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Accessibility Evangelism and Unfortunate News From America Online (AOL) Radio

June 7, 2008 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Hello Everyone,

As an accessibility evangelist, of course, I disagree with any and all those
who frequently make statements emphasizing our "smallness" and
insignificance in the world at large as a means to justify doing little or
nothing about accessibility challenges. Yes. We are very tiny in number in
comparison with the rest of the population who is not blind, but that really
has nothing to do with how well we can make our voices heard in order to
achieve positive changes for the better. One possible metaphore might be to
compare us with those who profess their faith in the Jewish religion here in
the United States, which is an incredibly small minority in number as
compared with catholics and evangelical Christians. Despite their small
numbers, the Jewish seem to experience little or no difficulty making their
needs known and they tend to enjoy great success and wealth in all walks of
life.

I'd like to see something similar happen for those of us who are blind. We
can't look to others to make this happen, but only to ourselves. It must
start with us! We must decide that we are valuable human beings deserving
of our human rights, of the accessibility and equal treatment with our
sighted peers we must enjoy in order to be able to fully participate in
society on a par with the sighted. Though it starts with us, a
technological world dictates that we have equal access to information in the
information and knowledge age. Accessibility must ultimately be available
if we are to actively and productively participate in such critical areas of
life as education, employment and leisure.

We must achieve equality of opportunity through making our own accessibility
solutions where practical and advocating for reasonable accomodations when
accessibility is required in order for us to participate. The issues boil
down to one of these two needs in all cases. There is no third option of
taking the path of least resistance; not if we want to count ourselves as
fully living and breathing human beings and citizens, possessing the same
inalienable rights and responsibilities already enjoyed by the sighted.

One excellent example of a project where we are making our own accessibility
is Benetech's Bookshare project available at http://www.bookshare.org.

Blind people and others with print reading disabilities subscribe to a web
based service where they may download and read from a selection of tens of
thousands of books available in an accessible, electronic format for use on
their computers and portable assistive technology. This is all made
possible by a team of blind and sighted volunteers who scan books into
electronic format and validators who correct scanning errors and reformat
the books for final entry into the collection.

Another example of making our own accessibility is the existence of the
blindness access technology industry. We spend tens of thousands of dollars
on screen readers, Braille displays, scanners with optical character
recognition software, specialized personal digital assistants (PDAs) and a
myriad of other high and low technology items on which we have grown to
depend in order to adapt ourselves to the world. In many cases, government
agencies purchase some or all of this technology under specific
circumstances, but this is, by no means, guaranteed.

Despite our own efforts, there often remains a wide gap between that which
we are able to make accessible on our own and that technology which we must
use in the classroom, on the job, etc. When we are not able to close these
gaps through our own efforts and assistive technology, reasonable
accomodations on the part of the developer of that technology are required
if we are to be permitted full and equal participation. Failures to
reasonably accomodate our needs often result in the curtailment of
educational opportunities and even the needless loss of jobs!

As a blind community, we can take actions such as the following to improve
our accessibility to the world of technology around us:
* Understand that we need equal accessibility in order to participate in
society on a par with our sighted peers.
* Believe and live the concept that accessibility through reasonable
accomodations is a human right and the right thing to do in all cases.
* Check with other individuals and organizations in the blind community to
see if the technology has already been made accessible.
* Write letters to technology developers asking that they reasonably
accomodate our need for accessibility.
* When available, provide suggestions and technical consulting necessary to
improve accessibility.
* Work to have existing legislation covering accessibility enforced more
consistently and frequently.
* Encourage the passage of new legislation to clarify our needs and mandate
increased accessibility in areas not already covered.

Achieving equal participation in the knowledge age is currently a hard
fought struggle, where we often seem to take a step forward followed by one
or two steps backward. The latest case with AOL Radio represents a good
example. While imperfect, blind people relying on screen readers have
enjoyed access to the company's many radio offerings. We are talking about
listening to the radio, which should most certainly represent an activity
that ought to be inherently accessible to the blind.

We have now learned that, as of Monday, June 9, 2008, AOL and CBS are going
to take away from the blind the ability to listen to their Internet radio
streams through the implementation of a player that is known to be
inaccessible to screen reading software. Many blind people have been
enjoying this content for several years. Simply yanking it out of our hands
is a thoughtless act at best. The director of AOL's accessibility team has
informed us that the inaccessibility of the new player results from
technology used by CBS and tells us that solutions are being investigated
for implementation sometime in the undetermined future. We believe this
answer is not quite sufficient and that temporary alternative listening
options should be made available to the blind until such time as the
accessibility problems with the embedded web based player have been solved.
If you agree that AOL Radio should continue to allow blind and visually
impaired people to listen to their Internet radio channels, we urge all of
you, including those sighted people who care about what happens to us, to
send a note to AOLAccessibility@aol.com asking that they continue working to
restore accessibility to the AOL Radio player and, in the meantime, make
direct links available to the blind for listening on other devices and media
player software. We also ask you to visit CBS at

http://www.cbsradio.com/contact/streaming.html, select your radio station of
interest and request the implementation of a more accessible player to
accomodate the accessibility needs of blind and visually impaired listeners.

As a community, it is both our collective and individual responsibilities to
evangelize accessibility. Simply leaving the work to others is not going to
be effective, especially given our small numbers. This AOL Radio issue is
just one small one among many much more significant challenges. All the
same, let us all take this moment to remind ourselves that we can and must
make a difference! Now, everyone, let's all go forth and make our voices
heard often and loudly!

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