Serotek’s founder Mike Calvo, who is blind, dreams of providing web accessibility everywhere to everyone. He is self driven to develop innovative, affordable and easy to use products that meets the needs of individuals with disabilities, while using Universal Design principles.
Serotek Corporation was formed in November 2001 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Since its inception, the company has developed a network that enables users requiring adaptive technology to access the internet, email, chat rooms, shopping and more, while using a simple and easy to use design interface.
Besides the low vision and blind communities, Calvo wants other disabilities to benefit from his products.
When asked to enumerate these disabilities, Calvo says, “Those with limited motor skills or appendages to operate a keyboard, those on a fixed income who may not be able to afford expensive software or even a computer, those with speech limitations, and people with arthritis.” Conscious of the need to ensure that seniors have access to the information technology world, Calvo adds, “Serotek products are ideal for the mature market who may be experiencing sight challenges due to age, diabetes, macular degeneration and the like, but also may not be adept at computer usage and want a simple tool for quickly learning how to answer email from their grandchildren. The mainstream multi-tasker can also benefit from having email messages read to them as they do other tasks.”
When asked, what motivated him to start Serotek? An energetic and enthusiastic Calvo says, “Market response to my web-based audio entertainment service exposed the enormous demand among the disabled population for tools that give them access to the Internet.”
In addition, Calvo had a vision for an adaptive device that allows Internet access through the operation of a computer navigated by voice command alone. This vision, combined with his knowledge of the fear of failure among the blind people he had been training to use the computer, motivated him to build a company around products that were simple, intuitive and affordable.
A knowledge of Latin combined with his own technology background produced his company’s name. “In Latin, sero means to plant, sow, grow, and tek comes from technology. The company itself stands for accessibility anywhere,” Calvo says proudly. He is haughty, but not boastful, of his many years working in the computer field to ensure that blind people have access to the Internet and all the benefits associated with it.
Years ago, he opened United Computer Consultants, a company dedicated to developing and training blind people and employers to create computer technology jobs with advancement paths. Shortly after opening his company and a store that sold electronics, Calvo placed and trained more than 400-blind-people in jobs, in Florida, and several other states.
In 1997, Calvo began playing with the Internet and using the computer to produce music. His love of music and audio sent him on a quest to find audio on the net. He opened InHouse Radio Networks in 1999 with his high school friend. They released a product called the Radio Webcaster that allowed a person to hear audio from the internet on any FM radio in the home. The product sold well and was hailed as a great new product for the new millennium by CNN and ZD Net.
As Calvo became more involved with the online community he realized that the computer was a must for people with disabilities. The problem was how to help a person living at home and not looking for a job to buy a system that cost over $3000 and required hours and hours of training. Even though his product, the Radio Webcaster, was not a product for people with disabilities, it was mostly purchased by disabled computer users who found it difficult to navigate complex web sites to find the audio treasures buried inside. After talking with many of these people, Calvo realized that unless someone came up with a way to provide computer access to people with disabilities for independent daily living they were going to be left behind in the newly-emerging digital world.
In 2000, InHouse Radio Networks began work on a product known as the System Access Mobile Network. This product allowed a disabled person, who had never before used the Internet, to send email, chat, hear news, audio books, magazines and thousands of radio stations, hundreds of radio reading services, shop online, play online games, take classes, look for jobs, bank and pay bills, even scan printed material all with a product costing under $1000. This product accessed services similar to those provided by on-line service providers, but the System Access Mobile Network service was totally dedicated to the disability market.
Calvo believes that the reason people with disabilities don't have more products and services made for them is there has never been a way to market products and services directly to the more than 58-million-Americans who require adaptive technology to access information online. His dream is to create a community of disabled consumers who can work with product and service providers to educate them to the needs of the disability community and, in return the community will buy these products and services.
"After all, the internet is about bringing products and services to your door, and we need that as disabled consumers," he said. "The days of depending on advocacy groups to get your point across are over. On the internet every individual has a voice and it should be the goal of each disabled person to have his or her voice heard not as only a member of the disabled community but as an individual.”
One of Calvo’s products System Access is a screen reading software “that is simple to use and users can be trained in hours,” a vocational rehabilitation counselor told me.
However, the products that utilize System Access make it even more unique. For example, System Access Mobile allows a user to make any computer accessible by simply taking a thumb drive with the software on it and plugging it into the USB port of the host computer. That computer will immediately start and launch System Access. System Access Mobile Network brings the user to a unique online community with instant access to a wide variety of options and services specifically designed for them including email. For example, SA To Go allows access through the use of Web 2.0 technology by allowing the user to simply log in to any computer and choose the software.
When asked to describe to describe unique features about Serotek, a blind individual familiar with Serotek’s products told me, “While Serotek offers an array of products, the System Access software differentiators are that it is easy to learn, affordable, intuitive, mobile, Microsoft Vista ready, compatible with competing product lines, offers nine different voice options, has a scanning program and is available worldwide.”