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Charleston startup helps websites become readable for the blind amid wave of lawsuits

Charleston Digital Corridor Bridge (copy)

Startup Digital Echo is leasing space from the tech incubator the Charleston Digital Corridor at Meeting and Mary Streets. Digital Echo consults with companies that need to update their websites to be accessible to people with disabilities, like vision impairments. Provided/Charleston Digital Corridor

A Charleston startup wants to guide companies to making their websites accessible to people with disabilities, an issue that begs attention amid a wave of lawsuits.

John Mulvey formed Digital Echo earlier this year to help companies manage the transition to accessibility. Aside from the potential legal exposure, Mulvey said businesses need to do a better job of keeping disability issues in mind.

"Including as many people as possible is a central tenet of society," he said. "This is an area that really has been overlooked."

As screens increasingly dominate work and daily life, the question of how to make the digital world accessible to the visually impaired has fallen by the wayside. But in recent years, hundreds of lawsuits accusing companies of failing to consider disabilities when building their websites have been filed in recent years, according to the American Bar Association

In 2016, for example, a blind man brought a federal complaint against Domino's Pizza. He alleged he couldn't place an order through the company's website or mobile app because the pizza giant had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act because it wasn't complying with "widespread standards" that make screen-reading possible for the visually impaired. The lawsuit is ongoing.

Similar cases have targeted the websites of Dunkin' Donuts, dozens of colleges and hospitals. 

Websites can be a "place of public accommodation," though courts have been divided over the issue, according to the ABA. Places of public accommodation must be accessible to people with disabilities. In the physical world, that translates to ramps and buttons that automatically open doors.

Now, the onus is on companies to do more and create content that is friendly to screen-reading software. 

People with visual impairments can use tools like JAWS, created by Microsoft Windows, that dictate the contents of the website to the user. Software like AudioEye, on the other end, can do the heavy lifting of making websites compliant.

Digital Echo offers specialized consulting to help companies find solutions that fit its needs. Mulvey also offers  trains on how to create more accessible content. PDF documents, which are widely used by almost all businesses, must also be compliant, he pointed out. 

For now, Digital Echo is a small team working out of leased space at the Charleston Digital Corridor at Meeting and Mary streets on the peninsula. The firm's "intern" is guide-dog-in-training Zion, who sometimes accompanies Mulvey to work. The Labrador who belongs to Southeastern Guide Dogs.

Services also exist to train people with visual impairments to use technology. The Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired provides free classes on using computers and accessing the internet.

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Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.

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