An Unseen Advantage

Photo: Mark Estes

At age 21, Stanford senior Joe Cavanaugh knows all about toughness. Earlier this year, the co-founder of an Internet start-up for the disabled found himself buffeted by professional challenges that might defeat many young entrepreneurs. But Cavanaugh's not your average Joe. He faced bigger obstacles long before breaking into the business world.

As a high school football player and wrestler in Littleton, Colo., Cavanaugh hoped to become a professional athlete. He was on the verge of applying for college football scholarships when, one morning in church, his legs suddenly buckled and gave way. Three hours later, they were permanently paralyzed. Doctors discovered the16-year-old had contracted the Epstein-Barr virus—an infection that causes mononucleosis and in rare cases triggers paralysis.

While Cavanaugh was in the hospital, he saw something on television that helped him come to terms with his situation. Boston University hockey player Travis Roy had suffered a spinal injury in his first college game and was paralyzed from the neck down. Cavanaugh watched all the sportscasters mulling how Roy would deal with the blow, and he began to ask the same question about himself.

"Would I be the guy who was pissed off, or would I be living?" he wondered. Instead of succumbing to anger or depression, Cavanaugh decided to redirect his energy from sports to studies. "I've never been one to lie down," he says. The high school senior became editor-in-chief of his school newspaper, then student-body president. Cavanaugh says his most difficult moment came when his girlfriend, a model who had appeared in Seventeen magazine, broke up with him, saying it was because he used a wheelchair. "That really made me realize things were not the same," he recalls.

Entering Stanford in 1997, Cavanaugh kept up his can-do spirit. He wanted to join a fraternity and rushed during his freshman year, only to find that none of the frat houses were accessible to wheelchairs. He joined Theta Delta Chi as a sophomore anyway, then set about convincing the University to install ramps and build a new bathroom. Most of Stanford is accessible, Cavanaugh says—it's a downhill trip to most outlying classes, though return trips are strenuous—but he can't attend classes in the Inner Quad, and he has found some of the libraries difficult to use.

Although Cavanaugh had to shelve his dreams of being a football hero, he didn't ignore Stanford athletics. A self-described "rabid" fan, he became a yell leader. "It was the next best thing to playing," he says. He's enjoyed some crazy times with the Band, but declines to provide details about an incident involving a cow in the Century Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles.

In his junior year, Cavanaugh studied at Oxford one quarter. That proved to be a turning point. Navigating Stanford in a wheelchair wasn't easy, but Oxford was worse. Cavanaugh, who has a wrestler's burly build, often had to be carried up and down stairs to go to pubs. When he visited the Continent, he found some of the great museums of the world beyond his reach, and few hotels and hostels could accommodate guests in wheelchairs. But again, adversity pointed him in new directions.

Cavanaugh and classmate Doug Aley hit on the idea of creating a website with information, news, inspiring stories and products for people with physical disabilities. Last January, the two launched EmpowerD.com. They suspended their studies in March to work full time. Cavanaugh started as content director, then moved into sales and marketing with Aley. (He plans to finish his degree in communication this fall.)

By early April, the company had raised $250,000 from friends and family. But when the public markets soured on dot-coms later that month, Cavanaugh and Aley realized their business plan probably wouldn't attract sufficient funding. So they shifted gears, transforming EmpowerD.com into SSB Technologies, a software and services company that makes websites more accessible to the visually impaired. About 20 employees work out of one cavernous, linoleum-floored room, a former Kragen Auto Parts store in San Francisco's Mission District.

Most websites are designed primarily for users to read or look at, not listen to. Voice browsers can help visually impaired people by scanning text and reading it aloud. Unfortunately, voice browsers don't reproduce graphics, a key part of most websites. A simple solution, often overlooked, is to provide descriptive information in a caption that can substitute for the picture when read by the browser.

Several other companies test websites for various kinds of usability, but Cavanaugh's group focuses exclusively on access for the visually impaired. "It's great to hear that there's a company out there that's thinking about this," says Randy Souza, an analyst with Forrester Research of Cambridge, Mass. "Hopefully they'll start spreading the message to designers who haven't been paying attention to access."

Just how big the market might be for the company's services is anyone's guess. Last November, the National Federation for the Blind filed suit against AmericaOnline in a U.S. District Court, charging that AOL's service is not accessible to the visually impaired. Should the court's ruling make accessibility a legal requirement, Cavanaugh's company could get a boost.


Cate Corcoran is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.