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Utahns With Disabilities Navigate Roadblocks To Accessing COVID-19 Vaccinations

A photo of a sign language interpreter at a Governor press conference.
Francisco Kjolseth
The Salt Lake Tribune
Live sign language translation is provided during state COVID-19 press conferences.

Renee and David Pavlus are both visually impaired. The Utah County couple, 66 and 70-years-old respectively, is used to relying on others, especially during the pandemic, for help. Getting vaccinated for COVID-19 was no exception.

Renee, who is fully blind, said she and her husband have had issues with using other medical websites in the past. So, when it came time to register for a vaccine, they didn’t even bother trying to sign up online.

“I didn't go on the website because I knew better,” Renee said. “I have been warned by several people who are also legally blind or blind like me that it was going to be very complicated.”

Instead, they called their county health department’s hotline to ask about at-home vaccinations and were told the county wasn’t offering that yet. Instead, the couple was able to get a ride to and from the vaccination clinic with a friend. That friend also had to help them fill out forms at the site, because they said no one was available to help them.

“A lot of times we have to depend on other people to get these things accomplished,” Renee said. “It's not easy. And sometimes I would love to have a world where everything was set up for my needs. But that's not the way the world is.”

Utah County Health Department spokesperson Aislynn Tolman-Hill said workers at each of the vaccination sites are supposed to help patients fill out forms if necessary. That’s one of several accommodations they have available on-site.

“We just want to make sure that we are being as inclusive as possible,” Tolman-Hill said. “We have wheelchairs and other mobility devices available at each of those sites and those are very heavily used at each of the sites. And we have found those to be a very welcome addition to each of the sites that we do have in the county.”

She added the county was working on making at-home vaccinations available to home-bound individuals through a partnership, but the details are still being finalized.

Utah County’s vaccine sign up website is actually set up pretty well for people with vision issues, according to an analysis conducted by Utah State University’s Center for Persons with Disabilities. But other counties in Utah are not.

The Davis County Health Department’s COVID-19 vaccine web page, for example, has 82 instances of low contrast text, as well as several images without descriptions for blind users. Low contrast text is difficult for people with vision issues to read.

“Governmental entities have an affirmative obligation to ensure that the needs of their users are being met, especially accessibility issues, and particularly for something as impactful as being able to register to get a vaccine for somebody that is elderly or has a disability,” said Jared Smith with Utah State University’s Center for Persons with Disabilities.”They should be aware of these things.”

Davis County Health Department spokesperson Trevor Warner said the department plans to work on addressing the accessibility issues.

“Our websites and our scheduling system and everything — that's all stuff that has been developed in the last three months as we've started this whole vaccination process,” Warner said. “It is something that we are continuously updating and improving.”

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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