Sunday, October 1, 2000

Net providers improving access

        Now that the Internet and e-mail have become nearly as ubiquitous as television, readers often write with questions regarding its accessibility. Readers with disabilities want to know how to select an Internet Service Provider (ISP), and Web designers want to know what makes an accessible Web site.

        A year ago, the question of friendly ISPs would have been a tougher one to handle than it is today. Many users of screen readers, for example, were clinging to shell accounts (DOS-based e-mail) because the newer graphically oriented systems were impossible to navigate. One by one, however, Internet companies are discontinuing shell accounts, thus forcing customers into the land of PPP (Windows-based) systems. At the same time, Windows-based accounts are becoming increasingly friendly environments for users of assistive technology.

        When the National Federation of the Blind filed a lawsuit against America Online last year, the inaccessibility of a major online service was brought to public attention. The payoff, at this point, appears positive. The basis for the complaint was AOL's inaccessibility to blind people and lack of interest in fixing the problem. The suit has been dropped, however, in view of promises made by AOL to have its features accessible by the end of the year.

        That doesn't mean that people with disabilities should all rush to sign up with AOL. It does mean that major ISPs are making serious efforts to make their products usable to all customers.

        Three factors

        If you have a disability and are already happy with an ISP, don't change it. If you are just getting ready to jump into the e-mail ocean, there are three things you might consider in making your choice.

        1) Ask other computer users for recommendations (particularly others with disabilities and equipment similar to your own).

        2) If you plan to use e-mail while traveling, check with the potential provider to be sure there are local access numbers in other parts of the country. In other words, can you check your e-mail from another major city without incurring long-distance charges?

        3) It is generally simpler to avoid services that require the use of proprietary software. If you can establish a dial-up connection and then use the Web browser of your choice, configuring the service to work with your other software will probably be easier in the long run.

        4) Make sure that technical support staff are able and willing to help with setting up your account by telephone. When I recently changed from an old shell account to a PPP with Earthlink, for example, a young man named Nicholas patiently spent almost two hours on the phone with me establishing my connection. When you can't see the screen, using a mouse to point, click, or drag is not an option. Instead, all commands and navigation must be accomplished through keyboard commands. While tech support from other companies had exhibited frustration with my inability to use the mouse, Nicholas welcomed the challenge to learn more about keyboard commands himself. The result was a successful connection and a happy customer.

        Ongoing support

        Be sure that you have telephone numbers for ongoing technical support, too. If live support isn't available on an ongoing basis, keep shopping for a provider.

        Access to e-mail and the world of information available on the Internet is equalizing education, employment and recreation opportunities for people with disabilities.

        In the next column, I'll talk about what makes a Web site accessible.

        Cincinnati writer Deborah Kendrick is a nationally recognized advocate for people with disabilities. Write her at Cincinnati Enquirer, Tempo, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202. E-mail:


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