America Online has agreed to use software that works with programs the blind need to change digital information to speech or Braille.
Curtis Chong, director of technology at the National Federation of the Blind, expects thousands of sightless people to be able to use the Internet for the first time.
The Baltimore-based organization agreed to drop a lawsuit accusing AOL of violating the 10-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act. In return, AOL will make its software compatible with programs the blind use to convert digital information to speech or Braille.
The pact could open the Internet to thousands of blind people who have been too intimidated or exasperated to use it, says Chong.
"We'll have a great opportunity for people to go online with a lot less effort than it takes today," he says.
The federation and nine members of its Massachusetts chapter sued in November, claiming AOL, the world's largest Internet provider with 23 million subscribers, is a public accommodation and therefore required by the Americans with Disabilities Act to provide equal access to the disabled.
Under the agreement, AOL said it would:
In one year, the federation will review AOL's progress and decide whether to proceed with its suit.
The blind navigate the Internet with programs that read or describe text as a cursor hits it. But such programs currently can't read AOL's pages.
Many blind people are savvy Internet users and don't need AOL, said Jody Davis, an attorney for the federation. But those that don't should be afforded its relatively easy entry.
"The marketing pitch is that anybody can use it," Davis says. "The blind need technology as much as the rest of us."
AOL spokesman Rich D'Amato says that the company was working on adapting its software when the lawsuit was filed. But the ensuing meetings between the sides accelerated their understanding of what needed to be done, he said.