CNN’s Maegan Vazquez and Donald Judd reported this week the Biden administration has announced at-home Covid testing kits which are purportedly accessible to Blind and low vision Americans. The tests use a companion app, available on iOS and Android, that functions similarly to Apple’s VoiceOver or Google’s TalkBack screen reader. The new tests are meant to help those, like myself, who cannot read the test’s instructions and/or results well, if at all.
Alternatively, members of the Blind and low vision community could use a service like the Apple Design Award-winning Be My Eyes. Be My Eyes pairs sighted volunteers with visually impaired people to assist them with understanding inaccessible printed labels such as the expiration date on a carton of milk or, in this case, the directions on how to administer a do-it-yourself Covid test.
“We developed this plan in close partnership with members of the disability community. An issue raised consistently was that individuals who are blind or low vision are often unable to utilize rapid self-tests on their own,” said White House Covid-19 response coordinator, Dr. Ashish Jha, at his Covid response news conference. “The President has made clear he is committed to addressing the needs of individuals with disabilities, regardless of where they live or the level of community transmission. Ensuring everyone has equitable access to Covid-19 testing and all other critical mitigation strategies is of the utmost importance.”
The visually accessible tests can be ordered on the USPS website. Orders are strictly limited to one order per household, which contains two tests. The tests ship for free “while supplies last,” according to the Postal Service.
There’s a lot to unpack with this news. On one level, it’s commendable to see the White House provide these more accessible tests. On another, however, it speaks volumes of the country’s collective view of the disability community that it took until late June 2022—more than two years after the pandemic began—to get word of these ostensibly accessible tests. The pandemic has laid bare just how truly ableist society’s machinations are; to wit, did no one in Washington DC foresee disabled people needing accommodation when developing Covid tests? More pointedly, what does “accessible” mean to the White House and test manufacturers? Dr. Jha claims the administration worked “in close partnership with members of the disability community” to create these new tests, but accessibility is a spectrum—not a destination. A VoiceOver-like experience through an app is helpful to an extent, but says nothing about how well the software itself is built. Is this requisite companion app accessible in its own right? Is it built to play nicely with Apple’s and Google’s Accessibility APIs for iOS and Android, respectively? And what about those who have normal vision, but have a physical disability? Many people who have multiple disabilities, myself included, lack the fine-motor skills to effectively swab my nostrils and place the specimen inside the reader. All of the questions are mission-critical considerations that illustrate accessibility’s dynamism. It’s evergreen, not a patronizing checkbox.
Put another way, the Biden’s administration’s work here is certainly better than nothing—but that’s an extremely low bar to conga. It goes to show that accessibility is not something that can—or should—be bolted on after the fact. A compelling Covid response by Dr. Jha and team would’ve been inclusive of the disabled community from the outset by design. As ever, it took Blind and low vision people storming the Bastille to get the powers-that-be to realize something was woefully inadequate in how they’re serving “every” American citizen.
I covered Apple’s WWDC keynote in Cupertino earlier this month. One of Apple’s conditions for members of media to attend was to submit a negative Covid test. A perfectly reasonable request, to be sure, but awful to comply with in practice. Personally, I had a lot of trouble manipulating the test—ironically, one sent to me by the federal government earlier this year—and needed assistance from my partner to test successfully. It was a frustrating comedy of errors, one which served as a stark reminder at how utterly and disproportionately bad the country’s Covid response has been towards the disability community. The cynical view is trite but true: Accessibility is necessary for inclusiveness and participation, but it’s also necessary because society was decidedly not built for people like me. It was built literally by and for able-bodied people. While not confronted nearly as often as white, male privilege, abled privilege runs just as rampant in this world.
The White House confirmed as much this week, if indirectly.