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.”

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