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By Chris Edwards, Vision Australia manager government relations and advocacy. 

A crisis is difficult for any person to experience and whether it’s a pandemic or a natural disaster, everyone’s needs must be considered.

Like everybody else, people living with a disability need to be equipped with the appropriate resources to respond to an emergency. 

About one in five people live with a disability, and the blind and low vision community is estimated to reach more than 500,000 by 2030. Despite representing a major part of the Australian population, they are continuously neglected in times of crisis. 

As restrictions ease and we emerge into a new “COVID normal” we must foster a more inclusive culture so no one gets left behind. The pandemic is far from over, and more crises will inevitably surface. Government, businesses, and the wider community must do more to make information and support services accessible to all.

Access to information

During the pandemic, access to health and safety information has been crucial. Communication around vaccinations, testing, and contact tracing is constant, but unfortunately is not clear for every person. 

Earlier this year, Vision Australia’s Digital Access team found that the Australian Department of Health’s online vaccine eligibility checker failed to meet the government’s own accessibility requirements.

It is disappointing that the disability community were not prioritised during the design of the eligibility checker. Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated incident.

For many, scanning a QR code to 'check-in' to a location is easy and can be completed within seconds. But for someone who is blind or has low vision, it can be challenging process to locate the code and check in the app. 

Similarly, the visual nature of digital vaccine records is concerning, as someone who is blind or has low vision person cannot verify if they are interacting with a vaccinated person. While some states have introduced QR code verification systems for this, it’s not yet universal.

Alack of inclusivity and accessibility in a crisis is not new. A survey conducted by Vision Australia found that following the 2019/2020 bushfire period, 34% of respondents were unable to access critical information. 

We must develop more services that are inclusive to all needs and help protect every person. For example, 92% of respondents revealed that they would use a dedicated hotline service to help protect people with a disability stay informed during an emergency. 

Detail around natural disasters is generally presented visually via a map and is not an effective way to communicate with people who are blind or have low vision. 

Similarly, during COVID-19, markers of where to socially distance are presented visually, without a tactile element it can be impossible for people who are blind or have low vision to detect and observe these indicators.  

Access to support and services

People living with a disability such as blindness or low vision generally may require different services and support than others.

Receiving a COVID-19 test may seem simple, but for someone who is blind or have low vision there’s more to consider. Our community doesn’t have the luxury of being able to jump in a car and drive themselves to a testing location.

Similarly, during natural disasters, people living with a disability may require additional assistance if evacuation is necessary. Outside of calling 000 there is no consistent way to contact authorities or speak with someone who understands your needs and situation. 

Pleasingly, we have seen some positive responses to recent challenges.

As shopping for the most basic of necessities became challenging during the heights of COVID-19, Coles and Woolworths designated priority delivery slots for people with a disability. Online shopping and delivery might be convenient for some, but for our community it’s vital.

Similarly, Uber partnered with Vision Australia and 11 other disability service providers this year to deliver 10,000 free rides to vaccination appointments for people living with disability and their carers. 

What have we learnt? 

COVID-19 and the Australian bushfires prove that we must do more to ensure all communities are included in the access to information and support services during a crisis. 

We still have a long way to go, and disability must be considered from the start of a response in any crisis. We must be more empathetic and mindful of what other people are experiencing. 

Crises are unpredictable and inevitable, and more will occur in the future. We shouldn’t have to raise these sorts of issues weeks, months, or even years into a response for the needs of everyone to be considered.