Six years ago, I worked for Time Warner Cable, one of our local cable providers. Time Warner is also partnered with AOL, therefore working there meant I had to use that service for my office e-mail. Unfortunately, AOL was very inaccessible, they used a stand alone software that requires use of the mouse to get around. I had to have sighted assistance to check my work e-mail and was left out of the loop so many times because I didn’t “get the memo” so to speak. At that time, the only way to use AOL was through their software and because of this, the blind community as a whole was largely excluded and we found other e-mail providers and alternatives. My mom has used AOL for many years, as long as she has had e-mail, and has been very happy with it. I would cringe every time AOL was mentioned and honestly would try to talk her into using something else.
But last night, I listened to the March Edition of FSCast, where Jonathan Mosen interviewed Tom Wlodkowski, AOL’s director of Accessibility. “What,” I thought, “AOL and accessibility?” I actually laughed out loud! But it caught my interest and I listened intently. I was amazed as he spoke of all the work he and AOL have done and are going to do, partnering with Freedom Scientific to design the website and applications accessibly. If your interest is peaking as well, I highly recommend listening to the entire interview! At the end, Wlodkowski demonstrated just how the AOL web mail worked. They have incorporated keyboard shortcuts for virtually all of the mail functions. He even stated that when signing up for the free e-mail account, he had worked hard to make his audio capcha accessible. Are you kidding me? I wanted to get up right then, test it out and write about it, but it was after all 1 AM so I went to sleep. Instead I got up at 5 AM and signed up, and I’ll give you my experience.
Registering for my account took me maybe 10 minutes and I think some of that was because I was still half asleep. All of the forms were clearly read and I knew exactly what to put in each one. They even went so far as to let me know right away, in accessible text that the first screen name I chose was not available. I made a few mistakes, forgot to put my zip code and even neglected to disclose the year of my birth. Those errors were clearly denoted when I tried to submit my registration form. And the capcha? Well let’s just say I signed up in Firefox, just in case I had to use the capcha translation tool. But guess what, I was able to understand the audio given, the second time listening to it! Now if google and yahoo could replace their audio with AOL’s… I can’t believe what I am saying!!
Once registered, I was able to log in and right at the top I am given a choice to go to the accessible version of the site. A really neat thing on that front is that now, every time I log into my account, from any computer, it will remember that I prefer the accessible version and take me straight there. Unfortunately, I can’t show it to you unless you are signed in. The keyboard shortcuts to get around are clearly defined and similar to outlook, so not much of a learning curve there. There is excellent use of headers and I found overall navigation very painless. Now I just need to get some actual e-mail so I can play more. If you want to send me some to play with, the address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
I am so excited about all of this! There are some things AOL is working on that I can’t wait to see! I am pretty stubborn and don’t change my way of thinking on many things, but I have definitely turned a huge corner with AOL. I am impressed enough to say that I look forward to using it, trying out the AOL instant messaging and any other accessible services that will come in the future!