Covid Tests ‘Still Not Accessible’ for Blind People Two Years Into the Pandemic

Sian Elvin
Sunday 9 Jan 2022

For most of us, we can quickly do a Covid-19 test without a second thought – we just use the swab, measure out the sample then read the result. But what if your eyesight isn’t strong enough to see the test in the first place?

That’s the reality for the two million people in the UK with sight loss – including 360,000 who are registered blind or partially sighted – who need to be able to do a test independently without putting others at risk of catching the virus.

Lucy Edwards, a blind YouTuber and TikToker who campaigns for awareness, told about her difficulties taking coronavirus tests, calling ‘the whole process completely inaccessible’.

The 26-year-old added: ‘The only way I am able to do it independently is if I use an app called Be My Eyes, which connects me to an NHS professional via the specialised help tab of the app.

‘Once I am connected my iPhone’s camera can pick up what I am doing, although it is hard to point a camera when you can’t see what you are pointing at and you need both hands to do the test.

‘I am capable of doing the test independently in theory, but I do rely on my sighted fiance because it just takes so much longer if I do it alone as it just is not an accessible process for me at all.’

She recorded a video to show the process of what it’s like to take a Covid test completely blind.

She said features of Covid-19 tests which could be improved include online audio instructions, braille instructions in the test kit and an audio display to say whether the person is positive or negative.

Policy and campaigns officer at the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), Mike Wordingham, spoke about the charity’s work towards improving both PCR and lateral flow tests for low-vision people.

He told ‘We’ve been in talks about PCR tests [with the Government] since May 2020, and carried out trials with blind and partially sighted people being observed doing a home test kit.’

Mike said barriers for people doing home PCR tests include registering it, ordering one, reading the box and receiving the results.

‘We’ve managed to get lots of changes made, like more support through 119 so you don’t need an email address to order one or get results, a new box and instructions which don’t require visuals,’ he explained.

But he said the lateral flow test ‘presents different challenges’ for blind and partially sighted people than a PCR test.

‘You don’t have to send it back or test your tonsils now, but you have to pour the liquid into the small cassette and you have to read the result,’ Mike added.

He said that’s where Be My Eyes comes in – a mobile app which connects blind and partially sighted people, like Lucy, with sighted volunteers who help with daily tasks via a live chat.

Will Butler, chief experience officer for the company, told ‘Our app represents a community of millions of people around the world who are answering calls day and night, when available, to help one other see and get the information they’re looking for.

‘Typical tasks include reading labels, identifying colours and interpreting instructions, which are common parts of at-home tests and which the app lends itself to perfectly.

‘In this way blind users can place a live video call, speak to a volunteer or an expert from one of our partner support providers, and receive step-by-step guidance through their camera feed.’

He suggested how tests could be improved for blind and partially sighted people in several ways.

‘Simply having tactile features and staying away from colour-coded instructions goes a long way for a large part of the population,’ Will explained.

‘For those who are completely blind, tests can be modified to provide easily locatable digital versions of instructions, braille features or, the gold standard: clear audible feedback.’

He said ‘rushed production’ of public health initiatives means ‘accessibility is often overlooked’, but hopes Be My Eyes ‘closes the feedback loop’ to encourage product designers to improve for the future.

Will noted however that the UK Government has made a ‘concerted effort’ to help improve the situation.

‘Even though the tests themselves were not manufactured to be fully accessible for blind, partially sighted, or other people with vision support needs, there were ample solutions provided to support and ensure that tests could be completed simply, privately and anonymously without leaving home.

‘Providing this level of support not only gives UK citizens a better chance at having a safe, effective way to test, but we hope it provides a strengthened connection to the disability community and brings their feedback to the forefront.

‘This is what creates more accessible experiences in the long run.’

Mike from the RNIB said the Be My Eyes app ‘helps people do the test and read the result’, but the charity still wants to see ‘more changes to the product’ to make it more accessible.

The RNIB has asked test developers to put the exact amount of liquid required for a lateral flow test into the bottle – as blind people can find it ‘fiddly’ measuring out four drops.

Mike added the charity has also called for entirely different types of tests too, such as a saliva test which is easier to carry out, and lateral flow tests with bumps so people are able to feel rather than see the result.

The lateral flow tests would be similar in design to the tactile pregnancy tests developed by the RNIB two years ago, so people do not have to rely on others to find out if they are pregnant or not.

But the key, Mike stressed, was for the Government to consider accessibility from the outset before bringing in widespread measures and equipment.

He said: ‘We particularly want [the Government] to make sure that any kind of public health intervention ensures any kind of accessibility issues are tackled right from the start.

‘Everything was rolled out quickly in 2020 at the start of the pandemic, so we are constantly trying to play catch up.’

Lucy also highlighted there are further problems for blind and low-vision people throughout the pandemic which transcend just coronavirus tests.

She said: ‘Messaging throughout the pandemic has been inaccessible.

‘No images, graphs or posters have been audio described on social media or on the TV.

‘During Covid briefings with the chief medical officer and the prime minister, they would point to slides they were taking about and we would pause the TV in order for my fiance to describe what was happening.

‘The reality is, I would be really out of the loop and not able to access information that I have a right to know without him and my family.’

Her comments come after a deaf woman won a High Court battle over the lack of sign language interpreters at Downing Street’s coronavirus briefings.

Katie Rowley, from Leeds, took legal action against the Cabinet Office, claiming it had neglected its legal obligations to make broadcasts accessible to deaf people.

Mr Justice Fordham said lack of British sign language interpretation for data briefings on September 21 and October 12, 2020 amounted to ‘discrimination’.

But the judge added the Westminster Government was not ‘in present or continuing breach’, and ministers said they would continue to ensure British Sign Language interpretation is made available during Covid-19 briefings.

Lucy further thinks blind people should be in a higher priority group for vaccinations.

She said: ‘I can understand there is a wait list and I am not first in line, and I am happy to wait my turn after critical care staff, and those who have medical conditions that make them more high risk.

‘But I would like some allowance for the fact that I go through life touching everything around me – this is how I interact with the world.

‘Because of the way I live my life day to day, I am putting myself at more risk because I cannot determine how far away someone is from me when I am out.

‘I do rely on staff members when in shops and so on to guide me, so I will always have to be in close proximity to people I do not know.

‘When on public transport I am interacting with, on average, four or five assistance workers in order to support me and my guide dog to get on and off trains.’

She added she also worries about people ‘not being able to have access to the vaccine unless they have someone sighted to help them’.

‘Without my fiance I could not have been as flexible with where my vaccine centre was or care-free about how far away the drive was without him,’ she said.

What is the Government doing to help?

A UK Health Security Agency spokesperson said: ‘Making Covid-19 testing services accessible to everyone is vital to protect our communities and prevent the spread of the virus and we are constantly making changes to make our services more accessible.

‘We continue to work closely with charity partners to introduce improvements to support people who are visually impaired.

‘Recent developments have included the use of remote live video assistance provided via specially NHS trained 119 agents to assist those who are visually impaired to take a PCR test.

‘We’re also working to develop this service so it can be used for lateral flow tests and expect this additional service to be offered in the coming weeks.

‘A number of improvements to improve the accessibility of test kit packaging and components are also under clinical review and we will work with suppliers to introduce any changes to make our tests more accessible following the outcome of this review.’

They added a recent pilot carried out alongside partners from the RNIB, Thomas Pocklington Trust, Macular Society and Visionary charities demonstrated accessibility improvements which will be introduced by the end of January. But people with severe or total sight loss may still require help from a relative or friend, or need to visit a walk-through test centre, to complete tests fully.

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