America Online: Stonewalling Responsibility and Ignoring Access for the Blind

by Richard Ring

From the Editor: Richard Ring is the Supervisor of the NFB's International Braille and Technology Center in Baltimore.

The first time I had the opportunity to speak to the U.S./ Canada Conference on Technology, I had the dubious honor of following Dr. Kurzweil. Now I have the honor of being the first speaker after a good lunch.

Access to the world of personal computers is one of the most important issues facing blind consumers and professionals alike. When we look back on the state of accessibility that existed at the time of the Third U.S/Canada Conference on Technology for the Blind, which was held at the National Center for the Blind in November of 1996, we can see that we have come quite a distance. Many of the breakthroughs in accessibility can be attributed to the work of those of you attending this conference.

Screen-access programs that allow blind people access to the Windows operating system have improved dramatically during the past three years. Many of these programs provide support not only for speech synthesizers (both hardware and software) but for refreshable Braille displays as well. Many Windows applications now function reasonably well with the latest versions of screen- access programs. Though there are many barriers still to be overcome, access to most off-the-shelf software appears to be achievable in the foreseeable future.

Two of the most frequently asked questions at the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind are "How do I get online?" and "How do I use the Internet?" The Internet dominates our world today as few things ever have. One cannot open a newspaper or magazine, listen to the radio, or watch television without being inundated with references to some aspect of the Internet. Any organization or individual of consequence has a Web site: corporations, universities, governmental agencies, and even private citizens.

The list of things we can do online is growing, it seems, faster each day. One can purchase nearly anything, apply for loans and credit cards, and obtain access to governmental services. There is no end in sight to how much commerce, entertainment, and access to information of all kinds is going to be available to those who can successfully use the Internet. It is not surprising, therefore, that more and more people are getting online every day, and while it might be argued that a relatively small percentage of the population is currently using the Internet, that percentage is growing at a remarkable rate.

Blind people are no exception. We want access to the Internet as much as anyone else. Because of improvements made to screen reading programs and a little cooperation from commercial software developers, this access is becoming easier to accomplish. These improvements have made the World Wide Web a far more rewarding and productive venture for the blind than it once was.

The majority of Internet service providers--those companies who provide our connection to the Internet--can be used by blind persons, chiefly because they do not force us to use a specific piece of software to obtain that access. Rather they provide a gateway to the Internet, allowing the user to choose the e-mail client, Web browser, and news reader that function best with his or her screen-access software. However, one major player on the Internet, America Online (AOL), has steadfastly refused to adopt this convention. Because of its insistence that users run proprietary AOL software, the blind have been effectively shut out of AOL and any access to the Internet they might have hoped to obtain through the AOL service.

America Online is the largest provider of Internet access in the world. It has nearly nineteen million subscribers world wide. It saturates our mailboxes with CD's offering us hours of free access. The AOL software is available in supermarkets and on the Web. AOL says that it can support as many as four million simultaneous logons. Add to this the fact that AOL has already gobbled up Compuserve and Netscape, and you begin to understand why we are discussing AOL today.

The bottom line is that the blind are barred from effective access to AOL's proprietary software; it simply doesn't work at all well with our screen reading software. It is that simple.

What makes the AOL software so difficult for the blind computer user? To answer this question, let us first examine how software that is nonvisually accessible works. First, it provides keyboard equivalents for the many commands normally executed by sighted users with the mouse. While screen-access programs for the blind contain features to move the mouse pointer from the keyboard, it is far easier and more efficient when a blind person can use keyboard shortcuts to execute various commands.

Second, nonvisually accessible software uses standard Windows controls--controls which can be detected by screen reading programs. These controls include, but are not limited to the following: pull-down menus, list boxes, edit boxes, combo boxes, radio and other push buttons, and check boxes. It is also important for text labels to be associated with these controls. For example, when you tab over a button which says "cancel," the screen reading software detects the label and says "cancel button." When you tab into an edit box where you are to enter your first name, the screen reading software sees the label "first name," and says "first name."

Another aspect of nonvisually accessible software is the use of focus to let the screen reading program know where the user's attention should be directed. When a blind user invokes functions from the keyboard, it is extremely important for the focus to move as keyboard commands are executed. For example, if you use the up and down arrow keys to move through the items in a list box, it is important for the focus to move to each item on the list as it is highlighted.

Nonvisually accessible applications do not require screen- access software to be customized to deal with unknown control types or window classes. Although it is possible to configure screen reading programs to function with unfriendly or incompatible software, such tasks are usually beyond the capabilities of the average computer user.

Let us now turn our attention to the AOL software itself. We looked at two versions: AOL 4.0 and, most recently, AOL 5.0. We noticed no significant differences between these two versions. Both were equally inaccessible to the blind.

The first problem we encountered with the AOL software occurred during the sign-up and installation process. Without sighted assistance, you cannot press the button which tells AOL whether you are a new or existing user. The forms used to select a local access number and enter personal information (i.e., your name, address, and credit card number) are not compatible with screen-access software. The blind person has no way to know what information needs to be entered at any given time.

After the AOL software has dialed and established a connection with the main AOL system, the blind computer user is presented with a complex and busy screen layout. Most of the information which can be discerned easily by sight eludes detection by the screen-access program. In many cases, after you complete the logon procedure, you are presented with the welcome screen. Visually this screen resembles a complex dialogue box containing multiple pages in a window with the traditional title bar, menu bar, and toolbar. This may be the visual appearance of the screen, but internally, where it is captured by the screen- access program, it is anything but standard. This makes it difficult if not impossible for the blind user to learn anything about the choices that can be selected. After logon AOL will play a wave file which says, "Welcome," and, if unread electronic mail is pending, another wave file which says, "You've got mail!" These wave files are more gimmicky than anything else, and they certainly don't help the blind user to understand what to do next.

The majority of the controls displayed on the welcome screen are unlabeled icons. The text on the screen can be seen visually, but because a lot of it consists of bitmapped images of text, it is unavailable to the screen reading program. Accordingly, though there are many services available to a sighted user of AOL, these services are nearly impossible for a blind user to discover, let alone activate.

One problem with the AOL software that we discovered right away is that you cannot predict what screen will appear when you connect to the system. You might get the welcome screen just discussed, a screen of advertisements, or a screen which asks you to enter a search term. The point is that you cannot predict with certainty what screen will appear when you establish a connection with AOL.

On the screen of advertisements which sometimes appears, a group of buttons is displayed. You will see buttons labeled "No thanks" and "Tell me more." While it is possible to hear the names of these buttons and while you can move between them with the tab key, the behavior of the buttons is inconsistent. Sometimes you can activate a button by pressing the spacebar. At other times pressing the spacebar doesn't work. Also you cannot read the text of the advertisement without using your screen reading program's mouse movement keys to examine the screen.

Many of the available AOL services are invoked from the welcome screen. However, because of the nature of this screen, a blind user can never be certain what service he or she is selecting. There are many services: an online encyclopedia, chat rooms, headline news, shopping, sending and receiving e-mail, etc. One service is called Channels. It appears to provide the AOL user with a convenient way to browse through numerous areas of information and then to focus upon a desired information category or service. Channels is quite inaccessible to blind users. Both opening the Channels screen and selecting a desired channel require sighted assistance.

One service which would certainly be of interest to AOL users is Headline News. This service is not accessible to the blind for two reasons. First, the "Headline News" selection is very difficult to find on the screen, and, second, the news is presented using an animated news-ticker-like display, which screen-access technology cannot track.

While the majority of AOL services are largely inaccessible to the blind person using speech or Braille screen-access software, it would appear that AOL's electronic mail service is minimally usable. We discovered by accident that a few keyboard commands can be used to invoke various e-mail functions. Let me walk you through the steps necessary to send e-mail with the AOL software. First you press CTRL-M to activate the "Write Mail" function. At this point, although your screen reading program doesn't tell you this, you are in the "to:" field, where you would enter the recipient's e-mail address. You type the address and then press the Tab key to go to the next field. Again, the screen reading program doesn't tell you what the field name is, but you can infer after some exploration that you should continue pressing Tab until you hear the word "subject" spoken. You then type the subject of your note and press Tab again, at which point you guess that you are in the body of your message, where you can begin writing. If you want to send a carbon copy or a blind carbon copy, you have to hunt around the screen with your simulated mouse pointer until you find the appropriate buttons. Believe it or not, this is the most accessible of all the AOL services.

The World Wide Web can be explored using the AOL software. AOL displays what appears to be an ordinary Web page, but the screen reading program has no clue that a Web page is being displayed. The user is therefore unable to navigate the page using the Tab and Enter keys as is customary when using more accessible Web-browsing software. We learned that, once a connection has been established with AOL, you can use an ordinary more accessible Web-browsing program to surf the Web. We would like to think that this feature was deliberately included in the AOL system, but we can't be sure.

We could continue to catalog the many aspects of AOL's software which make it a difficult and frustrating experience for the blind computer user, but it is clear from what we have said thus far that AOL is not a place where the blind are currently made to feel welcome. It is also clear from some of the correspondence we have had with individuals from AOL that the company simply doesn't get it.

On October 26, 1998, almost exactly one year ago, Curtis Chong, the Director of Technology for the National Federation of the Blind, wrote a letter to Rob Jennings, who was at that time serving as AOL's Vice President of Programming and Development. In this letter Mr. Chong outlined many of the problems blind people were experiencing with the AOL software and suggested steps that AOL might take to solve the problem. The letter was cordial and informative. Although Mr. Jennings did respond to Mr. Chong's letter with a telephone call, he did not keep his promise to visit the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind shortly after the 1999 new year. In fact, we never heard from Mr. Jennings after that one phone call.

In the spring of this year we came across another letter from AOL, written in response to an inquiry about AOL's accessibility to the blind. The letter made much of the fact that AOL was testing software which could convert speech to text and vice versa. It would seem that all of the information Mr. Chong supplied to Rob Jennings was somehow lost in the AOL bureaucracy. Anyone who has been involved in technology for the blind during the past few years would know that text-to-speech and speech-to-text software already exist and that our problems with the AOL program are caused by its inconsistent and nonstandard behavior in the Windows environment--not by any lack of text-to-speech or speech-to-text technology.

In early October we heard from a highly placed AOL official who told us, "We have plenty of good news on our side, since we have been doing serious work to make AOL fully useful to the blind." This is the sum and substance of the information we have received in written form from AOL. We have no idea what the "good news" is, and we certainly have no evidence of any "serious work" being conducted by AOL. It definitely has nothing to do with the recently-released AOL Version 5 software, which is just as inaccessible to the blind as its predecessor.

How long must we wait to achieve full nonvisual access to AOL software and services? Will we see any improvements in AOL Version 6? Version 7? Will we have access in a year? Two years? Three years? The largest Internet service provider in the world should surely be able to demonstrate a better understanding of the issue and a stronger commitment to solving the problem.