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Time and time again, vaccination efforts have ignored the accessibility needs of disabled individuals 

We’ve all heard the endless discourse surrounding COVID-19 vaccinations these past few months. With news coming out about mandatory vaccination passports and changing travel guidelines, it’s important to take a step back and fully internalize the expansive impact of vaccination rollouts on an overlooked sector of the population. 

Individuals with a disability, both seen and unseen, have been reported as 12% less likely to have received one vaccination dose. This is due to a myriad of factors, namely inaccessible online platforms for booking vaccine appointments, difficulties getting to clinics and physically inaccessible clinic locations. 

Besides just vaccinations, the entire handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has persisted without consideration of differently abled perspectives, as echoed by the visual inaccessibility of the ArriveCAN app that determines whether vacationers can re-enter the country.

Craig Madho is a research analyst at OpenLab, an innovation hub at University Health Network , who detailed the accessibility challenges that were inherent to many early-stage pop-up clinics in Toronto. As a volunteer lead for the Mobile Vaccine Strategy Table at UHN, Madho recruited volunteers for functions such as line management and registration at various vaccine pop-ups across Toronto. 

“Definitely, there’s a balance between needing to pop-up quickly, utilizing simply what’s available and taking some time to understand the accessibility needs of the community and catering more directly to their needs,” Madho explained. 

Essentially, the requirement of meeting accessibility needs across venues was often superseded by the rush to get “hotspot” areas vaccinated. Madho further detailed that there was awareness that some factors could be improved upon and following feedback from the community, interventions such as coloured signage, more physically accessible venues and increased volunteer support were prioritized. 

Despite the best efforts of volunteer and government-run vaccine initiatives across the country, this phenomenon highlights the unfortunate nature by which accessibility needs are circumstantially forced onto the back burner, especially in the onset of a public health crisis. Individuals with disabilities are more likely to experience chronic disease and face additional barriers to acquiring appropriate healthcare and these inequities have amounted to a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and lower vaccination rates, despite an increased need. 

Another factor that deserves consideration are the pertinent reasons behind vaccine hesitancy for individuals with disabilities. One of the biggest reasons behind disability-related hesitancy is a lack of trust for vaccine safety or efficacy on their disability. This exemplifies the ever-present need for holistic scientific data collection — one that actually addresses the expansive needs of our diverse population. 

Additionally, such information points to a need for vaccination clinics made specifically to cater to the needs of a community. One such example is a vaccine clinic located in the MaRS Discovery District for Innovation. It houses a quieter environment, smaller groups and open space for youth with varying accessibility needs along with their caregivers. Another clinic that was formulated to meet the needs of a specific population, the Black community of Toronto, was the vaccine pop-up held at the Jamaican Canadian Association centre on May 8 and 9, 2021. 

Clearly, steps are being taken to ensure future and more recent vaccination efforts truly encompass the needs of the entire Canadian population. However this begs the question: what more can be and should be done to improve accessibility surrounding COVID-19 vaccinations?

“Largely, what would be helpful is documentation and shared information around what has been done and what has been successful . . .  We’re at this point where we can look back and try to better understand what could be done for future clinics and health initiatives,” explained Madho.

Such a mindset has been echoed by disability organizations across the GTA. The Centre for Independent Living in Toronto  has made tremendous strides in pooling the resources available to those with disabilities, while partnering with organizations and community members to deliver vaccine town halls and webinars for both the visually impaired and autism-affected communities.

It is more important now than ever to share both the quality and depth of any information learned through the steps and missteps in the handling of COVID-19 vaccination clinics. It is truly unfair to put the onus of education completely in the hands of vulnerable populations whose voices often go unheard. Rather, both abled and disabled advocates must raise their voices to move such considerations to the front of the decision-making agenda. Achieving equitable access to public health interventions is a necessity, not a choice. 

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