Group for blind sues AOL over access to programs; Company violates disabilities law, says Baltimore-based federation; Internet


The National Federation of the Blind yesterday filed suit in U.S. District Court in Boston seeking to force Internet service giant American Online Inc. to upgrade its system so that blind users can have full access to its Internet site and programs.

In its suit, the Baltimore-based NFB and nine blind Boston-area residents said AOL, the nation's largest Internet service provider with 19 million customers, violates the Americans With Disabilities Act by discriminating against the blind. Its system is incompatible with software designed to make the Internet accessible to blind users, the suit argues.

Suit called unnecessary

Rich D'Amato, an AOL spokesman, said the company regretted that the suit had been filed and that AOL is "absolutely committed to making our service more accessible to people with disabilities."

D'Amato said the suit is unnecessary because AOL is working on a new Web site access program that would make its programming accessible to the blind. That program is due out next year, he said.

Marc Maurer, president of the Baltimore advocacy group, said, "I hope they really mean it. It would make it a lot easier to resolve this issue. But they've promised a lot in the past and failed to deliver."

Maurer said NFB executives have made repeated efforts during the past two years to get Dulles, Va.-based AOL to modify its programming so that the blind can use it.

He said the NFB's technology center in Baltimore, where new technologies are tested and designed for those with disabilities, gets more than 1,000 calls a year from blind people upset that they can't use AOL.

"They like to advertise it's easy to use. But it's not if you're blind," said Maurer.

Effect on industry uncertain

It was unclear yesterday what effect the suit would have on the industry. Other major Internet service providers, such as MindSpring, Erol's and AT&T;, have designed their services to be compatible with software programs that can convert electronic information on the Web for the blind into a voice message or Braille, said Curtis Chong, NFB's technology director.

Daniel Goldstein, a Baltimore lawyer representing the NFB in the suit, said the group hopes the suit prods software developers to design software programs that can be used by the blind and others with disabilities and ensures that new Internet service providers set up systems that are accessible to the blind.

There are about 800,000 legally blind people in the United States. The NFB said it is not sure how many of them use the Internet.

The underlying problem with AOL's system, said Chong, is that the company's Web site content is based on graphics rather than text. Internet software programs for the blind, known as screen access programs, are designed to read text-based programming.

The suit seeks to require AOL to modify its system to provide text labels for all graphics, permit keyboard access to all functions, and rely on standard Windows operating system controls.

Bloomberg News contributed to this article.

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