Disability charities criticise UK Government’s continued inaccessibility over coronavirus information

Ten leading disability charities have called on the Government to improve the accessibility of coronavirus information for disabled people, as a second national lockdown continues.

Disability organisations including the Royal National Institute for Deaf people (RNID), Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and Sense are amongst those who have challenged Number 10 over inaccessible information during the COVID-19 pandemic in a new callout on Monday morning.

It follows a series of criticisms of the Government’s communications strategy, including shielding letters sent in inaccessible formats, official graphics coming without alt text and Downing Street failing to provide a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter at its coronavirus press conferences.

The joint message from the disability organisations comes a day after campaigners celebrated 25 years since the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) in 1995, which made it “unlawful to discriminate against disabled persons in connection with employment, the provision of goods, facilities and services or the disposal or management of premises”.

“Deaf people should not be expected to wait until after lockdown has begun or to search far and wide to get the information they need to keep themselves and their families safe. It’s simply not good enough.”

In a statement, RNID chief executive Mark Atkinson said “not accessible is not acceptable”, with today’s response from the charities feeling “like déjà vu”.

“We raised our concerns about the inaccessibility of Government communications ahead of the first lockdown but the same mistakes have been made again.

“Letters have been issued that are entirely inaccessible and we still don’t have a BSL interpreter for all public health broadcasts, despite other countries around the world being able to manage this.

“Deaf people should not be expected to wait until after lockdown has begun or to search far and wide to get the information they need to keep themselves and their families safe. It’s simply not good enough,” he said.

Elsewhere Richard Kramer, chief executive of the deafblind charity Sense, added that the Government’s “failure” to provide accessible guidance is “putting disabled people’s lives in danger”.

“Throughout this pandemic, disabled people will make important decisions regarding isolating safely, purchasing food and accessing health and community services.

“If vital guidance from the government isn’t in an accessible format, is confusing or unclear, then these decisions become challenging.

“Either nothing has been learnt by the Government over the last nine months, or they are indifferent to meeting the needs of disabled people.”

“Either nothing has been learnt by the Government over the last nine months, or they are indifferent to meeting the needs of disabled people.”

The UK Government, when challenged, has defended its actions in the area, with a spokesperson telling The Guardian: “Throughout the pandemic the measures introduced by this government have been designed to protect and support everyone, including our most vulnerable.”

The statement came after Labour’s Marsha de Cordova, Shadow Women and Equalities Minister, wrote to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in October, calling on them to investigate alleged breaches of the Equality Act by the Government.

Commenting on today’s developments, Sarah Lambert, RNIB’s Head of Social Change, added: “Time and again, making sure that crucial health information is in a format that blind and partially sighted people can access – whether that’s large print, braille or audio – has been treated as an afterthought at best.

“It is important that accessibility is built into all government communications from the beginning.”

Number 10 has been approached for further comment.

Update: In a statement to Liam O’Dell, a Government spokesperson said that they are working across departments to make sure disabled people can access support such as disability benefits, food and medicines during the pandemic – as well as accessible communications and guidance.

They added that their Disability Unit is working with the COVID-19 hub to help improve the social media feeds of the Prime Minister, Cabinet Office and Number 10, which has led to the creation of guidance which has been shared with other departments.

The spokesperson said: “To ensure that the public have the information they need to stay safe during the pandemic we are making sure that our guidance is available in easy to read format and braille on request, establishing BSL interpretation at the Downing Street press conferences via the BBC News Channel and iPlayer, issuing clear guidance to departments on how to make sure their communications are accessible, and translating guidance into multiple languages.”

The spokesperson continued to say that the Government press conferences come with BSL interpretation on the BBC News Channel and iPlayer, through a service which is provided by the broadcaster and not the Government themselves.

However, lawyer Chris Fry, who has been working with Deaf campaigners on the lack of a BSL interpreter, believes that the UK Government remains responsible for providing access to the coronavirus briefings for Deaf people.

A legal letter from Fry to the Government reads: “The duty to make information that is provided by the PM’s office accessible belongs to the Prime Minister’s Office and not to a Broadcaster (unless there is a contractual requirement imposed on them by the Prime Minister that we are unaware of).”

Elsewhere, the spokesperson said that the BBC has made their feed with the BSL interpreter available to other broadcasters, and to Number 10 for use on social media, since 21 May.

Earlier this year the deaf news website The Limping Chicken revealed that discussions were ongoing at Sky around the BSL feed, while ITV News said they were unable to do so.

A spokesperson for the broadcaster said: “As we’re not a 24-hour news service, we don’t run the press conference live and as such we don’t have a BSL interpreter on our programmes.”

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