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Blind woman takes legal action over failure to provide accessible pandemic information

A blind woman has issued a legal case over the government’s failure to provide her with accessible shielding information during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Posted on 21 December 2020

Sarah Leadbetter, aged 45, of Narborough, Leicestershire, is registered blind and categorised as clinically extremely vulnerable. However, she has not been sent any correspondence about shielding in a format that she can access, for instance by email or in a Word or PDF document that is compatible with a voice-reader.

She only discovered that she is on the Shielded Patients List because her mother is also shielding and therefore received the same letter.

Now Sarah, represented by Leigh Day solicitors, has applied for permission for judicial review of the Secretary of State Matt Hancock’s failure to provide accessible correspondence regarding shielding to blind/sight impaired people.

She argues that the failure puts his department in breach of its duties under the Equality Act 2010 and the Accessible Information Standard.

In pre-action letters the DHSC says generic versions of the shielding letters are available on the internet. But Sarah argues this clearly not adequate because (a) how should someone know whether or not they should be shielding if they don’t get a letter and (b) even if they do know, this relies on someone being told that they are able to find the letter on the internet and having access to the internet.

The DHSC has said that they emailed the latest letter on shielding to some people for whom they have email addresses. However, emails were not sent on the basis of the recipient’s communication needs and Sarah did not receive an email.

Sarah has a genetic condition that affects her immune system and is also in remission from cancer.

She lives with her elderly parents who also suffer health issues. She relies on her mother to read out her letters but, because of her mother’s own health issues, sometimes it can be weeks before she can do so.

Sarah said:

“I felt like a second-class citizen that I wasn’t sent a letter about lockdown in a format I could read. Worse than that was when I received a letter around the same time telling me that I was clinically extremely vulnerable and had to shield. Luckily my mum told me about it because she too had to shield, but I wasn’t able to access any of the information about what I should and shouldn’t be doing myself.

“I feel like a child and I don’t get information as quickly and as accurately as I should. This makes me feel vulnerable and scared.

“It is like the government doesn’t know anything about its equality duties despite is being 25 years since the Disability Discrimination Act.”

Leigh Day solicitor Kate Egerton said:

“The Secretary of State has a clear duty under the Equality Act 2010 and the Accessible Information Standard to provide information to sight-impaired people in an accessible format. Our client believes that his assertion that relevant generic letters are available on the internet is simply illogical – how are sight impaired people to know that the information is there unless they are told where to find it? The Secretary of State’s position means that sight-impaired people are required to have access to the internet and check the government’s website for guidance every time they leave the house. This is far from the position afforded to sighted people and is, in our view, discriminatory.”

Samantha Fothergill, senior legal advisor at the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), said:

“There are legal duties that mean health information should be provided to blind and partially sighted people in their preferred formats, whether that’s braille, audio or large print. Implementation of these duties has been patchy at best.

“The pandemic has once again put a spotlight on just how important it is that these duties are followed so that blind and partially sighted people can access information in the right format to keep themselves and others safe. Whilst we’ve been working with Government to remedy past omissions, insufficient progress has been made. It is clear that the Government now needs to take urgent action to ensure all future communications are provided in people’s preferred format, allowing individuals to receive the information they need at the same time as everyone else.”

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Kate Egerton
Court of Protection

Kate Egerton

Kate Egerton is an associate solicitor in the human rights department.

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