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The Braille Monitor–February, 2001 Edition


AOL Progress Report

by Marc Maurer


On November 4, 1999, the NFB filed a lawsuit against America Online (AOL) demanding that AOL make its computer information service accessible to the blind. At that time AOL had nineteen million subscribers throughout the world. Its system of presenting information was fast becoming a standard to be used by the computer industry, and this de facto standard was completely unusable by the blind.

Marc Maurer
Marc Maurer

The day the lawsuit was filed, AOL representatives indicated to the press that AOL had been working hard on accessibility issues for the disabled for some time. The assertion was a brave statement, but a number of blind people were inclined to regard it primarily as a way for AOL to save face. Requests for AOL to make itself accessible to the blind had been ignored for years.

Negotiations between counsel for the National Federation of the Blind and lawyers for AOL commenced shortly after the filing of the lawsuit. In July, 2000, an agreement was reached to suspend the suit because AOL indicated that it would have accessibility provisions built into its computer information service within a few months. If the accessibility provisions were inadequate, AOL agreed to fix them. By April of 2001 they would have an accessible system, they said. If the Federation didn't think the system adequate to meet the needs of the blind, it should explain why. If the defects had not been repaired by the end of July, 2001 (one year from the suspension of lawsuit), the Federation would then be free to ask the courts to settle the matter.

Because active cooperation always achieves more than determined opposition, the Federation accepted the agreement. In addition to other things, AOL promised it would work with Federation representatives to make CompuServe and Netscape accessible as well as the primary AOL service. This is how matters stood in July of 2000.

By December AOL convened a gathering to report to the disabled on the progress it was making. Representatives from many, many groups were present along with senior personnel from AOL. The gathering occurred at the AOL installation in Northern Virginia. Representatives from the company began by showing us the real estate.

AOL operates three data centers. The building housing the one we toured contains 235,000 square feet of floor space, 90,000 of which is used for computer rooms. Altogether AOL manipulates information using 25,000 computers. The facility we toured contained a battery backup system to operate computers in case of a power failure. Four thousand lead-acid batteries, weighing 1,000 pounds apiece, can run the data center for approximately fifteen minutes. Nine diesel-powered generators provide backup to the batteries. When power to the data center is interrupted, the generators start automatically within fifteen seconds. Forty thousand gallons of diesel fuel stored on site can run the generators for two-and-a-half days.

In one sense the computers operated by AOL are similar to those used by many other entities. However, the size is greater than I had anticipated, and I found the tour impressive. Curtis Chong, on the other hand, had been employed to assist in the management of the data center for American Express. He said that American Express had data management equipment that is more extensive than AOL's. He did not say "been there, done that," but his attitude expressed the sentiment.

In the afternoon AOL presented information about its new products and its work regarding accessibility to those who had been invited to attend. AOL 6.0, the current release, can to some extent be used by the blind; and we are told that a future version of the software will be even more accessible. This indicated significant progress. However, other products are being developed by AOL that are scheduled for release in the near future which are not yet accessible.

One of the corporate vice presidents for the company indicated that work on accessibility to AOL products had been underway for two years. However, the director of product development for AOL TV (AOL will soon be providing a product, it says, which will permit subscribers to get at the AOL information system through their televisions) indicated that AOL TV had been initiated eighteen months earlier, and the accessibility provisions for AOL products had, therefore, not been included. The television service is not accessible to the blind.

An interactive telephone service is also being created. E-mail and other computer-based information can be gathered by using a touch-tone telephone. AOL anticipates providing sports and weather by phone. There is some talk about using the telephone to browse the Internet, but representatives of the company indicated that much work would need to be completed before this service would be ready for distribution to the public.

After presentations about new products on the drawing board and plans to include accessibility provisions, AOL representatives accepted a question or two from participants in the meeting. In-depth exploration could not occur, but some of the questions elicited useful information.

Where do we stand on AOL at the beginning of 2001? It is a bit early for a definitive answer. However, a number of AOL representatives have visited the National Center for the Blind, and programmers for AOL are in communication with us regularly. By the time this report appears, a meeting to discuss accessibility to CompuServe and Netscape will have occurred. Furthermore, the currently distributed version of the AOL access system is, in many respects, usable by the blind. In other words, progress is being made. A great deal of work remains, but much has been accomplished.

Is it likely that the de facto AOL standard will become a model of accessibility? Who can say? We would prefer to work in partnership with AOL to assist in bringing information to the blind. Whether we will be able to do this or not depends on the actions and attitude of AOL. However, we will do what we can to build the partnership--a partnership that offers greater accessibility to information for the blind and an additional market for AOL.

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