Advocates say Ontario's enhanced COVID-19 vaccine certificate system is not accessible for marginalized groups.
The new system, announced on Friday, assumes people have smartphones, computers, printers, internet access, a data plan and the ability to navigate the provincial website, the advocates told CBC News on Saturday.
According to representatives of three organizations, the Ontario government failed to consider the needs of people with disabilities, including those who are cognitively impaired, have mobility issues or are legally blind, as well as seniors on a fixed income, low-income people and unhoused people.
David Lepofsky, chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance, said the government didn't properly test its enhanced system to ensure it met accessibility requirements. Lepofsky, who is completely blind, is a visiting professor at the Osgoode Hall Law School. The alliance is a disability consumer advocacy group.
"Yet again, unfortunately, the Ford government has shown that accessibility for people with disabilities, during COVID and more generally, is just not a priority for them," Lepofsky said on Saturday.
Lepofsky said he found the announcement, website and news release all to be confusing because he thought there would an app for individuals that people could load onto their phones that would show their COVID-19 vaccine certificates. However, the app, Verify Ontario, turns out to be for businesses.
The app for businesses also doesn't accommodate the need for medical exemptions, he added.
Then, when Lepofsky began to fill out the fields required on the provincial COVID-19 vaccination portal, he found he had to ask his wife to read the number on the back of his green health card. She had to use a magnifying glass because the colour contrast is not good and the print is smaller on the back than on the front, he said.
Lepofsky said making provincial public health requirements, such as vaccine certificates, accessible is not difficult, but there has to be a commitment to doing so.
"Ultimately, there is a failure to take into account the needs of people who are not smartphone-owning, internet-connected, tech-savvy, sighted, not disabled people," he said.
"It just creates a two-class society," he added. "There are people with various disabilities who live independently and want to live independently, and they deserve the same access that people without disabilities are being given."
Ford announced new enhanced system on Friday
On Friday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced that Ontarians who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 can start downloading new QR codes this week, which officials say will allow for faster entry into settings that require proof of vaccination.
The enhanced system officially takes effect Oct. 22, but Ontarians can get their new scannable vaccine certificates before then, and businesses can already start using a new app to scan those codes.
On Friday, residents whose birthdays fall between January and April were able to download the enhanced vaccination certificate through the province's COVID-19 website. On Saturday, those born between May and August could download it, while on Sunday, those born between September and December will have their chance.
Seniors face obstacles to download certificates, group says
Elizabeth Macnab, executive director of the Ontario Society of Senior Citizens Organizations, said the government should have consulted with seniors advocacy groups and the provincial Ministry of Seniors and Accessibility before launching the enhanced vaccine certificate system.
Macnab noted that at least 20 per cent of Ontario's population is over 65, but the people who designed the software are likely in their 40, 30s or 20s. "There's a really deep divide in the understanding of technology and the intuitiveness as well, how to use it, how to access it and so on," Macnab said.
"When you are an older person, it becomes an affordability issue in terms of technology," Macnab said. "It becomes the basic necessities. The high cost of gas. I can't drive to the grocery store, can't socialize, let alone buy the technology too."
Mobility and cognitive impairment also pose challenges. "If you're a person with a mobility issue, you're in a walker and you're wandering around. Your hands are full. You've got to pull all of this stuff out. It's a lot easier for somebody without the challenges of mobility level and cognitive impairment."
Angie Peters, president and CEO of the Yonge Street Mission, said unhoused young people or young people without stable housing do not always have income, leaving them without access to technology. The process is complicated because their contact information can change constantly.
"There are periods of time where they don't have a phone, so if they had it loaded on a device, and they no longer have that device, now they don't have it and they have to get it again," Peters said.
Province says it knows access to technology is issue
Alexandra Hilkene, spokesperson for the Ontario Health Ministry, said in an email on Saturday that the government has worked to make the process accessible for all Ontarians.
"We understand that not everyone has access to technology, which is why we have worked to make vaccine certificates as accessible as possible," Hilkene said.
Those who are unable to download the certificate themselves can contact the Provincial Vaccine Contact Centre to have it mailed or emailed to them. The centre can be reached at 1-833-943-3900 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week.
She said people who do not have an Ontario health card can contact their public health unit to have their identity verified and get a COVID ID, which is a unique number assigned by a public health unit for the purpose of obtaining a copy of a vaccine certificate.
The province says people can print a copy of their enhanced vaccine certificate by visiting a local library, going to a ServiceOntario location, or asking a trusted friend or organization.
Enhanced certificates are not mandatory and Ontarians can continue using their current vaccine receipt if they wish.