Part 1: You've got problems!
Sometimes, in the world of nonvisual access to computers, there is some problem
that seems like it will never be solved. Sometimes it is something small, like
certain aspects of an application not being accessible. For example, I have
found the clip art dialog in MS Office to be virtually useless to a blind computer
user without sighted assistance. Annoying? Yes. Huge, horrible problem? Not
really, in the scheme of things.
Sometimes, it feels as though you've come face to face with the technological
equivalent of Goliath. So, you take up your five stones, and your sling shot,
and prepare to do battle.
One such case for the blind community was America OnLine. Their software, up
to and including version 5, was not even remotely accessible to blind users.
This meant that blind parents couldn't access the parental controls, assuming
they were even able to log in to AOL! No one who happened to be blind could
do anything at all with the service, whatsoever.
AOL seemed oblivious to the needs of the blind computer user, even though they
were claiming, around the time Version 5 of the AOL software came out, that
they were working to solve the issue. It was, however, obvious, even one year
earlier, that AOL just didn't care about the issue. According to Richard Ring
in the article "America Online: Stonewalling Responsibility and Ignoring
Access for the Blind" in the January, 2000 "Braille Monitor",
which you can read at this link:
The National Federation of the
Blind tried to make some head way
"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."
It took another year, but the NFB finally reached the end of its rope. On Thursday,
November 4, 1999, the NFB sued AOL. You can read what the Braille Monitor had
to say about it the next month (December) of 1999 at this link:
It wasn't long, thereafter, that AOL decided to settle out of court. In July,
2000, AOL and the NFB reached an agreement suspending the suit. AOL was preparing
to fix the problems, and if, by July 2001, the NFB didn't like the changes,
they could go back to court.
As a result, among other things, AOL released a set of policies regarding accessibility:
And in February, 2001, right after the release of version 6 of AOL's software,
the President of the NFB published an "AOL Progress Report"
Version 6 was, indeed, a massive improvement, but it had enough bugs and quirks
that the accessibility of the software had a long way to go.
Well, two versions later, AOL has indeed, come a long way. Over the next few
months, I want to discuss various aspects of the AOL service, how accessible
(or inaccessible) they are, and what can be done to improve the overall AOL
experience for the blind user.
The sign-on window isn't perfect, but it's workable. Your screen name should
appear in a combo box type of list. Tabbing through the various controls in
this window, doesn't immediately seem to reveal where the password is entered.
If you can't figure this out, and I know it is annoying, just click OK when
you've selected your screen name, and you may well get an invalid password
dialog that asks you to re-enter your password. Go ahead and do so at this point.
If you're lucky, and the technological gods are smiling, you'll actually get
signed on without this dialog.
Once you are signed on, you are confronted with a rather complex dialog window
with a myriad of choices. If you have patience, curiosity, and a good subscription
plan (such as the unlimited plan), I suggest just tabbing around. If, however,
time is of the essence, I suggest you consult the help files for your screen
reader. I know that, in my case, the help file for AOL with JAWS 4.5 has all
the necessary keystrokes (such as Ctrl/K for a keyword search, Ctrl/W
for getting to the URL window, etc.) that you (a keyboard user) can use to more
easily access the areas you want.
Signing off is simple, and (as in so many cases) there's more than one way
to do it. The quickest way is to close the program with the standard Alt/F4
close application keystroke. However, you can also press Alt/O
to open a drop down menu with the alternate choice of changing screen names.
So, there you have the basics, and some history to go along with it. If I were
writing an open letter to the powers that be at AOL, I would start it by saying
"You've come a long way, baby."
Next month: Staying in touch using America OnLine; e-mail, chatting,
message boards, etc. Reach out and touch someone, or try to, anyway.