A woman's hands reading braille.

Armed with Accessibility: How CDC Foundation
and Georgia Tech Plan to Battle COVID

Armed with Accessibility: How CDC Foundation
and Georgia Tech Plan to Battle COVID

More than 61 million Americans navigate life with a disability, and to abide by health and public safety orders during a pandemic, they require adequate access and support at home, work, school, their community, and while traveling. To that end, the CDC Foundation awarded a contract to the Center for Inclusive Design and Innovation (CIDI) at Georgia Institute of Technology to help assess, develop, and produce accessible emergency materials in response to COVID-19.

“A disproportionate number of people being affected and dying of COVID-19 are people with disabilities,” says Liz Persaud of Georgia Tech’s CIDI and co-principal investigator on the project, who also lives with a physical disability.

As an avid assistive technology user, Liz relies on the power of technology and accessibility to accomplish her work, including overseeing training, education and dissemination of materials and resources with the CDC Foundation project. “I know of a number of people with disabilities who have been affected by COVID-19, and part of it is not being able to get the message out about safety precautions and personal protective equipment (PPE), especially in an accessible manner. There’s a huge population of people that are already marginalized, missing out and we can do better.”

CIDI will develop accessible content for the CDC Foundation in a wide range of alternate formats, including braille and tactile documents, accessibility of websites and applications, closed captioning of videos, and the use of plain language for individuals with low literacy skills due to a number of factors.

“Like so many groups, the COVID-19 pandemic is creating dangers and hardships on people living with disabilities,” said Judy Monroe, MD, president and CEO of the CDC Foundation. “To help address some of the challenges being faced by people in this community, we are pleased to support the work of the team at CIDI and their partners working to create accessible emergency materials. Importantly, we believe this project can inform serving this community during future public health threats as well.”

A blind man using a cane to navigate independently.
Photo: Center for Inclusive Design & Innovation (CIDI)
Danny Housley, Tools For Life AT Acquisition Manager.

Living through a pandemic with a disability comes with other unique challenges like a lack of access to materials, relying on touch and human contact, additional and pre-existing health concerns, and a dependency on public transportation. The CDC Foundation, in partnership with Georgia Tech’s CIDI, aims to help alleviate as many barriers as possible through accessible distribution of emergency safety information and education. Distribution plans include to libraries across the country in partnership with the National Federation of the Blind among others.

As an individual who is blind, Danny Housley, the Assistive Technology Acquisition Manager at CIDI, says “I touch everything. If I’m walking down a hallway, I’m running my hand along the wall to orient myself.

“Even if I’m using my cane, I still feel for what’s around me. When I’m grocery shopping, I am feeling for the shelf and touching displays. I have to be mindful of not touching things.”

Housley is closely connected to Atlanta’s blind community and often discusses with them the daily challenges of the pandemic. For example, Housley has stopped taking public transportation since he can’t confirm that those around him are following health guidelines. Housley and many of his peers remain isolated, dependent on assistive technology to safely access what they need during the pandemic.

John Rempel, a co-principal investigator and the User Experience and Digital Accessibility manager at CIDI, will lead usability testing for this CDC Foundation to ensure the deliverables are accessible. Better usability and accessibility improves the experience of individuals with disabilities when accessing essential content related to COVID-19. “Creating a more accessible and usable experience with disability testing provides greater access for everyone.” Rempel says.

A woman with a physical disability, at work.
Photo: Center for Inclusive Design & Innovation (CIDI)
Liz Persaud, co-principal investigator on the project.

‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ is the motto often used by Carolyn Phillips, the principal investigator of the project and Director of Services for CIDI, to drive home the idea that to develop tools for individuals with disabilities, individuals with disabilities are critical to the conversation.

Many people living with disabilities depend on assistive technologies such as smartphones or smart devices such as interactive speakers and specialized software solutions to access information. In order to ensure successful access, the correct assistive technology tools and content need to be made accessible. In conjunction with CIDI and Georgia Tech, the CDC Foundation is taking every step to ensure that the information provided is accessible to as many people as possible.

Sheryl Ballenger, Ph.D., a contributor to the project and manager of Captioning and Described Media for CIDI, specializes in accessibility for people who are a part of the deaf and hard of hearing community.

Ballenger explained that providing information correctly in the various communication modes is necessary to reach a majority of people. "Information related to COVID-19 is essential, and we are very pleased to work with the CDC Foundation in providing multiple means of delivering required information to the public. Public health and safety information saves lives. This is important work and we plan to ensure information is accessible to the people in the deaf and hard of hearing community. Information in print will also be provided in plain language, information on videos will include accurate captions and the addition of American Sign Language - this is all critical for access." Ballenger says.

“COVID-19 is the crisis we are facing right now, but there are natural disasters and disease-related processes that people are going through all the time,” Phillips says. “A key component to this collaboration is building capacity and knowledge transfer, which is going to be transformational for the way the CDC communicates with everybody.”

Through this contract with the CDC Foundation, CIDI will be making a meaningful difference for individuals with disabilities and provide the framework that will be used to distribute the information. Phillips says “ensuring that everyone is able to access this vital information is an important step for public safety. We are honored and thrilled to be working with the CDC Foundation, and to have the opportunity to leverage the excellent work of the CDC Foundation to exponentially educate individuals with disabilities about COVID-19, and the strategies to help everyone stay healthy as we collectively navigate through this crisis.”

Editor's Note: Since launching this joint project with the CDC Foundation, media and content have earned more than 1.2 million views on Youtube, over 52,000 views and downloads of accessible content, mailed over 82,000 embossed braille pages across the U.S., and hosted 12 webinars with over 10,000 registrants.

Danny Housley is now working with the Shepherd Spinal Center and continues to collaborate with the Tools for Life team.


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