The Braille Monitor                                                                                       May 2003

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America Online: Is It Accessible Now?
by Curtis Chong

Curtis Chong
Curtis Chong

From the Editor: For some years Curtis Chong directed the NFB's technology department. Since last fall he has been the director of field operations and access technology at the Iowa Department for the Blind. He still serves as president of the NFB in Computer Science, a division of the National Federation of the Blind. He continues to represent the NFB in our relationship with America Online. Here is his report on recent developments with AOL:

Many people will remember the lawsuit filed by the National Federation of the Blind against America Online (AOL) on November 4, 1999. On that day and in the months and years to follow, the National Federation of the Blind achieved prominence as an advocate for the blind promoting equal access to electronic and information technology. In information technology circles the lawsuit against AOL achieved tremendous visibility for the Federation, and overnight the Federation became an organization with which the media consulted whenever issues relating to access to technology by the blind were to be reported.

It has been well over three years since we filed our suit against America Online, and it is reasonable to ask where matters stand today. Has AOL as a company really gotten the message that, to the blind, access to its software is an important issue? Does AOL engage in meaningful discussions with the blind community--in particular with representatives of the blind? Is accessibility a significant consideration during AOL's product development cycle? Finally, is AOL 8.0 (the version that is being touted today) accessible to blind people running screen-access software?

First I should say that we are no longer suing AOL. Once we were persuaded that AOL had gotten the message (this was during the spring of 2000), we agreed to withdraw the suit to give the company enough time to get its accessibility act together. While we reserved the right to file suit against the company after a year if the National Federation of the Blind determined that AOL was dragging its feet, we felt that we had more to gain through cooperation and meaningful discussion than litigation.

Since 1999 AOL has adopted a corporate policy on accessibility, formed an Accessibility Advisory Committee (which meets regularly and on which the National Federation of the Blind is represented), hired a blind person to direct its accessibility efforts, formalized its relationship with leading vendors of screen-access software for the blind, and released three versions of the AOL client software that have demonstrated steady improvement in compatibility with screen-access technology. The company has also recognized that its audio-based service, AOLByPhone, might have some special appeal to the blind and has begun offering this service at a discount to its blind members.

AOL's Accessibility Policy

America Online has published a policy on accessibility, which is posted on its Web site at <www.corp.aol.com/access_policy.html>. The National Federation of the Blind insisted on creation of this policy before we would even begin discussing withdrawing our suit. While the more cynical among us might characterize the policy as so much window dressing, the fact is that it does exist and in a formal way places AOL on record as a company that has committed itself to make the products it sells accessible to everyone. The first paragraph of the policy summarizes the company's position as follows:

America Online is continuing to lead efforts around the globe to make the Internet a medium that improves people's lives. At AOL we value our members and strive to provide them with the highest quality, easiest, and most convenient services and products. We also believe that the Internet and AOL should be friendly and easy to use for all consumers, including those with disabilities. In that spirit we have developed the America Online Accessibility Policy, which expresses our commitment to the development of products and services that are accessible to all users, including those with disabilities.

Any blind person who has used the AOL client software would hardly characterize it as "easy to use." Generally a blind person using the AOL client has to find work-arounds in order to get at basic information and services, but at least the work-arounds do exist, and the company is putting itself on record, through its accessibility policy, as wanting to make its software easy to use for everyone, "including those with disabilities." No one would disagree that more work is needed to make the AOL experience as easy to use for the blind as it appears to be for the sighted. The accessibility policy formalizes the company's commitment to this effort and is therefore a good beginning.

AOL's Accessibility Advisory Committee

AOL created its Accessibility Advisory Committee in the spring of 2001. The committee's membership is designed to reflect a cross-disability perspective. Some of the organizations represented on the committee include the National Federation of the Blind, the National Association of the Deaf, the American Association of People with Disabilities, and the American Association of Retired Persons.

The deliberations of the committee tend to center on three groups: the blind, the deaf, and people with cognitive disabilities. Not surprisingly, issues pertaining to nonvisual access seem to occupy a good portion of the committee's attention.

According to AOL, the mission of its Accessibility Advisory Committee is to advise the company on the accessibility (to people with disabilities) of its products to ensure that they are convenient and easy to use for everyone. The meetings I have attended have been fairly candid, and the committee has provided AOL with some valuable advice as well as spurring the company on to even greater efforts to achieve full access to its software. All committee members have signed nondisclosure agreements, and this makes it possible for AOL to share information about future plans that it has not yet decided to make public.

I sit on the committee as a representative of the National Federation of the Blind. I leave each meeting with mixed feelings. While I am encouraged by the steady progress that AOL has made to make its Windows client more accessible to the blind, I am often frustrated that nonvisual access is not more pervasive within the company. For example, AOL TV (a way to provide access to AOL through a set top box connected to your television set) is of no interest to me because as a blind person I can't use it. The AOL Mobile Communicator, which allows people to exchange "instant messages" wirelessly, is likewise not accessible to me; yet it is tremendously popular among deaf people. What AOL seems to have decided with respect to the blind is to focus on two principal product lines: its client software for Windows and AOLByPhone.

Overall the AOL Accessibility Advisory Committee seems to have resulted in a net gain for the blind. We learn about and have a chance to comment on AOL's future plans, and AOL gets to hear some pretty frank commentary from the blind community.

AOL's Director of Accessibility

AOL's Director of Accessibility is Tom Wlodkowski, who is blind. Wlodkowski joined AOL in the summer of 2002. Prior to that he worked at the National Center for Accessible Media of WGBH (of descriptive video fame). I believe Tom Wlodkowski to be both bright and competent. He is also knowledgeable about nonvisual access technology. In our many long and fruitful discussions, he has frequently talked about the importance of AOL and screen-access vendors meeting each other halfway--something which both of us agree must happen if full nonvisual access is to be achieved. We have not always agreed about everything, but we do talk with each other--often quite frankly.

Wlodkowski has some pretty good support within the AOL corporate hierarchy; the accessibility team is placed organizationally within the company's Integrity Assurance area, which is central to everything that goes on at AOL. Accessibility can be tied to integrity, and enforcement is easier to achieve as the need for accessibility competes for attention with other corporate priorities.

Formal Relationships with Screen Access Vendors

In order for nonvisual access to the AOL client to be achieved, there has to be some cooperation between the AOL client and screen-access technology. This requires AOL to exchange technical information with screen-access vendors such as Freedom Scientific and GW Micro. When AOL first began considering how to make its software more compatible with JAWS for Windows, it attacked the problem by modifying JAWS (through its scripting language) and then making those scripts available to AOL customers. Anyone who wanted to use AOL with JAWS was instructed to copy a set of scripts from an AOL folder on the hard drive to a JAWS folder. However, every time a new version of JAWS or AOL was released, the scripts stopped working. Something needed to be done.

AOL decided to enter into a formal relationship with key screen-access vendors. Agreements were made, information was exchanged, and release schedules better coordinated. Matters have progressed to the point where today the current version of JAWS has scripts for the AOL client built in. Moreover, if you go to the Freedom Scientific Web site, you will find a number of AOL tutorials in the Training Area. These include "How Easy It Is to Use AOL E-mail," "Using AOL Instant Messaging and the Buddy List," "Using AOL Online Services and Browsing the Web," and "How to Get an Access Phone Number and Dial into your AOL from Anywhere."

So What About AOLByPhone?

AOLByPhone is a way to take advantage of AOL services without a computer. With AOLByPhone AOL members can read e-mail; respond to e-mail with a voice message; check weather, movies, sports, or news; and use other services. It is not a replacement for the AOL client but a supplement to it. AOL members pay an additional fee to use the service.

With voice commands you tell AOLByPhone what you want to do, and e-mail is available through a high-quality synthetic speech engine. Headline news, weather, and other information are delivered using human voices. You cannot send a text e-mail message with this system.

For a limited time AOL is offering the blind a special package that provides a discount to the AOL service plus access to AOLByPhone. People who are interested in this service should call (866) 854-1025.

Finally, is the AOL client more accessible? When we filed our suit against AOL, the current version of the AOL client was 5.0. That version was pretty much inaccessible to the blind. Since that time AOL has released AOL 6.0, AOL 7.0, and AOL 8.0. Each version has worked slightly better than its predecessor in compatibility with access technology for the blind. E-mail has become easier and easier to use, and more buttons had labels which were spoken properly. One happy AOL 8.0 user proclaimed, "I just spent nearly ninety minutes doing something that I didn't think, five years ago, I would ever be doing...navigating around the AOL interface, checking e-mail, listening to AOL radio, and even downloading music!"

Over the past few years access to the AOL client has steadily improved. AOL 8.0 represents the pinnacle of that improvement. With the AOL client e-mail and Instant Messaging are both possible, and while one can always find something that doesn't work in the AOL client, the important services do work, and people within AOL are devoted to improving the situation even more.

Is this access good enough to cause thousands of blind people to abandon their current Internet service providers? No one can really say. However, over the past few years nonvisual access to the AOL client has definitely improved, and, perhaps even more important, AOL as a company has decided to make accessibility an important and highly visible corporate priority. The blind have already begun reaping the benefits.

Response from America Online

To further the spirit of cooperation between America Online and the National Federation of the Blind, I offered to provide Tom Wlodkowski, AOL's director of accessibility, an opportunity to review this article. After reading the article, Wlodkowski prepared this response:

I want to thank Curtis Chong and the Braille Monitor for providing this comprehensive status report on AOL's efforts to improve usability of the AOL software by the blind. Accessibility is a significant company priority at America Online, and we are excited about the progress we have made in recent years. The National Federation of the Blind has played an integral role in our accessibility achievements to date, and we look forward to further collaboration.

One of the foundations of the AOL experience is our commitment to making the Internet friendly, easy to use, and convenient for everyone. One of the ways we've aimed to deliver this ease of use and convenience to our blind members is by ensuring that the same screen reader features and commands that make browsing the Web most efficient with Internet Explorer also work when you browse the Web with the AOL software. Screen reader users can now choose either to browse the Web by launching Internet Explorer from their desktop or to stay completely within the confines of AOL's all-in-one application.

Another exciting accessibility development is that AOL's industry-leading Parental Controls are now compatible with JAWS and Window-Eyes, making it easy for parents to take responsibility for their kids' online safety with a few simple keyboard commands. AOL's Parental Controls allow parents to control what types of Web sites their children visit, whom they can communicate with, and even how much total time they are allowed to spend online.

While significant progress has been made since 1999, we recognize that accessibility work is a continual journey, not a destination. And while our collaboration with leaders in the blind community is invaluable and the emphasis our employees place on developing accessibility solutions is essential, we can't overstate the importance of consumer feedback. We need to hear more from consumers in the blind community who have put AOL to the test. As Curtis alluded to earlier, one of the ways we are encouraging this participation is by extending a special welcome offer to new members who are blind or visually impaired. This package bundles the AOL service, including our flagship features such as AOL e-mail and instant messages together with AOLByPhone for $19.95 a month, which is close to a $10 savings every month. The first two months are on us. With AOLByPhone, reading and replying to your e-mail is as simple as picking up the nearest telephone. AOLByPhone also provides free access to 411 directory assistance and access to timely information including CNN Headline News, sports and weather. To sign up or to learn more, please call (866) 854-1025.

If you have additional questions or comments about accessibility efforts at America Online, please send an e-mail to <aolaccessibility@aol.com>. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Tom Wlodkowski
Director of Accessibility
America Online

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