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Blind woman issues legal challenge to Government over Covid-19 communications

A severely sight impaired woman has today notified the Government of her intention to commence legal proceedings concerning their failure to communicate with her about Covid-19 in an accessible way. She considers that the current failure to do so is unlawful and places her and many others at unnecessary risk.

7 May 2020

Rachael Andrews of Norfolk has myopic macular degeneration and is registered blind. She says critical Covid-19 public health information contained in No 10 correspondence was sent to her in an inaccessible format, and a significant amount of online information regarding the virus is also inaccessible to her.
 
The Prime Minister sent a letter to every household in England about Covid-19. However, Mrs Andrews didn’t know she had received the Prime Minister’s letter until her carer told her about it and read it to her. The letter instructs people to stay at home except for very limited purposes and gives guidance on social distancing rules. It states that if those rules are broken, the police will issue fines.
 
Mrs Andrews uses a screen reader to convert text in electronic documents to speech. The PM’s letter is available as a PDF online, but that is of no assistance to someone who does not know that the letter exists or for whom the internet is not readily available or navigable. Even then one must also know where to find it – there are no instructions in the hard copy letter about the location of an accessible version, or the accompanying leaflet.
 
Other Covid-19 public health advice is presented online through infographics which do not have text descriptions, again rendering them useless to people who use a screen reader.
 
On Mrs Andrews’ behalf, Leigh Day solicitors has sent a Letter Before Action to the Government saying that its communications fail to comply with the Equality Act 2010.
 
The Act requires a public body to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people, with the aim of ensuring that disabled people obtain services as close as is reasonably possible to the standard offered to non-disabled people.
 
Leigh Day’s letter points out that the Government’s practice of providing communications regarding Covid-19 in an inaccessible format puts Mrs Andrews and all severely sight impaired people at a substantial disadvantage compared to fully sighted people because they cannot access the content.
 
The letter asks the Government to ensure that all future communications regarding Covid-19 are accessible to blind and sight impaired people and to confirm that any further letters from the Prime Minister will be sent in an accessible format. If the Government does not provide an adequate response, Mrs Andrews intends to commence urgent judicial review proceedings.
 
Mrs Andrews said:
 
“I cannot read standard print so I use screen reading software, which converts text to speech, to access text in electronic documents and online. However, a significant amount of the Government’s communication about Covid-19 has been inaccessible to me. I received a letter through the post from the Prime Minister containing critical information about the current pandemic that I did not know I had received and could not read. Digital updates are also routinely inaccessible because they contain text in images which cannot be picked up by my screen reader.
 
“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.”
 
Leigh Day solicitor Kate Egerton 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.
 
“Our client believes that the Government has an anticipatory duty to make reasonable adjustments to the way it is disseminating information under the Equality Act 2010, and that this includes taking proactive steps to ensure its communications are accessible.

"Mrs Andrews and all severely sight impaired people have been put at a disadvantage by the format in which the Government’s Covid-19 communications have been issued. They want some reassurance that future communications will be accessible to them in these extremely worrying times.”

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