The terms accessible, useful, and web mail do not often follow each other when the conversation among users of screen readers turns to e-mail. In late August 2007, America Online (AOL) unveiled its latest web interface for AOL Mail subscribers. Among the many changes that have been made to the e-mail service and its web interface are specific design elements that are intended to provide accessibility and full usability to people who use screen readers.

We at AFB TECH decided to take a quick tour of AOL Mail and were pleasantly surprised and impressed with the features and thoughtful touches that have been included. The AOL Mail page can be reached in one of two ways. Opening <> brings up a large and complex page, with an amazing assortment of information, objects, and headers. Although these items are all identifiable, the logic and organization of the page escaped me. A link is clearly labeled "Mail," however, and following it, I was placed immediately on the AOL Mail page. An alternative to using <> is to use the direct URL <>. This address also placed me at the main Mail page.

My first task was to open a new account. Reading from the top of the Mail page, a clearly identified link, "Get Free AOL Mail," announced itself. Following this link placed me in a traditional subscription page, where well-labeled edit boxes can be filled in with your name, location, and the rest of the usual subscription information for services such as this. The page also contains an audio version of CAPTCHA, in which you must type a series of letters and numbers in an edit box. I found the AOL audio alternative to be well executed. A button allows the audio to be repeated. The voice that announces the numbers and letters is preceded by three tones, which gave me time to silence my screen reader and get ready to take down the characters as they were announced. This is the only point where I had to use the audio alternative, and, on balance, I believe it to be no more of a burden than it is for sighted people. I should note that several computers that I use at home and at work did not reproduce the audio. After consultation with AOL, the issue was identified as a problem with the web audio settings on my computers, not with any blindness-related technology.

Once my screen name was confirmed, I proceeded to the Welcome Page, where I made one small but important change to the default settings. The editor that AOL sets as the default operates in RTF (rich text format). The behavior of this editor makes it less than optimal when using a screen reader. An alternative text editor can be selected.

I followed the Settings link to a well-formatted page. AOL uses headers extensively in the Mail interface, and by navigating to the Accessibility heading, I found it easy to locate and select a check box labeled "Optimize accessibility by turning off rich-text editing and by showing as many e-mail messages in the list as possible."

One characteristic of the site, which AOL will be changing, is the placement of action controls above the region of the page where you are working. To save settings, I navigated to the first heading on the page and moved up the page object by object to find and press the Save button. A few objects above the Save button is the Return to Mail button.

With my new screen name and the accessibility settings turned on, I was ready to explore the interface and use the service. AOL has developed a comprehensive set of keyboard shortcuts to facilitate access to important functions of the e-mail service. Page-specific keyboard shortcuts can be viewed in a table by selecting the Keyboard link at the top of every page.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I will state that I like headings on a web page. In my experience, a well-designed heading structure can make cumbersome and complex pages easy to use. In this effort, AOL succeeds. The first two headings on the page—List of Folders and My Folders—remain constant. The meaning of the first header is clear enough. The New Mail, Old Mail, Contacts, and several other mailboxes are directly available from links under this heading. Under My Folders, mail boxes that users create can be navigated. Among the helpful touches that are included is a reading of the number of messages in New Mail as the link is announced.

The third heading on the mail page is the view of the mailbox that has been selected. The default is New Mail. The messages are displayed in a well-formatted table. Column headers include Message Type, From, Contains Attachments, Subject, Date, and Message Flags. Clicking on the columns that are links will reorganize the display.

With Window-Eyes in Table View mode, navigation was flawless. The From field, in particular, reads as well as or better than any other of its kind that I have encountered. Following the Subject for a message moves to a new screen for viewing that message.

Creating and sending messages is equally as pleasant as reading them. Of particular note is the AOL approach to the Spell Checker. Once the Spell Checker is invoked, all misspelled words are displayed in a new browser window. Each word is given a header. By following down the list from a header for a particular word, you find a series of radio buttons. The first radio button is checked by default. It is the Accept option. All subsequent radio buttons are associated with suggested spelling alternatives. Once I understood this format, I found it fast and convenient to review the Spell Check results. When "AFB" was identified by pressing the "H" for header in Window-Eyes, I knew that it was an acronym that was not in the database. I was able to jump directly to the next identified word by pressing "H" again. Once the radio button for the correct word was selected, another press of "H" took me to the third misspelling, and so forth.

Some Problems

There are many more aspects of the site to explore. It is noteworthy that there are still some issues. The screen has a bad habit of refreshing itself from time to time, interfering with the functioning of the screen reader. This problem is minimized if you press Alt-Control-I to open your inbox. Some major groups of functions are found above headers and require some exploration to identify.

When I contacted AOL for this review, the company was responsive to these issues. All the issues are being addressed in an update to the site that is scheduled for this month, according to AOL.

Compared with its competitors, such as and, AOL Mail stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of accessibility. If you have been looking for a truly useful web mail experience, then AOL may just be the ticket.

Using an E-mail Program

Because not everyone is familiar with or comfortable using a web page to read and create e-mail, AOL provides information that is necessary to set an e-mail program to receive your AOL mail. These are the instructions that AOL provided:

How to Use Microsoft Outlook 2000 to Read and Send AOL or AIM E-mail

You can set up Microsoft Outlook 2000 to send and receive your AOL or AIM e-mail. Now you can access your AOL or AIM e-mail using any e-mail program that supports both the POP3 and IMAP protocols. The major difference between POP3 and IMAP is that POP3 downloads the messages and stores them on your computer's hard drive, and IMAP stores the messages on AOL's mail servers.

Create a New AOL or AIM E-mail Account in the Outlook 2000 Software Using IMAP or POP3

The first step to setting up the Outlook software is to create an AOL or AIM e-mail account. This will use your existing AOL or AIM account. To create a new AOL or AIM e-mail account in the Outlook software, do the following:

  1. Launch the Outlook software. Note: If you receive a message to register Outlook as the default manager for Mail, News, and Contacts, click the Yes button.
  2. Click the Tools menu and then click Accounts.
  3. Click the Add button and then click Mail.
  4. In the Display name box, enter your name as you would like it to appear on your outgoing e-mail messages.
  5. Click the Next button.
  6. In the e-mail address box, enter your full e-mail address, such as <> or <>.
  7. Click the Next button.
  8. Click the My Incoming Mail server, which is a drop-down menu; choose IMAP or POP3 as appropriate.
  9. In the Incoming mail (POP3 or IMAP) server box, type <> or <> if you are using IMAP or <> or <> if you are using POP3.
  10. In the Outgoing Mail (SMTP) server box, type <> or <>.
  11. Click the Next button.
  12. In the Account Name box, type your AOL or AIM screen name.
  13. In the Password box, type your AOL or AIM password. Note: If you want the Outlook 2000 software to save your AOL or AIM password, click the Remember Password box to place a check mark in it.
  14. Click the Next button.
  15. Under Which Method Do You Want to Use to Connect to the Internet? choose the Connect Using My Local Area Network (LAN) option by clicking it. Note: This works even if you are not connected through a LAN.
  16. Click the Next button.
  17. Click the Finish button.

Configure Your AOL or AIM E-mail Account in the Outlook Software Using IMAP or POP3

The Outlook software must be correctly configured to be able to connect to the AOL or AIM service. To configure your AOL or AIM e-mail account in the Outlook 2000 software, take these steps:

  1. Launch the Outlook 2000 software.
  2. Click the Tools menu and then click Accounts.
  3. Click the Mail tab.
  4. Click <> or <> to highlight it and then click the Properties button.
  5. Click the Servers tab.
  6. In the Incoming Mail Server section, verify that your AOL or AIM screen name and password are entered.
  7. In the Outgoing Mail Server section, click the My Server Requires Authentication box to place a check mark in it.
  8. Click the Apply button.
  9. Click the Advanced tab.
  10. In the Outgoing Mail (SMTP) box, type 587. Note: If you are using POP3, in the Delivery section, click the Leave a Copy of Each Message on the Server box to place a check mark in it.
  11. Click the Apply button.
  12. Click the OK button to close the <> Properties or the <> Properties window.
  13. Click the Close button.
Bradley Hodges
Article Topic
Untangling the Web