The Braille Monitor                                                                                               March, 2002

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AOL Report

                                                   

From the Editor: If you have been dismayed after trying to use AOL 7.0 with speech or Braille access, you are not alone. The National Association of Blind Students listserv recently conducted a frustrated little discussion which began with a post from Brian Miller of Iowa. Curtis Chong, director of the NFB Technology Department, saw the post and answered Brian directly. Their exchange of messages provides an important update on AOL's efforts to achieve meaningful access for blind users. Here are the two messages:

January 29, 2002

 

Brian Milleer
Brian Miller

Subject: AOL 7.0

Does anyone out there use AOL 7.0? My wife and I used to use AOL 5.0, at least so far as to log on and go straight to Internet Explorer in order to do Web searches. Supposedly the 7.0 version of this program was to be beta‑tested to be blind-friendly. In fact, I remember a call for beta testers months ago on this very listserv.

Well, we loaded the off‑the‑shelf 7.0 version onto our computers, and it is even less accessible than the earlier version. We can't even figure out how to get to Internet Explorer anymore. We called customer service, and the person there could only suggest that we go into our accessories menu to enlarge the font size‑‑we are both totally blind, so this was a non‑starter. We then called the National Center to speak to our computer people. They suggested we go back to our old Web browser‑‑huh? Do I remember correctly that we dropped our lawsuit against AOL because they promised to work with us on making the newer versions accessible? What happened to this grand plan?

Any thoughts or suggestions out there?

                                                   

Brian Miller

                                                   

January 30, 2002

Curtis Chong
Curtis Chong

Dear Brian:

Your e-mail to the NABS mailing list on NFB‑NET has been brought to my attention. I agree that there is much to be frustrated about in AOL's lack of support for blind customers. Despite the best of intentions on the part of AOL's accessibility staff, it would seem that there is much yet to be done to enable the general run‑of‑the‑mill AOL help desk person to communicate in a meaningful way with an AOL customer who happens to be blind.

I want to take this opportunity to pass along the information I have about AOL 7.0 and its usability by the blind. In addition, I want you to know that I am copying this e-mail to AOL's Director of Accessibility, Debbie Fletter, in the hope that your e-mail will spur the accessibility staff to even greater efforts.

To begin with, AOL did a lot of work to improve the compatibility between its AOL 7.0 client software and screen-reading technology for the blind. The accessibility staff came up with some really nice scripts for JAWS for Windows 3.7. Unfortunately, those scripts are not part of the JAWS for Windows package from Freedom Scientific. The blind AOL customer running JAWS has to copy a number of JAWS‑specific files from the AOL folder into the appropriate Settings folder for JAWS. Of course, as you and I both know, the average blind AOL customer would never know to do this; and today neither (apparently) would anyone on the AOL Customer Support line.

If you are running an earlier version of JAWS for Windows, chances are that the AOL‑supplied scripts will not work for you, and if you are running JAWS for Windows Version 4 of any flavor, you will also experience accessibility problems until newer scripts can be made available. I do not know whether these new scripts will be made available from AOL or Freedom Scientific, but I do know that the AOL accessibility team is working on the problem even as I write this.

AOL has already taken some small steps to provide useful information to customers with disabilities. The AOL Web site has an entire section devoted to issues of accessibility. Point your browser to <www.aol.com/accessibility>. Of more immediate importance to those of us who are blind, there is a URL: <http://www.aol.com/accessibility/accessibility_help/vision/jaws_windows_eyes.html>, which contains very specific information about using AOL with JAWS or Window‑Eyes. This page tells you how to install the support for JAWS or Window‑Eyes and how to operate the AOL software from the keyboard. This is a relatively new page, and I am fairly certain that most AOL support personnel don't know anything about it. (Of course, in order to obtain this wonderful information, you need access to the Internet and the AOL client software‑‑the classic chicken-and-the-egg problem, I guess.)

With regard to running AOL and using the browser of your own choice, this should still be possible with AOL 7.0. Once you get connected to AOL, simply minimize everything by pressing the WINDOWS+M key combination and then start Internet Explorer or any other browser to go to whatever Web page you want. You may be interested to know that you can go to <www.aol.com> to read and write your AOL e-mail, read the Accessibility page, or whatever.

All you need is your AOL screen name and password. Ironically, the AOL Web site appears to be easier to use in some cases than the AOL client software‑‑at least for the blind.

Yours sincerely,

Curtis Chong, Director of Technology

National Federation of the Blind

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