March 2000 Issue  Volume 1  Number 2

Access Issues

Who's Got Mail?

Asked why the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) is suing America Online (AOL), Curtis Chong does not miss a beat. "They're big and pervasive … Everywhere it's 'get free AOL!' And we've been getting calls from our members because [AOL's] software doesn't work with screen readers." NFB, its Massachusetts affiliate, and nine individuals took their complaint about AOL to federal court in Boston last November, alleging that AOL, the nation's largest Internet service provider with over 20 million subscribers, is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Chong, who heads NFB's Technology Program, says the suit is really about software more than the Internet. "There needs to be a standard way for screen readers and applications to communicate with each other to allow access for the blind user," Chong says. AOL, he says, lacks the interface that would allow the screen reader to "interrogate AOL to find out what's going on."

Indeed, the suit provides details about how AOL's proprietary Internet software does not function in the standard way required for the screen access programs used by people who are visually impaired. Among other things, AOL's proprietary software is said to rely on unlabeled graphics, commands that require mouse action, custom controls "painted on the screen," and forms with missing or meaningless field labels. Because of these and other practices, AOL is accused of violating the ADA's requirements that public entities remove communications barriers and provide auxiliary aids so that individuals can enjoy the use of their products and services.

Chong expresses frustration at the inconsistency of AOL. "Sometimes prompts and buttons can be read and then all of a sudden you can't find out what's going on." Tom Wlodkowski, who works with the National Center on Accessible Media (NCAM), echoes the point, noting that AOL often creates windows that combine accessible with inaccessible elements.

Why Bother?

If several browsers and E-mail software programs give relatively good access to the Internet for users of assistive technology, why bother with AOL? First, because AOL is a large, well-established national Internet service provider, there are likely some places where it is nearly the only option for access to the Internet. Second, the service is aggressively promoted with "free AOL" offers—and free sounds good, especially for people who have not yet tried the Internet. Finally, there are a large number of proprietary services and features included with AOL, such as customized news, weather, and stock reports; AOL's instant messenger, which allows users to send and receive messages back and forth like a telephone conversation; buddy lists, which allow users to know automatically if their friends or family are on-line; and features that allow parents to block objectionable Web sites from their children. AOL also has groups and forums on a variety of topics; these are available only through AOL's proprietary software.

Where Has AOL Gone Wrong?

Is AOL truly less accessible to blind users than other service providers? AccessWorld tested AOL's features and services with several screen readers to see how usable AOL's software is.

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are the gateway to the Internet. The ISP may send a CD-ROM with software, but if the browser and E-mail programs do not work well with a particular screen reader, another package can usually be substituted.

AOL is a different matter. Users can substitute a different browser for the one it provides. So, for the most basic browsing activities, AOL is equivalent to a generic ISP. But, E-mail and other AOL-specific services, such as chat, instant messaging, and buddy lists, require the use of AOL's proprietary software. Similarly, to read information on the extensive AOL service itself, it is necessary to use AOL's proprietary software.

Tying the Screen Reader's Hands

AOL's E-mail software has a number of frequently used commands that cannot be executed except with the mouse. Although it is possible to use screen reader features to get the mouse pointer to a button and click on it, it is at best tedious and at worst impossible. The right approach is to ensure that all features and commands can be activated from the keyboard, and AOL fails this test.

AOL's E-mail software and many other features are loaded with unlabeled buttons and icons. So, even users who know how to move the mouse around a screen reader will miss the "reply" icon if it is not labeled. Again, AOL fails the basic accessibility requirement that all buttons and controls be accompanied by text labels.

Virtually all of AOL's features and functions appear in a single large window (Internet browsing is an exception). Yet, one of the chief advantages of the Windows operating system is the ability to have separate activities in separate windows. Thus, Windows-based screen readers are designed to detect one window from another so that a user can read a new dialog box or know that a new program has started, for example. However, the consequence of AOL's single window approach is that the screen reader cannot distinguish E-mail from a separate action such as a search using key words. So a screen reader cannot be configured to provide specific information about separate AOL activities. For example, screen readers treat the spell checker in Word as something different from the document window and can read the misspelled word, the word in context, and so on. In AOL, there is no practical way to have a screen reader treat E-mail separately from instant messages.

An additional problem with this one-window-fits-all approach is that the old information is not cleared from the screen when a new activity is begun. It is possible to tell most screen readers to read this large window as it changes or on demand, but if a user is reading E-mail and someone sends an instant message, that new message shows up on top of the E-mail text and graphics. Reading the entire body of the window means hearing part of your E-mail and the instant message, along with anything else left from before you started your E-mail.

Moving through the text of E-mail messages using the keyboard seems like a common feature in many E-mail programs, but AOL's E-mail program opens each message in a window with no cursor. Although AOL has added keyboard navigation, the absence of a cursor prevents the reading of a specific line or area, so it is necessary to either read the entire window, including extraneous background material, or use screen-reader navigation commands to "review" the window. The message area can be designated as a unit to be read by some screen readers, but the E-mail message does not appear in a consistent location and is not a consistent size. It is not its own self-contained active window, so it is nearly impossible to read only the current message without receiving background information.

Interacting with AOL's dialog boxes to carry out tasks such as writing E-mail or entering key words requires working with many peculiar controls. After we "reclassed" them using screen reader features designed for such a purpose, some boxes read fairly well. However, buttons could not be activated by pressing the Enter key on them. Instead, we had to use the space bar, which can be a source of constant confusion for a user switching between the AOL interface and the conventional Windows interface. The solution to this is to design programs using conventional controls in dialog boxes.

We also found that AOL's discussion forums, or chat groups, are largely inaccessible to people using screen readers We looked at the "Chess" forum, but clicking on every part of the window resulted in sketchy information, which was mostly unlabeled, and undifferentiated graphics. We tried AOL's "key word" feature which, in theory, provides access to a rich variety of content. Unfortunately, beyond a small list of 10 popular key words, we were not able to view the comprehensive list of words. AOL is loaded with special content and features that may be valuable. Unfortunately, screen reader users will miss out on most of it.

What is AOL Doing to Fix the Problem?

Even before the suit was filed, AOL was apparently reaching out for help. Last April staff from the American Foundation for the Blind met briefly with representatives of AOL. (AOL had seen the article published in the August 1998 Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness citing many access problems with AOL.) Last May, AOL contacted NCAM. By then, according to Larry Goldberg, NCAM's executive director. "They were fully aware that many if not all of their services were inaccessible to blind and visually impaired computer users who use screen readers." "They asked for an analysis of their existing software along with their next release," he adds.

According to AOL's point person on accessibility, Michele Cavataio, "The next version of our software will be accompanied by specific announcements about accessibility improvements." Beyond mentioning standardizing keyboard controls and providing text labels, she gave few details about those improvements, but did say that the guidelines established by the World Wide Web's Web Accessibility Initiative formed the basis of much of their access efforts. NCAM's Tom Wlodkowski says that the blueprint for the next version looks good, but he hastens to add that NCAM has not yet seen a beta copy of the software.

Much of the problem with AOL's software is a legacy of the code it uses to develop its content. According to Wlodkowski, the proprietary software language known as "Rainman," does not allow the use of common keyboard navigation approaches such as Tabbing among links, nor does it allow for the creation of text labels for icons and controls. The good news is that AOL is apparently moving more toward HTML (the language of the Web), which is far easier for screen readers to access. However, the service has hundreds of thousands of pages of content in Rainman.

AOL may be working with some screen reader developers. Both GW Micro (producers of Window-Eyes) and Henter-Joyce (producers of JAWS for Windows) confirmed that they are talking with AOL, but provided no details on the discussions. Neither Ted Henter, president of Henter-Joyce, nor Doug Geoffray, vice president for Product Development at GW Micro, sounded optimistic. "It will be difficult to create the kind of accessibility that we have come to expect," Henter says "The type of information that a screen reader needs just isn't there," he added. Geoffray says, "Although it is a bit early in the development stages, unfortunately, no real progress has been made yet, at least as far as I know."

When asked if access to E-mail and Web browsing with AOL would be a sufficient start, Curtis Chong responds, "That's not the issue. We need to be able to use proprietary services only available through their front-end software, shopping channels, news, and parental control. I think they've got to do a lot more than just E-mail and the Web."

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