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Rite Aid agrees to make vaccine signup portal accessible after DOJ steps in

The Department of Justice announced this week that it had secured an agreement with Rite Aid Corporation, aimed at ensuring its vaccination registration portal is accessible to people with disabilities.  

A notice from the DOJ pointed out that the registration signup page, in its original incarnation, was not accessible for some people, including those who use screen reader software and those who have a hard time using a mouse.  

“Equal access to healthcare is one of the most important rights guaranteed by the Americans with Disabilities Act,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in a statement.   

“As the nation continues its response to the COVID-19 pandemic – through booster shots, vaccinations for children under 12, and ongoing outreach to those still in need of initial doses – people with disabilities must be able to schedule potentially lifesaving vaccine appointments as easily as people without disabilities can,” Clarke continued.  

WHY IT MATTERS

As the press release notes, the portal Rite Aid used presented hurdles to accessibility for many people with disabilities.  

“For instance, the calendar on Rite Aid’s website used for scheduling vaccine appointments did not show screen reader users any available appointment times, and people who use the tab key instead of a mouse could not make a choice on a consent form that they needed to fill out before scheduling their appointment,” explained the Justice Department.  

Given the relative danger of COVID-19 for many people with disabilities, this hurdle to vaccination had particularly troubling potential consequences.

The agency had initiated a compliance review under the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires public accommodations like drug stores to provide individuals with disabilities with full and equal enjoyment of goods and services, including vaccines.   

Under the settlement, which was handled jointly by the Civil Rights Division’s Disability Rights Section and Civil Rights Coordinator Michael Butler of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Rite Aid agreed to make content about the COVID-19 vaccine conform to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.  

Rite Aid must also test the pages of its website about vaccine scheduling and information regularly and fix any barriers to accessibility within 10 or 15 days, depending on the page content, the settlement said.   

As a condition of entering the agreement, the company denied that it had violated the ADA.  

“As technology increases, the internet is where people gain access to information about COVID-19 vaccines and schedule a vaccination appointment,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Bruce D. Brandler for the Middle District of Pennsylvania in the statement.   

“Individuals with disabilities, including those with visual impairments and those who cannot use a mouse, must be given the same access to that information and the ease of scheduling appointments online,” Brandler added.  

THE LARGER TREND

The incident is emblematic of the importance of ensuring accessibility when relying on digital health tools.   

For instance, a study from this past year found that although telehealth can sometimes be helpful when it comes to keeping people with disabilities out of the hospital, it might also worsen the digital divide because of accessibility issues.  

“I would urge everyone to take a step back from what we’re designing and try to think about all this from the patients’ perspective – and work really hard to develop tools and systems and processes that … allow the patient to engage meaningfully,” said Laura Jantos, a healthcare IT consultant and patient advocate, in an interview with Healthcare IT News this summer.  

ON THE RECORD  

“Since the beginning of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, private companies have  partnered with the United States,” said Brandler. “Today, with the help of Rite Aid, we make great strides in that continuing partnership by ensuring individuals with disabilities have the ability to schedule a COVID-19 vaccination independently and privately.”  

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