January 2004 Issue  Volume 5  Number 1

Untangling the Web

Progress Toward Access: A Review of AOL 9.0

America Online (AOL) has long been a major player among Internet service providers (ISPs). With telephone connections across the country, it has often had a local telephone number in areas where no other ISP was available. AOL has also long had a reputation as a hostile environment for users of screen readers. Keyboard navigation was lacking, and the cluttered interface and numerous unlabeled icons meant that a person who is blind was frequently bewildered by getting into areas that were not designed for people who do not view the pictures and screen layout as a whole. Unlike most Internet providers, which represent little more than a connection to the Internet through which customers can use their various third-party browsers, e-mail programs, media players, and so forth, AOL is designed to be a whole environment that the user need never leave. AOL can act as a conduit to the Internet, and once AOL is launched, it provides connectivity for other programs.

This review focuses on the "AOL experience" itself, since this experience is what makes having an account on AOL unique. For this review, I used AOL 9.0, the current release at the time of writing. For my screen reader, I used the newly released JAWS for Windows 5.0. AOL has made a major commitment to improving accessibility, and its staff have worked with Freedom Scientific and GW Micro to improve AOL's performance with both companies' screen readers. Since the two screen readers access information from applications differently, you cannot assume that an improvement for one will bring better access for the other. Currently, efforts have progressed much further with JAWS. It is not yet advisable to use AOL with Window-Eyes.

Getting Started

New AOL customers usually receive a CD-ROM with the AOL software in the mail or pick one up at a retail store. When the AOL setup program starts, it immediately recommends that you shut down any other programs you have running. Fortunately, AOL and screen readers tend to get along well together, so people who are blind can install AOL independently.

In my evaluation, I was somewhat hampered by the fact that I was already an AOL subscriber and could not go through an entirely new installation from scratch. I did, however, establish a new account and install a new copy of the AOL software. I used a downloaded copy of AOL 9.0. Because I had no registration code, such as is normally provided with the CD-ROM, I had to establish my account by dialing a toll-free number and speaking with a customer service representative. The representative was friendly and helpful. He established my AOL user name (which AOL calls a "screen name") and a temporary password. I then used the AOL software to dial into the service and set up my account with my preferences.

Setting up my account was a straightforward and speech-friendly experience with a couple of notable exceptions. First, I was given the opportunity to read the member agreement, the rules for using the service, and I found that JAWS did not read the first screen of this agreement automatically. This was a real problem, since AOL presents the agreement in a window that contains no edit caret. It is not possible to scroll down through the page and read the agreement line by line, and each "page" of the agreement can take up more space than can be presented on the screen at one time. I had to use the JAWS cursor, a feature for moving the mouse pointer around the screen with speech, to read the window. Also, I had to perform simulated mouse clicks on the scroll arrows to move down in the agreement. When I hit the Next button and moved on to the second page of the agreement, however, JAWS read the window automatically. Even so, it would still be preferable to have the agreement presented in such a way that a blind person can review it using the arrow keys. After all, this is a technical document, and users of AOL agree to be bound by it when they use the service.

When I closed the member agreement, I ran into my second snag. I had two buttons to choose from: the one to view the member agreement, and a second button with no label. I guessed that the unlabeled button was the one that would let me proceed. My guess was correct, but such an important button should have been labeled properly.

The next screen permitted me to choose a "Navigation and Tools" tool set. Selecting a tool set was easy. I tabbed through the screen, listening to the descriptions of the tool sets, and hit the space bar on the one I wanted. Then I tabbed to the "Next" button and hit the space bar to continue setup.

I was now allowed to pick a "Stories and Features" lineup from several categories. Selection worked identically to the previous screen and was easily accomplished. By consulting AOL's help facility, I learned that the "tool set" I had chosen was used to customize the features that would appear on the AOL "Welcome Screen" and that the "Stories and Features" choice would determine what kind of material would appear in a marquee at the top of the screen. It would have been helpful to get this information when I was setting up these options, since a user who is blind does not get the immediate feedback of looking at the screen and seeing the results of changes made to settings.

Getting Help

AOL's online help facility is largely usable with speech. Many of the screens for AOL services provide a Help button that brings up help topics that are relevant to the area in question. You can also use the keyword "Help" to search for information on topics of interest. I ran into two significant issues with the help facility, however. First, I found that only some of the help information was presented as Web pages. Other help information, although it was usually read by JAWS, was presented in a window without an edit cursor. Thus, as was the case when I read the member agreement, I was limited in my ability to read through the help at my own pace. The other problem was that at times I would be placed in a window that asked, "Was this article helpful?" rather than in the article itself. Then I would have to hit Alt-Tab to switch to another program and back to AOL to get into the actual help topic. A user who is not prepared to do some experimenting may wind up simply losing out on the help information in that situation.

On the subject of online help, AOL keyword "accessibility" is worth mentioning. This help area has information that is grouped by type of disability and is well worth browsing. The Help for Screen Reader Users gives keyboard shortcuts that are applicable to Windows-based software, in general, as well as keystrokes that are specific to AOL. AOL and Freedom Scientific have produced tutorials that are helpful in introducing JAWS users to AOL's installation, AOL's screens, e-mail, instant messaging, and other services. These MP3 files are available at <www.freedomscientific.com/fs_products/training_audio_demos.asp>. At this point, I was ready to explore AOL.

The AOL Screens

At log on, AOL displays a few different windows on the screen. These windows are all displayed within the main AOL window as "child" windows, and you cycle among them with the Control-Tab keystroke. One of the initial windows is the "Welcome Screen." The Welcome Screen displays lots of content, customized by the "Tool Set" and "Stories and Features" options you made when you set up your account. At the time of writing, the Welcome Screen was not particularly accessible. It was possible to tab among different items of content and frequently to hear some indication of what was available, but the information I would get at the press of the space bar was often not accessible.

Another of the windows that is displayed when you log on is the "Quick Start" window. This is a set of buttons that provide access to several areas of content: news, personal finance, yellow pages, educational resources, and so on. The buttons generally speak well with JAWS, and some provide access to content that JAWS can read--often presented as web pages.

The other window that is shown by default at start-up is the "Buddy List" window, which you use to see which of your contacts is online and available for instant messaging between computers. I will have more to say about instant messaging later.

Winnowing Windows

To cut down on screen clutter, AOL provides a keystroke, Shift-F2, to close all but the "front" (or "active") window. It is worth mentioning, however, that the Welcome Screen cannot be closed. The various window-manipulation functions are available on AOL's "Window" menu and are worth exploring to become acquainted with how they work. Also, since AOL can easily accumulate a number of windows as you work with it, the Window menu can be a handy way to see a list of these windows and perhaps to close unneeded windows to reduce the clutter.

AOL Features

You've Got Accessible Mail

Unlike previous versions, AOL 9.0 devotes a whole pull-down menu to handling e-mail. In earlier versions of AOL, e-mail was available only from the toolbar or via hotkeys. The toolbar is not directly accessible from the keyboard, so the pull-down menu is a welcome addition. Several of the pull-down menu's options are available through Control-key combinations as well. For example, you can read new mail by pressing Control-R or compose a new message by pressing Control-M.

In the e-mail composition window, available on the Mail menu or by pressing Control-M, all fields are available by tabbing. JAWS announced the label for each field, so that I knew what was to be typed in the field. I also heard announcements of the various buttons, such as "Print," "Address Book," "Send Now," and "Insert Signature File." Once you have tabbed into the edit box for writing the text of the message, the Tab key functions like the Tab key on a typewriter, moving you ahead about five spaces each press. Thus, you have to Shift-Tab to get out of the body of the message. The various buttons in the e-mail composition window do not appear to have "accelerators," the Alt-key combinations that are typically used to activate a button from anywhere in a dialogue box. This means, for example, that sending a message requires you to Shift-Tab several times to get past edit boxes and buttons to reach the "Send Now" or "Send Later" buttons. It would really speed things up to have some sort of direct access to the "Send" buttons or perhaps have them available on the Mail menu, when appropriate.

AOL 9.0 normally creates e-mail messages as HTML text. Messages look like World Wide Web documents and can contain hyperlinks, pictures, and so on. While you are editing the body of a message, the context menu, accessed with Shift-F10, is extensive and permits you to insert hyperlinks and change the color, font, and justification of the text. You can even pick an option called "Compose as Plain Text" if you want to send a smaller plain-text message without special effects, a feature that may be helpful when you send messages to Internet mailing lists, for example.

The window for reading received mail is presented as a World Wide Web document. Most of the JAWS features for navigating in and manipulating a web page operate while you read an e-mail message. Unfortunately, as is the case for the "Send" buttons when you compose a message, replying, forwarding, and other such functions are available only by tabbing to buttons in the e-mail window. This is another case in which shortcut keys or menu options could really speed things up for a nonmouse user.

Little Black Book

AOL includes an address-book feature that lets you store a great deal of information about individuals you want to keep track of. You can use this address book to ease the process of addressing e-mail, store telephone numbers, create groups of people, and so on. The address book is largely usable with speech from the keyboard. However, highlighting a group of contacts to receive the same message using the shifted arrow keys is not supported.

AOL Keywords

Keywords have long been a hallmark of AOL. You type in text describing an area of interest, and AOL takes you into an area of content related to that subject. AOL provides the Control-K keyboard shortcut for bringing up a dialogue box into which you type a keyword that you would like to explore. This shortcut gets around the need to find the little keyword box at the top of the AOL screen.

On the basis of typing in a few likely keywords, however, I can only say that the results were varied and often disappointing. For instance, I knew that the web site <http://www.travelocity.com> was supposed to be available at AOL keyword "Travel," so I tried it. After I typed in the keyword "Travel," I found myself in an edit box. Tabbing once gave me a button that said, "Search." So far so good. It must be possible to do a search for a travel destination or activity of interest. However, further tabbing on the Travel screen just yielded button after button that JAWS described as "online area button." The issue of many AOL buttons being announced as "online area button" has been a long-standing problem that the AOL staff have been trying to change in the AOL software, but it was alive and well on the keyword "Travel" screen. I did manage to tab past the "online area" buttons and get to some more interesting material, including a button that said it would let me explore travel from my local city. I tried the search box mentioned earlier as well and was placed into a web page full of travel information that I could read.

Although a number of AOL keywords are likely to be problematic for users of screen readers, there are also keywords for which accessibility work is noticeable. For instance, the Radio at AOL service, at keyword "Radio," is usable with a screen reader. The content is presented as a web page in which you pick a station from an extensive list and then press Enter on the words "Play," "Mute," or "Stop" to control playback of the station. AOL made a special point of getting feedback from subscribers with disabilities to ensure that Radio at AOL was usable with assistive devices as soon as it was launched.

Web Browsing

With AOL being the "all-in-one" application that it is, web browsing is provided from within the program. The Control-K combination, used to access AOL keywords, may also be used to enter a web address. Web pages are displayed in Microsoft Internet Explorer-style windows within AOL. JAWS reads these windows readily, providing the same specialized navigation by headings, links, and so forth that is available with JAWS and stand-alone Internet Explorer.

Instant Messaging

AOL has its own built-in instant-messaging capability that works between AOL users and with others on the Internet who have the stand-alone AOL Instant Messenger program. AOL has worked with the screen-reader manufacturers to ensure that instant messaging in AOL works with speech. Once you add other people with instant-messaging capability to your "buddy list," you can see when they are logged on and available to chat. Setting up a buddy list is fairly easy, although, as is often the case in AOL, the screen of buddy-list options is extensive and can take some time just to tab through. You are alerted by squeaky-door noises when a buddy logs on or off, a nice touch that alleviates the need to review the buddy-list display constantly.

Once you have initiated a chat session with another person, a chime sound alerts you that the other person has sent you a text message. In my experiments, JAWS did a good job of reading each message as it appeared on the screen. The chief drawback with instant messaging is that it is difficult to review the messages that have already been sent. Again, the text is shown in a window with no edit cursor, so you cannot just cursor up and down through the messages. This drawback can be particularly irritating if you do not hear a message that the other person has just typed. In that case, you have to wander the screen looking for the text of the message just received while the person on the other end of the chat is wondering why you are taking so long to respond. Even so, instant messaging is quite doable. Typing a message to a buddy is easy. Just type in some text, hit Control-Enter, and the message is sent.

When You Get Older

AOL provides a powerful set of tools for parents to use when they create screen names for their children. Parents may decide whether and with whom their children may exchange instant messages and e-mail. They may also tailor the web sites that their children may visit. Parents may even have a report e-mailed to them that tells them what their children are doing online. In trying out the parental controls, I found that everything talked well. I again ran into informational screens for which there was no edit cursor, and I had to be satisfied with listening to JAWS read the information from start to finish at its own pace. Overall, though, the parental controls are usable with speech and can let parents thoroughly customize the experience for the needs of their children.

The Bottom Line

AOL has come a long way from the old DOS-based version that would not work with screen readers. A number of people who are blind now use AOL with reasonable success, especially for e-mail, instant messaging, and web browsing. AOL 9.0's powerful spam-filtering and parental controls can be valuable to parents and anyone else who is trying to deal with unwanted or offensive material. The AOL e-mail system is much less prone than other e- mail systems to the kinds of vulnerabilities that have been used in recent years to spread viruses.

By the same token, AOL is a vast service, and much of it is still difficult or impossible for a person who is blind to use effectively with speech. Even the areas that have been targeted heavily for accessibility still have problems. For instance, by default, AOL disables web links in e-mail messages as a means of protecting users from being sent to unknown and possibly undesirable web sites. The mail window includes a button to turn off this feature if you are reading a message with links you specifically want to follow. However, this button is not labeled, so you have to guess at its function.

The accessibility staff at AOL continue to be enthusiastic about transforming the service into a friendlier place for people with disabilities. It is no longer necessary for people who are blind to avoid using AOL, as it was before AOL made a commitment to accessibility. Time will tell how it all turns out.

Manufacturers' Comments

"At AOL, we recognize that accessibility is a continual journey, not a destination. Two crucial elements are assessments from beta testers and member feedback. We obtain feedback by conducting accessibility beta tests prior to every major software release, attending assistive technology and consumer conferences, and hosting regular meetings with the AOL Access Advisory Committee (AAC). The AAC is a cross-disability committee comprised of experts, including the American Foundation for the Blind, that advises AOL on a range of technology, marketing and policy issues. To date, we have been working proactively with access technology vendors including Freedom Scientific and AI Squared. Our most impactful accessibility work is still to come.

"This evaluation addresses the need for improved keyboard support and the ability to review text more effectively. A product that we believe will help address both concerns in 2004 is AOL Communicator, a suite of stand-alone applications that provides an alternative to the all-in-one environment of AOL 9.0. In other words, if you want to use AOL e-mail and nothing else, AOL Communicator's e-mail application is the only AOL application that has access to the keyboard. This will allow us to implement more industry-standard keyboard commands.

"JAWS compatibility with AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), AOL's free instant message software, has improved recently. With JAWS 5.0 and AIM 5.2, you can now review incoming messages line-by-line and more easily access the BuddyList and other powerful features.

"AOLbyPhone makes reading, writing and replying to e-mail messages as simple as picking up the nearest telephone. It provides free access to 411 directory assistance and access to headline news, sports and weather. Call 800-265-1234, or visit AOL Keyword: AOLbyPhone."

For More Information

For more information on AOL accessibility, e-mail <aolaccessibility@aol.com> or visit the web site <www.aol.com/accessibility>.

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Make the Web a Better Place by Crista L. Earl and Jay D. Leventhal

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