On November 12th of this year we posted an audio version of a keynote speech I gave at the Mid-Atlantic ACB Conference on our Serotalk blog and podcast. While many folks heard it and gave some great feedback, it was still about an hour long and who wants to hear me talk for that long? For those of you that would rather read the speech without my trips down memory lane, I have posted it here.
I hope that it will inspire you as much as meeting and interacting with many of you readers, customers, and friends has inspired me.
Lack of Sight Doesn’t Mean Lack of Vision
By Mike Calvo
I’m going to tell you some of the highlights and lowlights of my life story, tonight. Not all of them – just a few to give you a sense of how it’s possible for a blind kid, a trouble-maker, pretty much written off by his teachers, can be standing here as CEO of a company that is changing the adaptive technology paradigm. It’s a story that didn’t start well and which isn’t over yet, I hope. But it’s a story of how blindness has very little to do with vision. And while this is my story, it’s also a story that any blind person can live if they can dream.
School was not a great experience for me. Every day teachers and guidance counselors would tell me to set my sights low – to find some mind-numbing work I could be trained to do, because what else was there for me? After all “I was born with a strike against me and I would have to work twice as hard as a normal person.” I didn’t begin with a great deal of sight, and I gradually lost what little I did have. By the time I was 18 years of age, I had lost the last traces of my eyesight. I was blind and tired of beating my head against an establishment that didn’t have my best interest at hart. This resulted in me dropping out of high school and taking to the Miami streets and club seen.
I mean, I was handicapped. My goal should be to not be too big a burden on my family and society. Right? A wife? Kids? Success? No way! Maybe you’ve heard this too: “No big, impossible dreams please.”
With inspiration like that, many kids would just give up. But I was the ornery type and I got angry. I’d show them all. And I got mean. I did whatever I needed to do to prove to myself and to the world that I was a person you had to pay attention to. I was going to dream big and fulfill those dreams and I didn’t much care who got hurt or what laws might get broken in the process. I wouldn’t want anyone to emulate that early part of my life. Unfortunately, some of those early big dreams were pretty selfish and caused me to hurt many of those closest to me. Fortunately, somewhere along in there Jesus came into my life!
What? Relax. I’m not going to preach at you. I’m just telling you how it was for me. I’m a firm believer that when you’re ready to accept the Lord in your life, he’ll be there. You don’t need me selling him to you.
What God did was teach me to forgive both those that hurt me and myself, to redirect the energy I was putting into anger, bitterness, and rejection into doing something productive. He helped me cage my impatience. He helped me see that it wasn’t “me against them.” It was me, finding a way to love “them” and get “them” to work with me to accomplish something together. It was me accepting that whether or not I liked society and its ignorance, I was getting an education from every challenge I experienced and every person I met and if I paid attention, I would discover how together we could do more than any of us could do separately. In other words, thanks to this divine intervention, I could see the world in a different light. Since then, life has been a great deal more exciting! But, I digress.
When I was twenty one, I became a dad. “No more streets or clubs for Mikey.” I had to be responsible. I began working in a bank, and as part of my job I needed to learn to use the computer. Due to the encouragement of Greg Luther of the Florida Division of Blind Services I quickly realized I was a pretty good teacher. So I took on the job of teaching how to use the computer to other blind people at the bank, and later, for that vary same agency. I ultimately ended up opening my own training business. At the same time I was indulging my love of music by doing audio production. And in the process an idea was niggling in the back of my mind. At that time we were just getting sophisticated with tools to help blind people be productive at work and school. There was very little to help “these people” enjoy the fullness of life. Sure there were books on tape – a truly wonderful innovation; and there were news reading services by telephone. But TV, movies, the emerging Internet were all pretty much beyond reach.
There was this huge barrier called accessibility. And those people who were working at reducing the barriers were focused on what might make a blind person productive or educated and didn’t pay much attention to the things the blind person might enjoy after work or school.
But man! I wanted my piece of that Internet pie! So, I joined forces with my best friend from high school and we created a product called Radio Webcaster. I even wrote my own website for the first time. It had moderate success in the mainstream community. Surprisingly, at least to me, blind people bought the product as well. It was an eye-opening experience, no pun intended, to realize that blind people everywhere were just like me. They had money to spend and they liked to be entertained just as much as the next person. They just didn’t have a product that they could buy for themselves without having to mortgage everything they had.
While Radio Webcaster was a great idea for its time, I knew I wanted to do something more. My vision was firmly placed on the Internet and tools to make it more accessible. With full access to the Internet blind folks could enjoy pretty much everything sighted folks could enjoy.
Greg had told me that “behind the computer I am an equal.” There is a cartoon, I think from the New Yorker, that shows a dog sitting at a computer and he’s saying to another dog, “The cool thing is that on the Internet no one knows that you’re a dog.”
And the cool thing is that with the right tools, over the Internet, no one would know you were blind. You are judged by the people you interact with by what you know, what you can do, by who you really are – not by whether or not you are sighted. So the challenge was to create those tools. Because in my mind I could see that accessibility meant equality. This was a place where the barriers had to come down and could, with a little creative thought, tumble quickly.
What were those barriers?
First was the computer itself. Most folks weren’t necessarily skilled computer users. In fact, one survey shows a scant five percent of blind folks use computers. The greatest possible liberating and enabling tool and not even five percent of the blind population had access because of cost and training.
The whys were:
· Cost. Accessibility tools were prohibitively expensive and without government aid there was little chance for most blind people to have them.
· Complexity. Accessibility tools added a whole layer of complexity to computer use – which was, in the early days, pretty complex in itself. A typical blind person needed more than thirty hours of class room time to become moderately competent in using these tools. Proficiency was many, many more hours of training away.
· Availability. Because of the expense, the only path to computer use for a blind person was through vocational rehab training. That’s a pretty narrow channel and only reaches a small number of people and mostly people of employable age.
Let me share a bit of frustration. Henter-Joyce and others who did the pioneer work to bring computer access to the blind were wonderful. They opened a world that had been completely closed to us. But many of the people that followed them and took control of the companies making accessibility tools had a different philosophy. They wanted to milk the status quo for every dollar they could make. They stopped innovating and focused on locking up the vocational rehab channel, doing everything they could to push small, upstart innovators out of business. That would have been okay if they were actually serving the majority of the blind population. But, as I mentioned earlier, they were reaching a tiny percentage. And as for the other blind people they didn’t reach? Well they just didn’t care.
We came into this business thinking differently. Because we were effectively locked out of the traditional blind services channels, we focused on taking our product direct to blind folks. Our goal was to overcome the myth that blind people were not a market – because that myth is very destructive. It keeps venture money out of the blind consumer market and stifles innovation.
We believe that in fact blind folks do have money and do buy stuff but they are a highly fragmented market and getting to them is not easy. We set out to prove that with products that were fun, highly functional, intuitive and easy to use, and inexpensive that leveraged the power of the latest off the shelf hardware and software, we could get ordinary blind folks of all ages to be part of the digital age even if they had to spend their own money.
I will tell you that we are succeeding, although at a much slower pace than I would like. Over the last 9 years Serotek has changed the direction of access to computers and the Internet for the blind by lowering the cost of a screen reader from over $1000 to as little as $9.95 per month. Thanks to one of the most dedicated group of people I have ever met!
This was my vision from the beginning. Here I was, a blind Cuban kid from Miami, lugging a thirty-pound computer, wandering from place to place looking for someone who would believe. The first guy who believed was a lawyer, Av Gordon. He steered me to a consulting company, Matrix Associates and its leader Michael Fox. Matrix had just finished a strategic self-examination and determined under no circumstances would they invest time and effort in another start-up. But as a favor to Av, they listened.
The product was dismal. It had more bugs than a New York hotel room. But those Matrix guys could hear the truth behind the faltering message. And they dumped their new “no start up” policy and have worked with Serotek ever since, Michael Fox taking on the role of COO and mentoring me in the art of management. Sometimes it took a lot of mentoring – and a two-by-four. But I learned.
Our vision, and we articulated it in our very first business plan, was to treat blind people as a market; provide them with the tools and services they need; and migrate them and the industry towards universal design. From the very beginning we believed accessibility was a right, not a privilege. We’ve stayed true to that mission ever since.
From the start we went against the industry trends. We adapted our software to run with the very latest OS releases. We created products that could be used right out of the box with very little training and we delivered functionality that fully served blind people’s lifestyle and did a very good job with their common business needs.
We focused on mobile – smart-drive based software that could be plugged in anywhere and then Internet-based software available anywhere, anytime from the cloud – for free. We charged a simple, low price and gave away updates. We created unique ways for peer to peer communication using the Internet. We were roundly hated by the industry leaders.
And we developed a bit of a cult following which served us in good stead when we got served a cease and desist-order for using a name vaguely related to the industry leader’s name. It was the best thing that ever happened to us. Here was the industry giant beating up on this tiny company whose only crime was that it created better, cheaper products. The community was up in arms and name recognition was no longer a problem. We were essentially liberated from using the old name (a legacy that really no longer fit us) and everyone knew who we were. I’d love to claim that I planned that, but I suspect it was, yet again, truly a case of divine intervention.
Since then we have released new and exciting products in to the marketplace at an accelerated rate: social networking tools – why shouldn’t blind people have FaceBook and Twitter and Linked In and all of that? Music; I phone applications, tools for making meetings and events accessible both locally and over the Internet. We have cheered others in the industry as they moved into our space and we have roared our approval for mainstream players like Apple, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft for making their tools universally accessible. We are for anything that promotes universal accessibility.
Blind as I am, I saw this coming more than a decade ago and now my vision is coming to pass. Serotek is still not a huge company, but it is growing. And we remain the only company in the industry with a blind CEO – the only company that looks to a blind person for its vision. Not only that, sighted people are the minority at Serotek. Not because I don’t like sighted people, it’s just that we have been able to find so much great talent in our own community. Our lead programmer Matt Campbell is visually impaired and is one of the most amazing software engineers I have ever met!
So far the vision has been 20/20. Today I am blessed with a beautiful wife that is here with me tonight and five, yes five, wonderful children!
The lesson of this story is that the biggest barrier to success is not lack of eyesight but lack of insight – knowing and believing in yourself. If you believe in yourself and open your heart to a little divine guidance when you need it, anything is possible. After all if our creator gave us the ability to dream HE would be awfully cruel if HE didn’t give us a way to achieve that dream. So, what’s your dream?