Scotland’s vaccine app ‘potentially discriminatory’ for blind users
Concerns have been raised that Scotland’s vaccine status app is “potentially discriminatory and unfair”, as visually impaired Scots struggle to verify their Covid status.
Charities for people with sight loss are calling on the Scottish Government to address and correct accessibility issues with the platform “as quickly as possible”.
Robert Meikle, a guide dog owner from Glasgow, has “found it difficult” to navigate the NHS Scotland app, despite using screen reader software – a form of assistive technology which translates text and image content into speech.
He said: “The Covid Status app needs to be improved. When using the screen reader I found it difficult to locate input fields and the tick boxes were tricky to establish if they had been ticked or not, as it wasn’t alerting me to any change.
“Throughout the information pages, the screen reader detected text but I could also identify graphics which weren’t being picked up. I tried using magnification instead, but the app is very bright so even that did not help. I had to ask my partner for assistance for this and to take a photo of identification.”
Meikle is not alone. Known issues which have been reported to NHS Scotland and are being “actively” addressed include the fact that some interactive elements, such as drop down menus, are too narrow and may be problematic for people with limited dexterity, whilst certain words are mispronounced by screen readers – for example “CHI” (Community Health Index) is pronounced as “chee”.
In addition, camera controls are “not set up for ease of use or completion” and some on-screen feedback is not accompanied by audio feedback – for instance, when verification is being processed, there are visual but no audible cues to suggest that action is underway.
The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) Scotland has also been made aware of “barriers” for screen readers and has reported these issues to the NHS.
A spokesperson for the organisation said: “There are still some ongoing accessibility issues with the app, which NHS Scotland is working on, including barriers for screen readers… RNIB Scotland is in touch to ascertain when this issue will be resolved.”
The not-for-profit also highlighted difficulties faced by those who apply for alternative formats of the Covid pass. Although it may be possible to get a vaccine certificate in large print or braille – people are still required to show the original paper certificate as proof of Covid status, for example when travelling abroad.
Niall Foley, external affairs manager at Guide Dogs Scotland, said: “It is concerning for us to hear of any accessibility issues that may affect people with sight loss and their ability to live independently. It is vitally important all Covid-19 public information is made available in a fully accessible way and in peoples’ preferred formats.”
Davina Shiell, director of communications at charity Sight Scotland, said it is “vital” that the NHS Scotland Covid Status app “is made fully accessible in order that everyone can have access to the important information and function it serves”.
She added: “Functionality with screen readers is of particular importance to blind and partially sighted users and it is disappointing that there have been problems with this.
“We’re pleased that NHS Scotland are working on the identified accessibility issues with the app, however it essential that they are now resolved as quickly as possible.
“The pandemic has further highlighted both existing and new barriers that blind and partially sighted people face in society, for example challenges with social distancing. Accessibility issues with the app demonstrate another of these instances which needs to be addressed and corrected.”
The NHS Scotland app provides digital proof of double vaccination and can be used when travelling abroad and when entering nightclubs and large outdoor events. From today, it is formally recognised across Europe as a form of vaccine certification.
The Scottish Conservatives said it is “extremely concerning” to hear of “further accessibility problems” with the app, following a “shambles” launch in early October which saw users face “wide spread technical difficulties“.
Murdo Fraser, Scottish Conservative shadow cabinet secretary for Covid recovery, said: “Consideration of users with additional needs, such as those suffering with sight loss, should have been fully taken into account by the SNP. This is all too typical of the SNP’s shoddy planning surrounding vaccine passports.
“The human rights commission have already raised concerns over the SNP’s vaccine passport scheme. This is yet another worrying example of how it is potentially discriminatory and unfair.”
The leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats said the ID cards “should be scrapped immediately”.
Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “The practical problems with the Covid ID app are now only too obvious. Scottish Liberal Democrats have argued for some time that the Scottish Government’s Covid ID cards discriminate against young people, ethnic minority Scots and those from poorer backgrounds. It looks we can now add Scots with sight loss to the list.
“I’m astonished that ministers simply don’t seem to think that human rights concerns are important.”
The Scottish Government has published a statement on NHS Inform – the national health information service – highlighting ways in which partially-sighted users can utilise in-built accessibility features on their devices to better operate app.
Suggestions include inverting colours, adjusting contrast levels and increasing the text size.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We are developing a BSL [British Sign Language] video and are continually developing alternative ways to ensure inclusiveness. We have developed an easy read Privacy Notice.”