Blind People Tell AOL: It's Braille or Bust

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Should the Internet, which has become indispensable to so many, be held to the same standards of public accessiblity as physical public spaces? This is what a federal grand jury will have to decide as it weighs a lawsuit filed by the National Federation of the Blind against America Online. It's hard to argue with the notion that the Net has become a new type of city center. Droves of people do much of their shopping, socializing, information-gathering and/or business on the Web. But, the suit alleges, the largest entry point to this high-tech hamlet is excluding 700,000 Americans because it's incompatible with software that makes the Web accessible to the blind. But getting the text is only part of the problem: Many of AOL's images have no captions. One innovation discussed in the suit would add captions to all photos on AOL, thus enabling the reading software to describe what's depicted in the photos.

"AOL's a place where people meet, make money and do all the things that we do in cities," says TIME senior writer Adam Cohen. "Just as the First Amendment has been applied to the Internet, I wouldn't be surprised if the court applied the Americans With Disabilities Act to the Internet." AOL issued a statement indicating that it wasn't yet certain how it would respond to the lawsuit. Since Internet law is a relatively new field, and the courts are ever more willing to extend existing laws into cyberspace, Internet industry experts believe AOL will take preemptive steps to appease the federation and have the lawsuit thrown out. That would allow the company, and not the courts, to determine just how blind-accessible AOL becomes. Now if it could only do something about those access times.