A disabled campaigner has warned the UK government that its failure to provide vital public health information about the pandemic crisis in an accessible format is risking the lives of blind and partially-sighted people.
Rachael Andrews, who uses screen-reading software, has told 10 Downing Street she will launch a legal action if it fails to promise that its future communications with the public on COVID-19 will be accessible to her and others.
She contacted lawyers after only discovering through a care worker that she had received a copy of a letter from Boris Johnson – sent to every household in England – about COVID-19.
Her action came as about 300 Deaf people began a legal class action against the UK government over its failure to provide a British Sign Language interpreter at its televised coronavirus briefings.
Johnson’s letter to the nation was sent out shortly after he had declared a nationwide lockdown, and explained the importance of staying at home, provided guidance on social distancing rules, and warned that police officers would issue fines if the rules were broken.
As well as the inaccessible letter, other COVID-19 public health advice has been published online using infographics that do not have text descriptions and so are useless to people who use screen-readers, while videos have been shared without audio.
Andrews’ lawyers, Leigh Day, have now sent a “letter before action” to the government, warning that its communications are unlawful and fail to comply with the Equality Act because of the failure to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people like Andrews, and the failure to comply with its public sector equality duty obligations.
As well as Number 10, the letter has been sent to the Cabinet Office, health and social care secretary Matt Hancock, and Public Health England, who could all face an urgent judicial review application if they fail to take action.
Only last month, Disability News Service reported how Andrews was taking fresh legal action against the government after it failed yet again to ensure that she had an accessible way to vote independently in December’s general election, the latest stage in a five-year legal battle.
Andrews, from Norfolk, said: “The onus should not be on me to go asking the government to provide the information in an accessible form; they should be thinking in advance about how to communicate with sight impaired people.
“It makes me feel anxious that I will not be aware of or able to access important updates or public health information in the future.”
Kate Egerton, from Leigh Day, said: “It is obvious that our client should be able to access information about COVID-19 in the same way as everyone else and we are surprised that the government has not taken steps to address this.
“There are around 350,000 people who are registered blind or partially sighted people in the UK and it is critical that they are accessing information about the pandemic on an equal basis to others, both to protect themselves from the virus and to avoid its spread.”
Number 10 had not responded to a request for a comment by noon today (Thursday).
*Links to sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:
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