Born blind, Mike Calvo was told early on not to have high expectations for a career. He even dropped out of high school. Fortunately, Calvo soon discovered how the Internet could give blind people new opportunities. Today he’s the CEO of Serotek, a software company in Minneapolis that makes the digital world — working, shopping and social networking — accessible for people who are blind or physically disabled, without having to buy specialized technology.
Q: Mike, Serotek isn’t a household name, but has made great strides in the disability space. What should the broader business community know about you?
A: Serotek means connected technology, and that’s really what we’re all about. We want to make sure that blind people can connect with each other and with the rest of the world. So we’re making it easier and more affordable for blind people to purchase off-the-shelf products, whether its shopping online or educating blind consumers about mainstream products. The goal is to show businesses and consumers alike that the blind population is not really a specialized market. We like doing the same things as sighted folks do, like shopping and connecting with friends, and we’d much rather have the mainstream gadget than something designed specifically for blind people, which has a much higher price tag and no coolness factor.
Q: System Access is your version of a screen reader for the blind, and competes with some of the bigger names, such as JAWS. What’s different about System Access?
A: The first difference is price point. We believe that accessibility is a right, and not just something to be enjoyed by those who have enough money. We don’t have software maintenance agreements; all our users receive free software updates instead of worrying about how to pay for the next version. The second major difference is portability. Users shouldn’t be restricted to using computers that have been specifically configured for accessibility. They should be able to walk up to any computer, just like a sighted person, and use it without jumping through a lot of hoops.
Q: Your mobile version, System Access to go, makes any computer with Internet accessible in seconds. So someone who is blind can go to the library and access say, their Facebook account?
A: Yes — someone can log in to Facebook or Twitter from anywhere in the world. If they are in a hotel, they can go to the business center to check in and print their boarding pass, see how their stocks are doing, or anything else they want or need to do. And they don’t have to worry about getting permission from the IT staff to install something because System Access disappears from the computer once a person is done using it.
Q: Does System Access also work for making retail websites, such as Walmart and Target, accessible to people with disabilities?
A: In theory, website accessibility is up to the website designer. But a lot of site designers don’t understand what’s needed in order to make sites accessible. We have a tool that allows members of the Serotek community to add user-friendly labels to a web page, so the next time anyone using a Serotek product visits that site, they’ll see the friendly labels, not the inaccessible ones.
Q: You’ve just released Accessible Events, which makes group meetings, webinars, lectures and other events accessible to the blind and deaf. How does this work and what types of access can someone expect?
A: Traditional meeting programs just show an image of the presenter’s web content, which is completely inaccessible to the blind. Accessible Events displays that content in HTML through an attendee’s browser, which can be read by a screen reader. We also offer captioning support [a captioner is required] and output to Braille displays for deaf or deaf-blind participants. There’s also a live voice chat feature or a more controlled method for attendees to pose questions via text or audio and video. And it can be used as a standalone product or in conjunction with WebEx, LiveMeeting and GoToMeeting.
Q: What’s next for Serotek?
A: We’ll continue to focus on the accessible digital lifestyle. We have a new iPhone application we’ll be releasing this month, and we’ll remain focused on inclusion in the workplace. Longer term, we’d like to see an end to the assistive technology industry, due to every manufacturer making every product automatically accessible to all, right out of the box.