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People who are blind face multiple barriers to COVID-19 testing

ROCHESTER, NY (WXXI)—Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, Andy Shields of Henrietta has never been tested for the disease.

"As a responsible person, I should have done it long since, if we could find a way to do it," he said.

Shields, who is blind, has encountered multiple barriers to at-home and in-person testing.

The National Federation of the Blind said inaccessibility is keeping millions of Americans from proactively protecting their own health and doing their part to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

In a Jan. 3 letter to President Joe Biden, federation president Mark A. Riccobono applauded the administration's plan to expand free, at-home testing for all Americans. But Riccobono said it is critical that blind people are able to access community centers where tests are being distributed, and be able to take at-home tests independently.

The letter also urged the president to ensure that any website used to request a COVID-19 test be accessible to the blind or visually impaired.

Shields said he is fully vaccinated and has received a booster shot. He got the shots at the state-run vaccine clinic at the former Kodak Hawkeye plant parking lot.

He said members of the National Guard guided him through the process without being condescending, but Shields has been hesitant to see if that would be the case at any of the local testing sites. First, it would have to be a walk-up, not drive-through, procedure.

"I would feel more prepared if I knew that someone could just kind of walk me through it and say, 'Here's what you do, I'll help you, but I won't be unnecessarily solicitous to you," he explained.

If he developed COVID-19 symptoms or was exposed to the virus, Shields said in-person testing would be preferable to trying to use an at-home testing kit. He worries about enlisting the help of a sighted friend and potentially exposing them to the virus. He also said he can't imagine how he would get the proper number of drops onto an at-home testing strip without contaminating the sample.

"It's really difficult for me to manage anything that requires accurate measuring of liquid from a dropper," he said.

There are apps that pair people who have visual impairments with sighted volunteers to help them with visual tasks, but even that option is out of reach for Shields, who doesn't own a smartphone.

Chris Danielsen, a spokesperson for the Federation of the Blind, said there is opportunity for innovation and collaboration with test manufacturers to improve access to their products.

As a hypothetical example, Danielsen said a tactile overlay could guide a non-sighted user where to place drops on a test strip without having to touch the strip itself.

He also said test results could possibly be indicated through a chemical interaction that produces an odor or tactile cue rather than a colored line.

"While we might have some initial ideas, there may also be innovations that have not yet been tried that would allow blind people to independently take these tests," Danielsen said.