Federation of the Blind Drops Suit Against AOL

FRAMINGHAM (07/27/2000) - The National Federation of the Blind dropped its lawsuit against America Online Inc. Wednesday after the company agreed to make its Internet browsing software and content compatible with screen-reading programs used by people with visual impairments.

"For years, the AOL software has been inaccessible to the blind," said Curtis Chong, director of technology at the Baltimore-based organization. "They have agreed that the next version of AOL software [Version 6.0] will be compatible with screen-access technology."

The new software is set for a fall release, he said.

AOL, the nation's largest Internet service provider, couldn't be used by many blind and visually impaired people because screen-reading software wouldn't work with AOL, according to the federation. Such software can "read" aloud Web pages and other electronic documents being viewed on a computer screen, as well as increase type and image sizes for those who have limited sight. "I think that we can call this a victory," Chong said. "We got them to do what we wanted them to do. It sets a tone in the industry. . . . We now have their attention."

A spokesman for Dulles, Va.-based AOL couldn't be reached for comment by press time.

Barry Schuler, the president of AOL's Interactive Services Group, said in a prepared statement that the company is committed to meeting the specialized needs of AOL's increasingly diverse membership.

"Executing our existing plans for integrating screen reader and other technologies for our disabled members is a part of that commitment," Schuler said.

The federation had sued AOL last November, charging the company's Internet service violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities.

Interestingly, the agreement was announced on the 10th anniversary of the passage of the ADA.

Chong said the agreement reached between the federation and AOL states that the company will publish a policy on accessibility and make it an integral part of its service to consumers. The agreement gives the parties one year to review the progress made and allows the federation to file suit again if problems remain.

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