Medical devices are inaccessible to many blind patients. Can new laws change that?

What’s the last medical device you used? Odds are—whether it was a blood pressure monitor or an insulin pump—it had a screen.

Many of today’s newest medical devices boast sleek designs, often with user-friendly screens. But how user-friendly those screens truly are depends on who you ask. 

In the U.S., blind patients who need to use these kinds of medical devices are often out of luck. Agencies like the FDA don’t currently require manufacturers to make devices accessible to the visually impaired.
But now, accessibility advocates are hopeful about a new bill before the U.S. Congress. If passed, the potential law would mandate the FDA to develop rules regulating higher visual accessibility standards for medical devices.

Illustration by Mary Delaney
Illustration by Mary Delaney

Medtech for visually impaired people

You may be wondering: How could there be such an oversight? Why would developers and the government be able to leave so many patients without usable devices?

These questions become especially pertinent when it comes to some of the most common personal medical devices: insulin pumps and glucose monitors. After all, diabetes is a leading cause of vision loss.

The answers come down to regulatory norms in our industry.

Digital home devices—like glucose monitors—are in a bit of an accessibility no-man’s land. No agency is in charge of mandating accessibility standards for this category of devices. Asking lawmakers to address this gap has been the years-long focus of advocates from the National Federation of the Blind (NFB).

“Blind people cannot independently and safely manage our lives through the technology that’s available in home medical devices,” said NFB advocate Katie Keim, who is also a blind patient with Type 1 diabetes. 

Without accessibility updates to the latest devices, blind patients are left with two options:

  1. Use older devices with tactile buttons—which may be less effective or harder to troubleshoot
  2. Rely on caretakers to operate devices for them—forcing them to give up a level of independence

For Keim, this reality causes many unnecessary complications in her life. Though she loves exercising outdoors, she needs to rely on a friend to put her insulin pump in “exercise mode.” When she was once traveling alone, she needed to ask a hotel clerk to update her pump’s time zone to not risk disrupting her dosing schedule.

If visually-impaired patients don’t make these compromises, the consequences can be dire—like fatally misreading a prompt on a device screen.

“It’s not just that the situation is inconvenient for blind people and low-vision people,” said NFB spokesperson Chris Danielsen. “It is actually very dangerous.” 

Thanks to the work of NFB advocates, the visual accessibility bill has garnered bipartisan support in Congress, though it still lacks the necessary momentum to be passed anytime soon.

“I’m hopeful that as we see bills that have a focus on health care come forward, I hope even this spring that we might be able to fold this one into it,” said Senator Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), who introduced the bill to the Senate alongside Senator Mike Braun (R-Ind.).

Visual accessibility standards in medtech and around the world

The U.S. isn’t the only nation where accessibility standards leave visually-impaired medical device users with less-than-ideal options.

In Europe, the European Accessibility Act (EEA) is standardizing accessibility requirements across the European nations for a variety of settings and devices, starting in 2025. Yet, medical devices are not covered.

In Canada, CNIB is an advocacy organization fighting for visually-impaired Canadians to have better access to medical devices like insulin pumps, with regulation slow to respond.

Without formal regulation, advocates like those from NFB and CNIB have turned to individual companies, asking them to implement visual accessibility features in their products. However, many companies have turned them down, claiming there is not enough demand for accessible devices to justify production. 

We hope that these accessibility advocates will garner more support in our industry and amongst world governments. All patients deserve access to lifesaving devices—without the need to compromise.

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