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From Gere to Eternal Waiting: Why is sight-impairment still a health hazard at the pharmacy counter, well into the 21st century?

The leaps and gains of technology, according to the now-50-year-old Moore’s Law, are the result of the doubling of computer-processing power every two years since the invention of the transistor. It’s predicted the law will likely still keep that pace up for another decade, and inevitably will take us much deeper down the rabbit hole before it becomes obsolete. We know very well that technology, with its innumerable and awe-inspiring applications incurred largely by this law, has made an incalculable difference in the lives of people with disabilities. However, technology is not yet at the forefront when a sight-impaired person approaches large and well-known pharmacies to fill a prescription in 21st-century Canada.

The sorry secret about the pharmacy industry is that not all prescriptions are fulfilled equitably when there is a customer with vision loss at the counter. Simply and obviously put, sight-impaired people cannot access what most people can. If you have enough sight, you can see, at your convenience, the medication information supplied on a package and/or bottle. If you have multiple prescriptions, multiple instructions, multiple precautions, multiple timeframes – well, suddenly things are getting complicated quickly and the pressure to safely ingest your dosages increases accordingly – but you’re ahead of the curve because you can see and read up on the medication information should you simply forget or get confused, which is what happens to all of us in our life and health management.

The cold hard truth is that when left to rely upon memory for exact treatment details at precisely the right time, sight-impaired people are much more vulnerable to an increased health risk and greatly-reduced independent living status – or even drug-related death.

Consequently, there are questions.

Why, then, has equitable access to prescription medication information in a high-tech world been such a distasteful remedy for corporately-owned pharmacies?

What, exactly, is the best technologically innovative route to accessible prescription medication information, ultimately redirecting sight-impaired people towards another milestone of healthy, independent living?

Who will be the leading corporation to rectify the real human damage inflicted to this day upon a growing contingent of their valued customers, to the professionalism of the pharmacy industry itself, and to our already over-burdened healthcare system as a whole?

Towards the end of this year, there will likely be good and final answers to these questions courtesy of the two human rights complaints still underway (since June 2014) for accessible prescription medication information at both Walmart and Shoppers Drug Mart in BC. These complaints were brought to the table by Access for Sight-Impaired Consumers (ASIC), a BC-based organization whose work has been impactful throughout the province since 1998. Successes include access to independent electoral voting for people with disabilities, way-finding street identification, descriptive narration in Famous Players/Cineplex theatres, and much more. Some of ASIC’s work has also benefitted sighted people, such as automated bus stop announcements and the ALRT tactile platform edging for safety on subway platforms.

Through these pending complaints, ASIC has proposed to both Walmart and Shoppers Drug Mart the use of the now-proven, US-developed ScripTalk as the most acceptable and innovative option for meeting the basic requirements of human rights for sight-impaired consumers of prescription medication information.

Let’s back up one step and see if you can picture this, knowing that people living with vision loss must make mental imagery for everything everywhere, all the time. Nearly 90 years old, Martha (name changed to protect identity), an increasingly frail woman with eight concurrent medications for ailments apart from her contention with beyond-legal-status blindness. This BC resident is everyone’s mother, grandmother, aunt, sister, friend, neighbour. Independence at this age, within her long-time neighbourhood, is one of the last precious aspects of living well that she has.

In a recently-signed affidavit for one of the complaints, Martha outlines a decade-long perspective of a consumer struggling to be granted accessible medication information by her local Shoppers Drug Mart, resulting in a stunning contrast to the affidavit offered in the same case by Shoppers’ head office. Shoppers claims not only a previous availability of accessible medication information in their stores across BC, but also a province-wide implementation of ScripTalk for chronic (repeat) and acute (immediate) medications, beginning in early 2015.

According to Shoppers’ affidavit: “On March 18, 2015, an email was sent to all Associates…informing Associates of the availability of ScripTalk technology for use by a pharmacist to service…[the] prescription needs of the store’s customers.”

There is a distinctly different experience laid out in Martha’s affidavit: “I asked the pharmacist whether I could get digital labels made for my eight regular prescriptions…. She [the pharmacist] didn’t understand what I was talking about, so I referred to a ‘gadget’ that I had seen demonstrated. The pharmacist said they did not have anything like that.”

Even Martha’s long-term relationship with her local Shoppers’ pharmacists had no weight in her appeal for help. All avenues to accessible medical information were apparently closed here, although she knew from the sight-impaired community that it was objectively not true.

This human rights complaint is one of the reasons why ASIC exists, and this is why they beat the drum on behalf of consumers in BC who are sight-impaired, and for those who may become so here. Although it’s a far cry from having 20/20 vision and a prescription filled within the hour, the Shoppers-proposed 48-hour delivery timeframe for prescription fulfillment including a ScripTalk encoded label will seem nothing short of sublime to BC’s 64,500 sight-impaired residents, and to the 727,000 more who currently live with one of the four major eye diseases that could potentially lead to blindness.

Meanwhile, Martha is but one of the British Columbians who has been put at risk much longer than is humanly expected, while corporate pharmacies have conveniently been turning their backs to the sight-impaired person standing at their counter. The words in Martha’s affidavit will ring loudly and true for everyone with a disability: “It is very important for me to be as independent as I can in light of my disabilities….even more important as I age.…very important for my mental and physical health.”

Could this be a proverbial case of profit over people? If it is, it’s so last millennium.

This article was also submitted to Disability Alliance BC’s Transition magazine for upcoming publication in December 2015.