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Campaign wins for accessible coronavirus information in Wales

As Welsh Government, health officials and businesses grapple with the spread of coronavirus, the outbreak has highlighted the importance of effective and accessible communication for all.

Now more than ever, it is crucial that everyone knows how to keep themselves and their community safe.

But the unprecedented challenge of a global pandemic has revealed that providing accessible information is not yet standard practice for many public institutions.

From the early days of the outbreak, we at RNIB Cymru noticed that vital messages were being communicated from official sources in ways which exclude people with sight loss. For example, using images to convey information, which are inaccessible to screen readers.

We contacted the Welsh Government, Local Authorities and NHS teams responsible for sending out this information and sent tailored guides on how they could adapt their communications for blind and partially sighted people.

The level of response was fantastic. Public Health Wales acted immediately and began uploading their coronavirus public health updates with options for audio description and other accessible formats, including easy read and British sign language.

NHS Direct Wales added an accessibility toolbar to their website, allowing visitors to change the page settings to suit their needs. This includes playing audio, changing font size and page colour, magnifying images and translating information into multiple languages.

The Welsh Ambulance Services NHS trust followed suit, and published a series of audio resources on Personal Protective Equipment and the new Covid-19 symptom tracker app.

Raising the profile of accessible information

We have also been working to get the issue of accessible information onto the political agenda. Assembly Members (AMs) have been briefed and written questions have been submitted, asking Welsh Government to clarify what steps they have taken to ensure vital messages reach blind and partially sighted people.

We have also given all AMs tips on how to make social media communications accessible for their blind and partially sighted constituents.

A Letter to Editor from RNIB Cymru Director Ansley Workman was issued to local and national press, further highlighting our concerns and calling on organisations across Wales to do better.

When organisations were quick to respond to our calls, we celebrated their actions on social media. This generated a positive reaction from our audiences, encouraged other organisations to catch up, and positioned RNIB Cymru as an advocate for positive change in a time of turmoil.

Work still to be done

Unfortunately, despite significant progress we continue to see instances where the needs of blind and partially sighted people are not considered in official communications.

Several weeks into lockdown, people are still telling us that they cannot access the basic information they need to keep themselves safe. No official guidance has been published for people with sight loss on how to practice safe social distancing and how to be guided safely, causing confusion and anxiety to many.

91,000 people in Wales who are considered most at risk of severe illness from coronavirus have been sent a ‘shielding letter’. The letter advises them to stay home for 12 weeks and contains a range of further information and advice, including how to access food and medicine if they are struggling. Despite containing potentially life-saving information, these letters have not been sent out in accessible formats for people with sight loss.

We’ve seen a drop in the number of people attending emergency and urgent, sight-saving eye care appointments, which continue to go ahead. This may be because information is not reaching blind and partially sighted people in the correct way.

We recorded an interview with Consultant Ophthalmologist, Gwyn Williams, who gave an up to date summary on eye care services in Wales and the safety measures in place to protect patients during this time. It is vital that these communications reach eye care patients in the format that best suits them, so that no one risks losing their sight due to poor communication.

There is a lot of work still to be done.

In Wales, RNIB Cymru continue to push for clarity from the government on further sight-loss specific guidance and action on accessibility. At a UK level, RNIB, together with several other charities have written to the Prime Minister, calling for him to appoint a national lead on the issue.

We are monitoring all official communications channels closely and calling out inaccessibility wherever we see it.

Please contact us with any examples of the inaccessible communications you come across – and help us to ensure that blind and partially sighted people can access public health information in a format that works for them.