Why COVID-19 contact tracing apps *must* be accessible

People with disabilities should benefit from emergency software. They also WANT to participate. Contact tracing won’t work without them.

Woman holding up mobile device to tablet display containing QR code
Photo by Proxyclick Visitor Management System on Unsplash
  • By definition, an untagged PDF file is never accessible. Despite this, the CDC and WHO continue to release untagged PDF files. This is even though people like Dax Castro are fixing the untagged PDF files and sending them back to the authors. The corrected versions are not being validated or released.
  • PG&E’s Public Safety Power Shutoffs web pages last summer were completely inaccessible.
  • I tried out “Safe Travels Hawaii” on voiceover on an iPhone and it took me all of 2 minutes to find five complete blockers in the long and convoluted account registration process. For example, you can’t get the date picker to popup when you have voiceover turned on. I guess Hawaii doesn’t want disabled visitors?
  1. 18 % of the potential userbase won’t be able to contribute to building the tracing dataset. Which means people with disabilities are occasionally going out and not being able to indicate where they have been. That’s a large number of people to be ignoring.

What makes a contact tracing website or native app accessible?

This is general commentary, not specifically discussing on any contact tracing app in particular. Here are some things that would be minimally necessary to create a fully accessible contract tracing website or native app.

Step 1: Accessibility Statement

Reason: An accessibility statement shows that the creators have thought about accessibility and tried to implement things in an accessible manner, within any constraints identified in the statement.

Step 2: Accessible Registration

Reason: If a user who needs to utilize assistive technology can’t register, that’s a non-starter.

Step 3: Accessible Cookie/Privacy/Terms

Reason: You likely can’t enforce a contract that was unable to be read by a user with a disability.

Step 4: Accessible location finding

Reason: Graphical views of maps, which frequently come from third-parties, are often inaccessible.

  1. Beacons — use directional beacons like those provided by Right Hear to direct people in an accessible manner to physical check-in points.
  2. Personalization — Once the user has switched to a text view, the next time they bring the app up, remember that and put them in the text view by default. You can do this with cookies, or associating these usage details with the user’s login.

Step 5: Accessible QR code scanning

Reason: If there are QR codes that are part of the contact tracing process, they need to be accessible, or people with disabilities won’t be able to participate in the scanning portion of the app.

Step 6: Accessible documentation

Reason: If an app/website comes with documentation, people with disabilities need equal access to that documentation.

Step 7: Accessible help/bug reporting process/support

Reason: People don’t just interact with software in a vacuum. They participate in a comprehensive software experience.

Step 8: Native Apps should operate in both portrait and landscape modes, and auto-rotate when the phone orientation shifts

Reason: How many times have you been totally annoyed when you have accidentally rotated your phone and the app stayed put. Now think of that from the perspective of someone who has limited or no dexterity. When your phone is in a fixed frame, and the app doesn’t rotate, you may not be able to use it

  1. If an organization bakes accessibility into all of its processes, there is no “do it fast or do it right” decision. The right thing, accessibility, will always happen from the get-go, even in emergencies when time is of the essence.

Blogger, disability advocate, nerd. Bringing the fire on ableism. A11y Architect @ VMware. Wheelchair user w/ a deaf daughter. CS, Law, and Business background

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