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AFBAmerican Foundation®
for the Blind

Expanding possibilities for people with vision loss

Accessing the Internet

This document provides an introduction to Internet use for people who are blind or visually impaired. It covers the hardware and software needed to get online, a description of how to get online for the first time, an introduction to what is available on the Internet and some information concerning synthetic speech, braille, and low-vision access. It assumes that you are already familiar with the basic use of a computer and some form of access technology. If that is not the case, please refer to our fact sheets on synthetic speech, braille, and screen magnification.

Why Should You Get Online?

The Internet provides a fast, easy way to exchange information. You can correspond with friends, family, colleagues, and others without worrying about how the other person will access your message. Unlike the telephone, there is no answering machine or busy signal. Your message arrives, and the other person reads it when checking his or her mail. Through the Internet, you can access a growing number of newspapers, magazines, and books. A huge amount of government information is available. You can do research on almost any topic you can think of right in your home or office. You can generate information on topics you would like to share with a wide or targeted audience.

What Is the Internet?

The Internet has been referred to as the Electronic Super-Highway or a network of computer networks. A computer network consists of two or more computers linked together to share data, software, and hardware devices. The Internet is a world-wide network of interconnected computer networks in constant communication. Each host site has a unique address or domain name. Internet Service Providers offer a variety of dial-up or modem accounts through which their customers can get access to Internet services. Some of the most popular services offered are electronic mail (e-mail), interactive discussion groups, Internet-wide data searches, and the ability to connect to other hosts.

An account with an Internet provider allows you to connect, by means of a phone line, to the service provider's computer system. You are able to use the provider's equipment to access other computers on the Internet.

What Are Modems?

A modem is a device that converts computer information into electronic signals that can be transmitted over a phone line. At the other end of the line, another modem converts the telephone signals back into computer data. Your modem can come in one of two forms - an internal circuit board that occupies one of the slots inside your computer or an external device that connects to one of your computer's serial ports.

Regardless of which type of modem you use, it must have exclusive use of one of your computer's four serial communication ports. These are generally referred to as COM1, COM2, COM3, and COM4, and can best be thought of as doors through which data can pass between your computer and other devices. External speech synthesizers, braille displays, serial printers, and other devices may also require exclusive use of one of the communication ports. It is important to keep track of which device is plugged into each port, and make changes in case of conflicts.

The rate at which a modem transmits and receives data is referred to as its baud rate and is measured in bits per second. The modems most commonly sold today transfer data at a minimum rate of 28.8 or 56 kilobytes per second.

Telecommunications Programs

Telecommunications programs manage your computer's interactions with your modem and provide various functions while you are online. They are usually sold along with modems, and are available separately, usually costing less than $100. Through your telecommunications program, you can change the modem's parameters, store a list of phone numbers that you call regularly, and send and receive information.

Online Accounts

Many Internet providers give you a customized telecommunications program for their system, a local number to call, a user ID number, a temporary password, and utilities for managing e-mail and other information. This is the easy way to get online because you are presented with a consistent menu system and context sensitive help.

UNIX Shell Accounts

UNIX Shell accounts, offered by many Internet providers, have a lot of appeal for advanced computer users because they provide access to the host machine at the operating system level. Since the UNIX operating system is the native operating environment of the Internet, this method is both comprehensive and complicated. To work with this type of account, you must learn the basics of the UNIX operating system first.

There are some definite benefits to this approach. UNIX Shell accounts tend to be the least expensive, with rates ranging from about 15 to 20 dollars a month for the full variety of services. For users of access technology, an even stronger incentive is that UNIX, like the DOS operating system, primarily functions in a text mode. This means that speech and braille systems can work optimally within this environment.

Commercial Services

Another option for online access is commercial services such as America Online (AOL) and CompuServe. The user pays a monthly fee plus hourly charges for access. In return, the user receives organized, direct access to a wide range of information including news and weather, periodicals, reference books, financial news, and games. These commercial services also provide Internet access.

AOL uses Microsoft Windows, and some blind people are using it with Windows-based synthetic speech programs with limited success. Users of screen magnification programs can access AOL with the same magnification software that they use for other Windows applications. AOL is the most popular commercial service in the general population. Its emphasis is on leisure activities and it uses graphics extensively, making it very difficult for users of screen-reading software.

CompuServe provides DOS-based and Windows-based access, but has begun phasing out DOS-based access. The service's emphasis is on professional use and research. Many people are using CompuServe with synthetic speech under both DOS and Windows. DOS users access CompuServe with either TAPCIS or a standard telecommunications program, and Windows users use WINCIM, CompuServe's proprietary interface.

Internet Tools and Services


E-mail is the most basic of Internet services. It allows anyone with an account on an Internet host or a commercial service to send and receive messages or computer files. Each user has a unique address. Regardless of which type of account you have or who is providing it, an Internet e-mail address has the following format: The user_id is assigned to you by the service provider. This consists of a series of letters and/or numbers selected by you or the provider. User IDs are often combinations of your initials or portions of your name. The "at sign" immediately follows the user ID and separates it from the domain name. The domain name consists of a series of letters and numbers separated by periods.


Newsgroups provide a public forum where users can read and respond to messages posted by other users on a specific topic. By typing the name of the newsgroup, selecting it from a menu or creating a list of your favorite newsgroups, you can access a list of recent messages posted by others who are also monitoring the discussion. Your responses can either be mailed directly to one person or posted to all those monitoring the newsgroup. You can also start a new subject in the newsgroup discussion by posting a new message.

Your Internet provider decides which of the thousands of news groups you will have available to choose from. Newsgroups appear and disappear with regularity on the Internet.

Electronic Discussion Groups

Electronic discussion groups are programs that distribute messages sent to a single e-mail address to everyone who subscribes to the associated mailing list. Electronic discussion groups are dedicated to specific areas of interest. There are two e-mail addresses associated with every list. The electronic discussion group address is where you send commands to the program that manages the mailing list. This address is used to subscribe/unsubscribe to the list or get archived materials. To subscribe to a list, send a message to the electronic discussion group address with a blank subject line. In the body of the message, write the word "subscribe" followed by the name of the list. The mailing list address is the one to which you send messages that you want everyone on the list to read.

When you subscribe to a mailing list, the first message you get from the electronic discussion group is an acknowledgement which that a list of the basic commands used by the program. Save this message for future reference.


File Transfer Protocol (FTP) is an Internet tool that allows you to visit other host machines and obtain publicly available programs and text documents.

World Wide Web

The World Wide Web is a collection of documents called "home pages" or "web sites." Individuals and groups create their own home pages and place them on the World Wide Web for public viewing. The World Wide Web allows users to jump from one document to another through the use of hypertext links. When users press enter or click on a "link" within a document, they are presented with a related document. The task of finding the second document is done behind the scenes, thanks to Universal (or Uniform) Resource Locators (URLs). URLs list the exact location of any Internet resource.

Most users access the Web through the use of a browser, an integrated tool that can provide access to hypertext documents, newsgroups, and FTP archives. Some browsers are text-based, and others are graphics based. The vast majority of documents available through the Web contain embedded graphics and sounds. These graphics and sounds are ignored by text-based browsers, resulting in the loss of some information.

Lynx is by far the most popular text-based browser that can be used with MS-DOS synthetic speech programs. Since Lynx is a UNIX-based program, DOS users use a standard telecommunications program to dial the modem and connect to their provider. Once connected, the combination of Lynx, telecommunications software, and access system, such as a screen reader or braille display, gives excellent access to many World Wide Web sites.

Because of the increased use of multimedia features in the documents that comprise web sites, many interesting and valuable sites are accessible only to graphical browsers like Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer. In order to effectively use these browsers, the blind or visually impaired user must have a screen reader, braille display program, or screen magnification program which is Windows-based. Familiarity with the Windows environment is also essential.

Windows users, unlike DOS users, do not run a standard telecommunications program to connect to the Internet provider. Instead, they run a program that prompts for their password if necessary, connects to the provider's computer through the phone line, and then runs the browser. No knowledge of UNIX or telecommunications is necessary.

When selecting an Internet service provider, specify whether you would like to have access through DOS or Windows. To use Lynx, tell the provider that you would like to have a shell account. For Windows access, specify a preference for a slip or PPP account. Some providers have both types of accounts available; others offer only one.

Getting Connected

Here are the toll-free phone numbers for national Internet service providers.

Concentric Network Corp.: (800) 939-4262

AT&T WorldNet: (800) 967-5363

EarthLink Network: (800) 719-4664

IBM Internet Connection: (800) 821-4612

UUNET Technologies: (800) 488-6384

Sites to Visit

Here is a list of Internet sites of interest to get you started.

American Foundation for the Blind
Web site:

National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Web site:

American Council of the Blind
Web site:

National Federation of the Blind
Web site:

CSUN Conference
Web site:

Closing the Gap
Web site: jttp://

Trace Center
Web site:


USA Today
Web site:

New York Times
Web site:

Wall Street Journal
Web site:

Search Engines

These tools allow you to find all the Web sites associated with key words that you enter.

Seti-Search (Speech friendly search engine)
Web site:

Web site:

Web site:

Web site:


Accessible site for looking up addresses and phone numbers of people and businesses.
Web site:

Web site includes a link to the Merriam-Webster dictionary with definitions and synonyms.
Web site:

Electronic Discussion Groups

Access to GUI via Speech.
Electronic Discussion Group Address:

List Name: VICUG-L
The Visually Impaired Computer Users Group List.
Electronic Discussion Group Address:

List Name: EASI-L
Equal Access to Software and Information (EASI) discusses access technology for people with disabilities.
Electronic Discussion Group Address:

List Name: BASR-L
The Browser and Screen Reader Listserv
Electronic Discussion Group Address:

List of Blindness-Related lists:

For more information on accessing the internet, contact AFB's National Technology Program at: (212) 502-7642; fax: 212-502-7773; or e-mail:

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