RealTime IT News

AOL Settles Discrimination Complaint

The National Federation of the Blind withdrew its November 1999 complaint against America Online Inc. on the condition the online giant make improvements in its software.

As part of the deal, AOL is obliged to add compatibility for screen reading software into AOL 6.0. Currently America Online's signup software runs on its own dial-up networking platform, which doesn't allow blind Internet users installing the software to read a Web page's content.

Curtis Chong, NFB director of technology, said AOL was the only Internet service provider the organization filed a complaint against.

"The main reason we picked AOL was because of the nature of their software," Chong said. "As long as people use Windows dial-up networking, the screen reader software can be used. We use EarthLink Inc. , we use Juno Online Inc. we use the MSN Internet , but we couldn't use America Online. AOL is set up such that its dial-up client won't let anything access it."

According to the agreement announced Wednesday, AOL will continue its efforts to ensure that AOL 6.0 is compatible with screen reader assisting technology, which makes it accessible to users that are blind or have impaired vision.

AOL plans to release the new version this fall. Setting up compatibility with screen reader software should not pose a major inconvenience or delay in shipping AOL 6.0, Chong said.

Barry Schuler, AOL Interactive Services Group president, said the ISP is committed to changing its signup software and Web content to meet the needs of all its customers.

"We are committed to meeting the specialized needs of AOL's increasingly diverse membership," Schuler said. "Executing our existing plans for integrating screen reader and other technologies for our disabled members is a part of that commitment."

"We are pleased to have had the opportunity to detail our accessibility plans to the NFB and appreciate the insight and support we received from them, and other organizations, in crafting our new accessibility policy," Schuler added."We look forward to continuing our dialogue with the disabled community, and with anyone else who is dedicated to making this new medium accessible to all consumers."

Daniel Goldstein, partner at Brown, Goldstein and Levy, LLT, and lead lawyer in the NFB's complaint against AOL, said his clients are committed to keeping the issue out of court.

"In the agreement, we retain the right to renew our claim if AOL doesn't hold up to their side of the agreement, but I don't see that happening," Goldstein said. "There can always be technological glitches when dealing with software, and we will work closely with AOL to reach an agreement."

Goldstein said the agreement is a wake-up call for other ISPs that are not doing their best to incorporate accessibility functions into their Web businesses.

"We think that most ISPs were aware of the complaint, and hope they will take note," Goldstein said.