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  AOL Sued by Federation of the Blind

By Leslie Miller
Associated Press Writer
Friday, Nov. 5, 1999; 5:29 a.m. EST

BOSTON –– The National Federation of the Blind is suing America Online, saying the world's largest Internet provider has been too slow to make its software usable for blind people.

In a federal lawsuit, the federation contends AOL is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act because, unlike other dial-up networks, its software remains incompatible with programs that convert text to audio or Braille.

"They're getting lots of complaints," said Daniel Goldstein, an attorney for the nine blind members of the group's Massachusetts chapter, which brought filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court on Thursday.

"It's been nine years since the Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted," Goldstein said. "Patience has begun to flag."

Lawyers for the plaintiffs say AOL is violating parts of the act that require equal access to public accommodations. Courts in the 1st Circuit have ruled in the past that an accommodation can be a service, Goldstein said.

The Federation has asked the court to prevent AOL from continued violations of the Disabilities Act and to order the company to redesign its software so the blind can use it.

An AOL spokesman said the company was "disappointed" by the lawsuit. Rich D'Amato said one of AOL's priorities is to make the Internet more accessible to disabled people.

"We recognize the Internet has been a terrific help to the blind community," he said.

The next version of AOL's software, to be introduced next year, will include features that will make it more user-friendly for the blind, D'Amato said. The company also plans to introduce a feature allowing members to receive e-mail by telephone.

The federation argues the technology already exists to redesign AOL's Internet service to permit accessibility by the blind.

"Despite our best efforts, though, AOL has steadfastly refused to modify its software in order to ensure compatibility with screen access technology for the blind," said Curtis Chong, the federation's director of technology.

The National Federal of the Blind is based in Baltimore, while America Online Inc., is headquartered in Dulles, Va.

The lawsuit was brought in Boston because courts here are experienced with high-technology cases, Goldstein said.

© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press

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