of public relations for the National Federation of the Blind. Society was moving online anyway, but “with the pandemic it has taken on whole other dimensions,” he said.

Lack of accessibility is affecting blind students. It is affecting blind parents trying to help their students. It is affecting people trying to access state services, he said.

The Department of Justice has  said that lack of equal access to information violates the Americans with Disabilities Act “and that is particularly true with regard to public entities,” Danielsen said. Government agencies “have the responsibility to communicate effectively with people with disabilities and to give access to all the same information and services. So it is, in fact, unlawful.”

Coronavirus websites pose accessibility problems across the country. In April, the Markup, an investigative technology journalism nonprofit, found that three in five state government coronavirus websites included empty links or buttons, preventing blind people from knowing what the links or buttons were designed to do.

Chong said that for the most part, blind people as a community are able to adapt, finding ways to get the information they need. Sometimes, he said, that just means asking or paying someone to read for him. In Colorado, the National Federation of the Blind is running an assistance mailbox to help blind people who are struggling to find transportation or health services. People can reach that assistance mailbox by calling 303-778-1130, ext. 219 or by emailing assistance@nfbco.org.

But the barriers, Chong said, can make it difficult for people with visual impairments to receive the services and information they need in a timely manner. 

“We’re not trying to cast blame,” he said. “We’re just saying we have a problem here.”

Tina Griego contributed to this report.

Max Lee is a recent graduate of Stanford University’s graduate program in journalism. He’s interning for the Colorado News Collaborative through the Stanford Rebele Internship Program.

This story is brought to you by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative, a nonprofit coalition of more than 60 newsrooms across Colorado working together to better serve the public. Learn more at https://colabnews.co