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Blind Federation Demands Equal Access to AOL

The National Federation of the Blind is suing America Online Inc. in federal court accusing the online giant of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In the lawsuit, the federation alleges that America Online (AOL) is violating the Disabilities Act because their software is incompatible with programs that convert text to audio or Braille.

The Americans with Disabilities Act is a federal civil rights law enacted in 1990 that grants individuals with disabilities the same protection provided to Americans on the basis of race, color, gender, national origin, age, and religion.

The law guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in state and local government services, public accommodations, employment, transportation, and telecommunications.

Dr. Marc Maurer, NFB president, said blind people rely on computers and Internet access the same way non-disabled people do through screen access software adaptations.

"Blind people can and do make extensive use of computer programs, including commercial applications, by using screen access software," Maurer said.

For screen access to work effectively the commercial software must provide text labels for all graphics, permit keyboard access to all functions, move the focus whenever the keyboard is used, and use standard Windows controls.

Gregg Vanderheiden, University of Wisconsin-Madison Trace Research and Development Center and co-editor of w3C's Content Accessibility Guidelines is a specialist on Web content access.

Vanderheiden said the Web sites should be designed in a manner that makes the content accessible to everyone not because it's the right thing to do, but because proper Web design would also enable the site to support mobile devices.

"To do these things we need to be able to access a page in a way other than a 640 by 480 or larger graphic screen," Vanderheiden said. "Design your page so that it will transform gracefully across different viewers or user agents."

Vanderheiden added that proper Web site design makes the information accessible no matter what device is used, whether it be a computer with a big screen or a small screen, a hand-held devise or viewed through a voice browser.

Vanderheiden said that not everyone has to redesign their personal web sites to permit universal access, but that businesses need to provide nondiscriminatory access to all people.

"If you are doing a business you can not discriminate again certain sections of society by creating a site which is not usable to all people," he said. "If you do, you are disenfranchising those people, everybody but them can use your site."

AOL service users are required to run proprietary AOL software that employs unlabeled graphics, commands that can be activated only by using a mouse, and custom controls painted on the computer screen, making it inaccessible to the blind.

Dr. Maurer said technology already exists to redesign AOL's Internet service to permit accessibility by the blind and there should be no further delay to offering them equal access to AOL.

"Screen access programs cannot read an unlabeled graphic, cannot provide an effective way to manipulate a mouse pointer, and cannot read or activate non-standard custom controls that are painted on the screen," Maurer explained. "As a result blind people are effectively precluded from using the America Online Internet service."

Curtis Chong, NFB director of technology, noted that the technology to redesign the AOL Internet service in order to permit accessibility by the blind already exists.

"The technology is available, and using it would neither fundamentally alter the nature of the AOL service, nor cause any undue financial burden to AOL," Chong said.

"Despite our best efforts, though, AOL has steadfastly refused to modify its software in order to ensure compatibility with screen access technology for the blind."

As a result of AOL's failure to redesign its Internet service, the suit charges the Internet provider with violating the ADA's auxiliary aids and services mandate.

The NFB suit also charges the AOL service with violating the ADA's "reasonable modification" and "full and equal enjoyment" mandates for the company's failure to make its services fully accessible and independently usable by individuals who are blind.

Rich D'Amato, an AOL spokesman, said the online provider was disappointed by the NFB lawsuit. He added that making the Internet accessible to all disabled people is a priority for AOL.

"The next version of AOL's software, to be introduced sometime next year, will include features that will make it easier for the blind to use AOL," D'Amato said. "With that release we will also introduce a feature that allows members to receive e-mail by telephone."

D'Amato said some keystroke commands can already be utilized on AOL software and that they have a team of programmers currently working on the next release that will interface with an array of screen commands.

"We are striving to provide Internet services to all peoples with disabilities," D'Amato said. "Our Instant Messaging programming is a great system used by the deaf to communicate over the Internet. We're consistently striving to serve people with disabilities to make sure they're not forced into the digital divide."