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This Day in History, a really cool site I just discovered

I wanted to share a site which I’ve always assumed must exist, but have never actually seen prior to today. This Day in History is a site which allows you to choose a date and see significant events that happened on that particular day. I confess I’ve been a bit mesmerized by this site over the past few hours, just picking various days and reading. It’s really kind of fascinating to choose a significant date and read what comes up.

For anyone who may want to use This Day in History with a screen reader, its quite doable. The currently selected date is a button, choosing that will allow the month to be changed by activating either the ‘previous’ or ‘next’ links. Once you’ve chosen the correct month, simply continue scrolling with the screen reader to activate the specific day. Events are structured with level 2 headings making it relatively easy to jump from event to event.

So, if you’re curious what event historical events may have happened on a particular day, This Day in History, might be worth checking out. Wish you could have a summary of the current day’s historical events Emailed to you every morning? You actually can! Subscribe here to have the current day’s historical events delivered directly to your inbox every morning.

I hope others enjoy This Day in History as much as I’m enjoying it. Now that I’ve learned that I can get the summaries Emailed to me, I may start adding them as entries to my Day One journal just to provide some additional context for the day.

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It’s an AMA, Ask Me Anything, kind of day.

One of the really cool things about participating in the Ultimate Blog Challenge is that I receive daily ideas about topics on which I might want to blog. The challenge doesn’t require that I follow these suggestions at all, they’re just ideas.

Day 15’s suggestion was a particularly interesting one: Create an AMA, Ask Me Anything kind of post. The idea is simple: invite readers to use the comments area to ask questions and then I answer those questions as replies to the comments.

And so, in the interest of being brave and being open/curious to see where this might lead, you are invited to ask me anything. Have a question, but don’t want to ask it publicly? That’s perfectly fine, just ask your question via my contact form.

Remembering Formspring

This Ask Me Anything concept reminds me of a service that used to exist called Formspring. Formspring was a service that would allow people to ask questions anonymously. Answers to those questions would be posted, but would also be sent back to whomever asked the question. I had signed up with Formspring simply because I was curious about the service, not because I actually thought anyone would ask me anything. To my surprise, people did ask questions and the questions were not weird at all, OK some were, but most of them weren’t. The anonymity of the service made it possible for people to ask questions they might not otherwise feel comfortable asking: questions about blindness, questions about how I do certain things in daily life, questions about things I had been blogging about at the time. Unfortunately, the very anonymity that was so empowering, eventually helped lead to Formspring’s downfall. I found a great article answering the question of ‘What happened to Formspring?’ if anyone is curious. I’m sad that Formspring is gone because I never found a substitute quite as good.

So, if there’s anything you’d like to ask me, please feel free to do so either in the comments or via the contact form. I have no idea if this AMA concept will lead anywhere at all, but I’m definitely excited to see what happens and always willing to share.

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The very unfortunate discontinuation of FlickType and some reflections on accessibility and innovation

One of the things that most excites me about accessibility is that it has proven Time and time again to be a springboard for innovation. Speech to text, text to speech, curb cuts and ramps, the Segway, and even the typewriter keyboard are examples of how thinking about a problem from an accessibility perspective has lead to incredible innovations that we all benefit from every day. In the digital space, we see numerous accessibility-driven innovations: image/object recognition, and speech to text devices (Hey Siri!) being examples that immediately come to mind. I love innovation and love that I get to work in a field that can be a springboard for that innovation because innovation is something that can improve the world for everyone, not just for those with disabilities.

And so it was with much sadness that I came across the following tweet earlier today:

Tweet from FlickType

FlickType, and its predecessor, sought to solve a very particular problem: how to type more accurately, and with more speed on a tiny screen-based keyboard such as that on iOS devices or even the Apple Watch. Their solution is both elegant and ingenious: essentially map out where the user’s fingers make contact with the screen and determine what that user is trying to type regardless of whether the correct keys are actually pressed or not. Typing on a phone screen, accurately and with speed, is challenging for many people, myself included. In my case, I often attempt to type with my phone in one hand, a cup of coffee in the other and typing one-handed like this is even more challenging. Of course typing one-handed is a particular user preference of mine — I could very theoretically put down my coffee — but for people with the use of only one hand, that option is not available. FlickType didn’t totally eliminate all challenges with on-screen typing, but the accuracy with which it predicts what the user is trying to type significantly reduced those barriers. In my mind, FlickType didn’t think about what is possible, but rethought what possibility could be.

Today’s tweet from FlickType is very sad for me because it is a very modern, and for me very real, example of how accessibility can be a springboard for innovation that can improve experiences for everyone. I’m not sure what will come next for the FlickType team, but whatever they do, I hope they approach their next endeavor with the same passion, drive, and innovation with which they reinvented the experience of on-screen typing. Thank you, FlickType, for all you have done to reduce barriers, and thank you for bravely innovating to get it done.

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Are you familiar with Penny Forward – financial guidance for people who are blind?

Today I would like to talk about a really cool resource that I think everyone should know about, Penny Forward. I am passionate about finance and financial literacy and find it unfortunate that so many people who are blind struggle to understand and navigate this complex landscape. Penny Forward is a group devoted to trying to bridge that gap by providing accessible resources, and a community where people can connect with each other to discuss all things relating to finance. From the Penny Forward mission statement:

Penny Forward’s mission is to help blind people build the knowledge to confidently navigate the complicated landscape of personal finance through education, mentoring, and mutual support.

Mission statement found on Penny Forward’s About page

Penny Forward envisions a world where blind people have the financial knowledge and resources to confidently whether hard times, take advantage of rare opportunities, and more powerfully support causes they deeply care about. 

Penny Forward’s vision statement

I’ve really enjoyed participating in and interacting with the Penny Forward community. I’ve found that a variety of financial aspects are discussed: Accessibility of financial resources, information about understanding and establishing credit, information about Able accounts and how to take advantage of them, discussions around budgeting and budgeting apps, discussions for people who are new to investing, and much much more. I’ve found the community to be one built on respect and comprised of people with a desire to help one another.

In addition to the Penny Forward FaceBook group, Penny Forward has a vibrant podcast which covers an incredible amount of topics in a very easy-to-understand way. I also love that many of the podcasts focus on people with their own stories of success, success as defined by them whether that be purchasing a home, retiring, or anything else related in some way to finances. These stories help me to remember that success is really an individualized thing and that helps me better refine what success means to me personally.

If you would like to learn more about Penny Forward, the podcast, the community, or what it’s all about, check out the Penny Forward home page. I have found Penny Forward to be a fantastic community and resource and hope you will too.

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What is your favorite season?

I thought I’d ask a question in this blog post because I find it interesting to learn what peoples’ favorite seasons are and why. My favorite season happens to be fall. No, not because pumpkin spice everything makes an appearance — I actually don’t like pumpkin spice — but because everything feels somehow sharper, fresher, as if there’s an energy as nature prepares for winter. Fall is filled with so many characteristics that I love: The sound of leaves crunching beneath my feet as I walk outside, the crisp air that doesn’t seem to be able to make up its mind about whether to be cold or warm, the birds as they frantically seem to migrate south. Winters are cold here in Minnesota and it’s almost as if everything around me, the trees, the birds, even the people are united in a common desire to get ready for whatever’s coming.

As I sit outside composing this blog post, I can feel, somewhere deep within me, that fall is fast approaching. It’s not a chill in the air — it’s actually a balmy 72 degrees (f), 22 (C). I hear the crickets and other insects around me chirping, not a fast chirp as they do when the temperature starts to drop, but a louder chirp, as if they’re asking each other, “are you ready yet?” There’s a gentle breeze blowing, very gentle, but strong enough to stir the very first leaves that have begun falling from the trees in my yard. As I sense the fast approach of fall, I am filled both with excitement and sadness. Excitement because there are so many aspects of fall that I love, but sadness because it means that summer is slowly coming to an end. I think I feel it especially this year since this has been a summer of connection, connection with people and with a slowly normalizing world and I don’t want those things to end.

So, what is your favorite season? What about it makes it your favorite?

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Why is accessibility often referred to as A11y?

I remember the first time I came across the term ‘A11y’. I had just discovered Twitter and I noticed that very often, the word accessibility was being replaced with this a11y thing. I was very confused, I mean what the heck does A11y mean and how did it come to represent accessibility?

numeronyms

Numeronyms are something you may not have ever heard of, but you’ve probably come across them without realizing it. I found some great examples on the A11Y Project of numeronyms we frequently use, such as Y2K, 24/7, or even 911. These all contain numbers, but are synonymous with other phrases. We generally know that Y2K refers to the year 2000, that 24/7 means 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 911, at least in the US, means help! But how does accessibility fit into this? Accessibility is a long word and this can be problematic, especially in the old days of Twitter when tweets were limited to a maximum of 140 characters. When we look at the word ‘accessibility’, we find that there are eleven letters between the ‘a’ and the ‘y’. If we remove all those letters and substitute them with the number 11, we magically have A11y, clear as mud, right? Unfortunately, it’s not always clear and for many people, including yours truly, it’s confusing when first encountered. But, where space is at a premium, changing accessibility to A11y can be very useful. On Twitter — yeah I’m kind of addicted to Twitter — A11y is often used as a hashtag, a method for quickly finding Tweets related to a particular subject.

It’s A11y, NOT Ally!

I remember the first time I heard the term ‘ally’ in reference to accessibility, it was my first day at Deque Systems. I was super excited and honored to be part of Deque’s awesome team and even better for me, I joined just before Deque’s annual meeting and so I got to meet my co-workers in person. At that meeting, my boss at the time was distributing these ‘Ally’ stickers that we could proudly display on our laptops. I had no idea what ‘ally’ meant, but being the new guy, I didn’t want to ask what seemed like a really stupid question. Besides, I really wanted the sticker, I mean who doesn’t want a really cool shiny laptop sticker? And so I got my sticker, I put it on my laptop, and six months later, I finally figured out the mystery. Apparently, the number 1 looks like a lower case ‘l’. Having never read print though, this was totally not obvious to me. Once I understood that the number 1 and lower case ‘l’ look similar, this made total sense, but only because someone explained to this non-print reader that the number 1 and lower case ‘l’ look similar. Making this even more confusing, screen readers don’t pronounce the word ‘ally’ the same way. They probably should, but sometimes, they pronounce ‘ally’ as ‘alley’ as in a path between two buildings, and those are two very different words indeed. The point is, while A11y may be confusing, using the word ‘ally’ could exacerbate that confusion, especially for non-print readers. As an aside, I still have that sticker and think fondly of my wonderful time at Deque whenever I come across it. 🙂

So, that’s the big mystery of how A11y came to represent accessibility. A11y is just one of many numeronyms, it’s just not one that people use every day and so it’s not readily apparent what it means. If you use ‘A11y, especially in presentations, try whenever possible to also use the word accessibility, so that others make the association. And if you use the word ‘ally’ for ‘A11y’, just know that this may be confusing for people who rely on screen readers, or who do not read print. Oh, and of course, if you use ‘ally’, be sure to follow it up with a shiny sticker, because laptop stickers are just awesome.

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Connections and reflections

For today’s blog entry, I wanted to try and find two words that could sum up my day and I learned that it’s not really that easy to sum up an entire day in just two words. The more I thought about it, the more difficult this became. The thing is, a lot of things happened in my day and I don’t think I truly realized that until I tried to sum it up. I spent time outside in my little vegetable garden, I attended meetings, did work stuff, met some co-workers for lunch, had a nice long chat with friends, had a game night with friends and family, exercised, ate some really incredible food, read articles on a variety of topics, received a package from a friend; How can that be summed up in just two words?

For me though, one of the things about my day which has kind of been thematic is connection. I had lots of opportunities today to just connect with others and I’m truly grateful for those opportunities. I connected with some people in person, others over FaceTime, a few over Zoom, and of course there’s always social media. The important thing is that with each connection, I got to be part of someone else’s world and had the opportunity to let them be part of mine, even if ever so briefly. Regardless of whatever form it may take, connection is such an important thing to me, it’s how I learn, it’s how I share, it’s how I grow. For me, connection is often my source for inspiration and motivation.

Today, we have more options than ever before to connect with others and yet as I think about my own life, especially over this past year, I think I connect with others less often than ever before. Oh sure, I frequently have text conversations with people, and I social media a lot (can that be a verb?) and I may even call a friend from time-to-time, but today I had an opportunity to connect with two friends, in different parts of the world. We chatted for hours and it was absolutely wonderful just to catch up with each other and to learn about what has transpired in each other’s lives since we last spoke. And while it was wonderful to catch up, I feel a little bad because it truly has been a while. I mean, connecting couldn’t be easier and it’s cheaper than ever before. And yet I know I don’t connect with people, really connect, with people as often as I probably should. So that’s something I’m going to definitely work on because while we have more asynchronous ways to connect than ever before, there’s nothing quite as awesome as just having a good ol’ conversation with friends.

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A high-level overview and comparison of Apple’s Fitness Plus and Peloton, from my perspective

In an effort to become more fit, I’ve been exploring a variety of apps and services and in this post, I thought I would provide a high-level comparison of two popular options: Apple Fitness Plus and Peloton. I should note that I do not currently own any Peloton equipment, so I’m specifically comparing their streaming class offering in this post.

As I wrote an in earlier post, I’m all about gamification as this is an incredible motivator for me. Applying this to exercise though has been a real challenge. My relationship with exercise is, well, it’s complicated. Actually it’s not really that complicated, it’s down-right adversarial. I hate exercising, I’ve never enjoyed it. I know people say that exercise makes them feel alive and wonderful, but as I sit here with my feet up after having completed back-to-back bike workouts in preparation for this post, I am not among that group. That said, I know exercise is important, and I know it’s essential if I am going to reach my fitness goals, not that knowing any of that helps me like exercise any better.

Apple Fitness Plus

I was really excited when I heard that Apple was launching their Fitness Plus service. Apple makes everything seem incredibly cool, and so I immediately wondered: Could they have somehow found a way to make that apply to exercise? In order to use Fitness Plus, you need both an iOS device and an Apple Watch. The Apple Watch part is the most important as without that, you can view the catalog of workouts, but can’t participate in any of them. Signing up is incredibly easy as Fitness Plus is just a tab in the Fitness app which is pre-installed with iOS. The really cool thing with Fitness Plus is that while I’m doing a workout, your metrics such as heart rate and Apple Watch rings progress (calorie burn, exercise minutes and stand minutes) are displayed on-screen. Fitness Plus also has something called the “burn bar” which allows me to see how I stack up against others who have recently completed the same workout. This can be either motivating or discouraging, but fortunately, it can be turned off. From an accessibility perspective, Apple has really done a great job with Fitness Plus. When an instructor wants to draw attention to a particular ring, such as the exercise ring, VoiceOver automatically reads the ring’s current progress. If the instructor wants to draw attention to heart rate, those numbers are also automatically announced. Most importantly, at least for me, VoiceOver reads when a timer starts and stops, along with the timer’s duration, timers are used in the workouts to time all-outs, or similar intervals. I am able to find whatever data I need on-screen, but having data automatically announced when the instructor is focusing on it is really convenient. Closed captioning is also available for many, if not all of the workouts. Unfortunately, audio description is not available, so if I’m not sure how to do a particular exercise, I’m kind of stuck. That said, many of the instructors try to be descriptive which definitely helps.

Peloton

Until very recently, I was under the impression that in order to use any of Peloton’s services, I would first need to own Peloton equipment such as their bike or treadmill. This is not true though as their streaming class offering does not require one to have Peloton equipment. Setup of the Peloton app was pretty straight-forward although I ran into a few accessibility issues during the setup process, most notably, I had a heck of a time checking the checkbox indicating that I agree with their terms of service.

Peloton offers both live and on-demand classes which is really neat. In theory, if someone wanted to exercise with me, we could agree to both attend the same live class. While in a class, I can see who else is in the class with me (there user names, not video or anything like that) and sometimes the instructors will shout out encouragement to a specific person. I love this because it provides the feel of being in an actual class. Peloton allows me to add friends and then it’s apparently possible to share workout histories with one another, in addition to participating in challenges. Since I have just very recently started trying Peloton, I do not currently have any friends on the app, so haven’t gotten to play with the friend-related features yet — I’m SteveOfMaine by the way, if anyone wants to add me. 🙂

The other thing I like about Peloton is that while they offer fewer workout categories than Apple Fitness Plus, they have a more extensive library of classes, and as just mentioned, many are live. One additional feature that I particularly like is that classes can be scheduled right within the app. For me, my calendar is sacrosanct and if I schedule classes, I’m way more likely to hold myself accountable. Each class also has a difficulty rating and a brief plan of what to expect, in contrast, Apple Fitness Plus workouts are available “to all abilities with modification”, whatever the heck that really means. Peloton’s class description is more specific than Fitness Plus, and as someone who likes knowing what’s about to happen and when, I really appreciate that.

Summary

I’ve only written a high-level comparison of Apple Fitness Plus and Peloton. There are many features of both apps which I didn’t discuss and in the case of Peloton, probably many features I haven’t even discovered yet. In terms of Apple Fitness Plus: I love the very tight integration with Apple Watch, I love how VoiceOver automatically announces metrics and other data when it’s being focused on by the instructor, and I love that there are numerous workout categories available. In terms of Peloton: I love the social aspect of it, especially since I’m not brave enough to attend classes in person. In addition Peloton offers many challenges and the possibility to unlock achievements — can we say gamification? Also, with Peloton, I have a better idea of how difficult a class may be and also a clearer description of exactly what will be coming up in a class and when.

Ultimately I’m not sure which service will be best for me long-term, but I’m at least a little more excited about exercise than I was before discovering these services. As far as cost, both services are priced similarly with Apple Fitness Plus costing roughly $10/month and Peloton around $13/month. Fitness Plus is also part of Apple’s Apple One bundle and I believe Peloton has different pricing if you own their equipment.

As I’m still exploring both apps, I may have more information to share as I discover it. If there’s a particular aspect you’d like me to write more about, let me know and I will certainly do my best. On that note, I should probably publish this and get to bed, after all, I’m going to need to rest up for tomorrow’s workout. 🙂

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Gabby’s last day at work.

Today was Gabby’s last day at work. For those who don’t know, Gabby is my daughter and in just ten days, she will be off to North Dakota State University where she plans to major in pediatric nursing. I’m super proud of her, she’s overcome a lot of medical and other challenges to get to this point and I know that she is going to make a fantastic pediatric nurse. Gabby’s passion for nursing really began because when she was going through her own medical issues, the pediatric nurses made such a difference in her life. And so today was her last day at work. She’s been working at two jobs and unlike so many kids today, has been saving her money for college. I’m super proud of her, but also a bit sad that in ten short days, she’ll be off to college and and whatever life holds in store for her.

And so while she prepares to journey forth and begin living the rest of her life, I need to start figuring out what comes next for mine. It truly is amazing just how fast time flies.

I know this blog entry is not very long, but today has been a day of reflection for me. And while I will certainly miss Gabby as she goes off to find her own path in life, I am very proud of the young woman she has become and I am excited to see how her life’s story will unfold.

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QWERKYWRITER, one of the coolest keyboards I’ve ever used

Steve holding the QWERKYWRITER keyboard
Steve holding the QWERKYWRITER keyboard

Inspired by the classic typewriter, the QWERKYWRITEr is one of the coolest and most interesting mechanical computer keyboards I’ve ever used. Now, I realize that some of my readers may never have used a good ol’ typewriter which is kind of sad. I mean they will never know the joy of erasing character by character, just hoping the correction ribbon hadn’t run out yet. They will never understand the feelings that come after typing a masterpiece only to realize that the latest few sentences were permanently inked on the roller because the paper had run out minutes earlier. Ah, but these were the norm for those of us who used typewriters back in the day and did we complain? … Yes, yes we did. . 🙂

Typewriters weren’t all struggle though, they had many advantages that one just doesn’t find in most computer keyboards these days. For one thing, a typewriter was a solid, almost immoveable object. Generations of people might come and go, but the typewriter would remain where it was, impervious to it all. I used to drum my fingers on the edge of the typewriter while I pondered what I planned to write next, something that is challenging for me now that so many keyboards hardly have edges anymore. There was never any question as to whether a key was pressed hard enough or not because a hard click would signify success, almost as if the typewriter were saying, “Hey friend, I got you..”. And of course there was a certain gratification that could only be realized after hammering on the return key at the end of an angry letter or memo, as if that would truly help to emphasize the point. I found out that this isn’t very advisable with modern keyboards after I once hit the spacebar with a little too much vigor: The spacebar flew across the desk, a little plastic piece flew across the room, and I’m pretty sure the spring is still in orbit somewhere around the Moon.

When I first heard about the QWERKYWRITER, I wasn’t sure what to think about it. It wasn’t until I listened to a wonderful podcast demo by David Woodbridge that I decided that this was something I really just had to have. The QWERKYWRITER looks and feels like a typewriter. The case is made out of solid aluminum and while it’s much easier to transport than its namesake, it’s still very solid. On the top of the unit, toward the back, is what looks like the old paper trays that used to collect page after page of writing. This has been repurposed into a stand that can accommodate many tablets. On the sides of the unit, again toward the back, are roller knobs, one on each side. These even have the little grooves on them, just like the knobs that were used to roll paper in or out of the typewriter. Of course these too have been made modern and functional, one serves as a volume control wheel and the other as a scroll wheel. Along the right-hand edge of the unit is a rocker-switch, yep an honest-to-goodness rocker switch that is used to turn the unit on or off. The keycaps are also very solid-feeling with a gap between the cap and the metal platform beneath the key. In order to create a similar feel to the typewriter, German engineered Cherry MX “clicky” switches  are used creating an experience that is incredibly smooth, while retaining a solid click sound as each key is pressed. And oh my gosh! I almost forgot about the cast metal return macro bar which is found along the top left-hand edge of the unit. Yep, while this bar used to advance the paper in the typewriter, it’s a programmable key on the QWERKYWRITER that can be programmed to type up to fifteen characters. I have this programmed to type my name — just type Sawczyn a few times to see why it’s so incredibly handy to relegate this to a press of a lever.

Of course there are some differences between the modern QWERKYWRITER and a typewriter, there’s no 10-key number pad for instance. I know, I know, many people love their numpad, but the typewriter didn’t have one either, so if they had added it, it’d kind of be cheating. The QWERKYWRITER also supports bluetooth connectivity with up to three devices, and also USB connectivity. The QWERKYWRITER does not come with a dust cover, but if you really miss that, or if you just need to have a carrying case, wrist rest, or other accessory, they have plenty available.

Curious what the QWERKYWRITER, with its mechanical switches, return bar, and rocker-switch sounds like? I’ve made a brief recording.

Sound clip of the QWERKYWRITER as recorded by Steve

I really love this keyboard and truly appreciate having received it as a very unexpected gift. Not only is the typing experience absolutely fantastic and comfortable, but this keyboard brings back memories, memories of a time that unfortunately, many people will not be able to appreciate in quite the way I did. Sure the typewriter might be considered old fashioned these days, but for me, the typewriter opened up my entire world. The typewriter allowed me to produce documents that sighted people could read. The typewriter allowed me to write letters to friends and businesses, complete my own homework assignments independently, and so much more. Having a reminder of that on a device I get to use every day is incredibly powerful for me because it helps me realize that while technology continues to evolve, I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for the typewriter of yesterday.