In February 2006, a student at the University of California-Berkeley sued Target because its website was inaccessible to the blind. The lawsuit put the issue of online accessibility for disabled people on the map, says Sean Bradley, founder of AudioEye.
Dealer.com uses AudioEye to make sure its website is accessible to people with disabilities.
Target settled for $6 million with Bruce Sexton Jr., the student at UC Berkeley, and the National Federation of the Blind, which filed the lawsuit jointly with Sexton. Initially, Target argued that the Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandates accessibility for the disabled, did not apply to its website, but only to its brick-and-mortar stores, then reversed its position.
Bradley, whose own brother suffers from deteriorating eyesight, launched AudioEye in 2013 to help companies make their websites accessible for the blind and people with other disabilities with the help of artificial intelligence and machine learning. AudioEye automatically evaluates and adjusts website content to be accessible.
Bradley said at first he was “laser-focused” on helping the blind.
“If you’re blind, you rely on software screen reader technology to navigate your digital world, from operating systems to using programs like Word, or your email,” Bradley said.
If a website developer doesn’t follow best practices, he said, that screen reader technology won’t work, and the blind person will be left out in the cold, digitally speaking. There’s an international standard for web content accessibility, but it’s not taught in schools, according to Bradley.
“It’s something that gets glossed over when you’re moving fast in a fast-paced world,” he said. “There’s high demand to get new technologies to market, or a new website up and running. One of the areas often overlooked are the steps required to accommodate people with disabilities.”
The people with disabilities are noticing, and they’re not staying silent. Last year, Bradley said, there were more than 2,200 lawsuits filed in federal court alone regarding website accessibility issues.
AudioEye founder Sean Bradley.
“When you also look at state and local courts, or even legal demand letters, it’s much more pervasive than that,” he said. “It’s been record-breaking year over year. This year is no different.”
Bradley says just about every retailer you can imagine has been sued, many of them multiple times, from small mom-and-pop shops and restaurants, to the largest international conglomerates.
While AudioEye began with a laser focus on the blind, Bradley said his company is also addressing the needs of the deaf, who rely on captions, as well as those who have dexterity problems.
“If you don’t have the use of your hands, using a mouse is difficult,” he said. “It can be impossible to navigate an online experience. There are best practices for using a keyboard exclusively for navigating a website.”
Other disabilities include dislexyia, color blindness and epilepsy.
“Quick-flashing content can trigger seizures,” Bradley explained. “All these things need to be taken into account if you adhere to standards from the World Wide Web Consortium.”
The consortium, commonly known as W3C, sets the international standards for the Web.
Bradley realized early on that since website developers weren’t paying attention to the needs of the disabled, companies were often finding themselves in urgent situations, threatened with litigation.
Tommy Hilfiger is another AudioEye client.
To avoid that situation, AudioEye embeds a basic script into a website that gives it control to find and cure issues automatically.
“We do the heavy lifting,” Bradley said. “We ask our customers to embed the technology and let AudioEye take care of it.”
As you can imagine, it took some convincing to get companies to allow that kind of access to their websites.
Fortunately, Bradley said, one of his earliest customers was ADP, the HR and payroll juggernaut, which houses more Social Security numbers than any other business in the world.
“They came to us in a bind,” Bradley said. “They had Microsoft, Intel, the federal government – all of whom rely on ADP for services – saying, ‘Look, your website doesn’t comply with the standards. If you don’t fix it we’ll have to find another solution.’”
“We were able to demonstrate our technology to them, and solve the problem.”
That sort of high-profile business has put AudioEye on a path to rapid growth. The company has 80 employees and trades on NASDAQ. Revenue for 2019 will be about $11 million, substantial growth from the $6 million the company grossed in 2018.
“It is the right thing to do,” Bradley says of the service AudioEye provides. “We’ve never had a client say, ‘Look, I don’t want to do this.’ They say, ‘How fast can we do it?’”