Creating an Equitable Vaccine System for People with Disabilities

Approximately 61 million people in the United States have a disability. People with disabilities are considered a high-risk group for COVID-19 – but often not because of their disability but due to underlying conditions such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, or cancer.  The most important risk for people with intellectual disabilities is their lack of access to equitable healthcare – not their underlying health conditions – and it’s important we ensure our vaccination systems reach this community. To do this, we must focus on prioritization and accessibility of the vaccine roll out.  The Biden Administration recently announced the investment in the aging and disability networks to facilitate the vaccine rollout to people with disabilities, but there is still much to be done. 


On May 1, everyone aged 16 and over will be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccination. While this is great news, we must address the current barriers that confront people with disabilities. People with disabilities and high-risk conditions are at a great disadvantage as they compete for still limited appointment slots because of difficulty navigating the enrollment system.  As of March 27, 2021, at least 49 states, as well as Washington, D.C., are now allowing some younger adults with certain medical conditions to receive vaccines. However, the conditions given higher priority differ significantly from state to state, and even county to county. Further, many states require a person to prove they have a medical condition, although at least 16 states (plus DC) do not. Eliminating verification requirements will reduce barriers for people with disabilities to get vaccinated, particularly among the most marginalized groups. By addressing accessibility issues, states can ensure people with disabilities are prioritized.


As we address accessibility, it’s key that states make vaccination protocols, appointment systems, and related materials accessible to all members of the public, including people with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency. Information accessibility includes, but is not limited to, providing information about vaccine safety, vaccination procedures, and follow-up care and appointments in plain language, American Sign Language, Braille, screen-reader accessible formats, and other alternative formats needed by people with disabilities, including graphic format understandable for those with low literacy, as well as in the top 15 non-English languages spoken in the state To implement these recommendations, states should look to implement: 
  • Vaccine Schedule Preferences: Individuals should be able to express interest in a vaccine and schedule a vaccine appointment through a survey done via online and allowing residents to indicate interest in receiving the vaccine and preferred method of contact. Nationally, the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a) provides an overview of the Roles of Area Agencies on Aging in the Vaccination of Older Adults, including appointment scheduling. In Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa, and Indiana the Areas Agencies on Aging s are assisting with vaccine preregistration and scheduling, often in close collaboration with state and county health officials. And, in Nebraska a University Centers on Excellence in Developmental Disabilities Education, Research, and Service is reaching out to its network to schedule appointments for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Find more of these best practices in the Strategies for Helping Older Adults and People with Disabilities Access COVID-19 Vaccines by the Administration for Community Living
  • Vaccine Site Accessibility: To ensure vaccine sites are accessible to those with disabilities, states should look to establish mobile vaccination programs, providing no-cost transportation, and in-vehicle vaccinations.  For example, in Levelland, Texas
SPARTAN Transit Services used their Mobility Hub as a mass vaccination site, in addition to offering free rides to vaccine appointments. Additional practical examples of mobilizing transit and public health partnerships for COVID-19 vaccinations can be found here.
  • The Role of Community Organizations: Community organizations already serve as a trusted partner for individuals with disabilities. To leverage this existing relationship, state and local governments should adequately fund and collaborate with these organizations to disseminate information and help older adults and people with disabilities schedule and access their vaccines. Resources for the community to assist with this effort include United Spinals toolkit to “Reopening Your Business in a COVID World: Safeguarding Accessibility/ADA Compliance” and the CDCs Guide for People with Disabilities
Read more on how we can ensure equitable access for our disability community from the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities or United Spinal.  



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