Ensuring COVID-19 Vaccine Site Accessibility for People with Disabilities and Functional and Access Needs in Alabama

The Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH), in partnership with the Alabama National Guard (ALNG), Alabama’s Emergency Management Agency, and other stakeholders, scheduled mass vaccination clinics in 24 traditionally underserved, rural counties in the state that were identified as high-risk of adverse health outcomes from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Due to the significant population of adults with functional and access needs/disabilities in the state (over 33 percent), the differences in health outcomes and behaviors experienced, and the high incidence of death associated with contracting COVID-19, the functional and access needs population was a priority for vaccination. Accommodating, communicating with, and ensuring accessible vaccine sites for the disabled community was also a priority.

As such, the ADPH, along with the Disability and Preparedness Specialist from the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO), provided Disability Etiquette Training to approximately 150 members of the Alabama National Guard on March 16, 2021, at the ALNG Headquarters in Montgomery.

ADPH, in partnership with Anna Taylor from the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services, provided a 30-minute training session: Accommodating and Communicating with People with Disabilities. Prior to the start of training, a fun video was shown to ensure attendees were comfortable with the subject matter –“Interacting and Communicating with People with Disabilities,” which depicted various scenarios of what to do, and what not to do, when interacting with persons with disabilities/functional and access needs. Additionally, packets of information were provided to session attendees that could be used as reference tools at the vaccination sites. Some of these resources included:

  • Communication Card for persons who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing in case there was no access to a remote American Sign Language provider. The Communication Card was adapted from the New Jersey Department of Health’s Division of Deaf and Hard of Hearing and its development received input from consumers in Alabama’s deaf and hard-of-hearing communities.·
  • COVID-19 Vaccine Story inserts, written in plain language, were provided as a resource for potential encounters with persons with cognitive or intellectual disabilities who needed explanation of what to expect during the vaccination process.· Accessibility Checklist, adapted from the Minnesota Department of Health and ADA Northwest, was developed to ensure the sites were accessible physically, sensorily, cognitively and technologically. The Accessibility Checklist was used at scheduled vaccination clinic sites.
  • Accessibility site assessments were conducted prior to the vaccination clinics, where a team of four—which included two ALNG Operations/Logistics Team members; Alabama Department of Transportation staff and ADPH/ASTHO Disability and Preparedness staff, conducted the assessments along with local emergency management agency staff and city/county officials.

For drive-through clinic sites, it was common to establish a special lane or designated area for paratransit vehicles or vehicles transporting people with disabilities/functional and access needs to avoid waiting in long lines to mitigate the challenges experienced when sitting in vehicles for long periods of time. Additionally, the accessibility site assessments ensured accessible Port-O-Lets were available when there were potential barriers with accessible restrooms.

For walk-up sites, there were designated areas for persons with functional and access needs/disabilities to sit comfortably while vaccine paperwork was completed, their vaccines were received, and their observation time done, all in one area. There were private rooms available for those with sensory disabilities, where noise, long waits, crowds of people and other stimuli considered barriers could be avoided. Additionally, the private rooms were used for those with challenged English proficiency to access the Language Line for interpreters.

Finally, transportation arrangements were made for people with disabilities, through a partnership with the Alabama Department of Transportation, for public paratransit vehicles and private accessible vans in each of the counties where clinics were held.

By Felecia Barrow, MPA