Better Living Through Severed Shoestrings

“Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know,” played on repeat throughout my time in public school. I was better off than many blind students, since my school division rarely hesitated to fund what I needed, and my educational assistant’s skill far exceeded her salary. Despite this relative abundance, I was never permitted to forget how lucky I was to receive basic educational tools. Fellow classmates were forever losing or damaging their books and equipment, while I was reprimanded for so much as bending a binder. I was threatened with a $700 fine for misplacing one volume of a Braille book. If a piece of expensive equipment malfunctioned—usually because I had not received the most rudimentary lessons on how to use it—I was held solely responsible, my attempts to explain myself summarily dismissed. Almost nothing I used belonged to me, so a broken coil or missing stack of Braille paper was grounds for outright hysteria. In fact, my first panic attack was triggered by a problem with my school-issued laptop. It had been drilled into me by a few overzealous adults that I could either be a faultless steward of my assistive technology, or I could surrender the right to have any at all. Panic seemed warranted.

University was a welcome reprieve. Generous grants and scholarships covered all my equipment. There was an expectation that I’d take care of my technology to a reasonable extent, but no one was hanging over my shoulder, evaluating the way I carried my Braille display. Grant money wasn’t unlimited, so I still had to be cautious, and when something broke down, there was no guarantee I could afford to repair it. For those fortunate enough to be uninitiated, specialized technology seems to break down a lot.

Then, as if to cement this shoestring pattern, I started working in the nonprofit sector. Anyone who has worked in nonprofit organizations for any length of time knows that you can’t assume you’ll have reliable access to stamps and functional phone systems, let alone costly assistive devices and software. Funding is available for Albertan employers, but I had already developed the habit of accomplishing all tasks with bare-bones resources. Years of living on the disability shoestring meant I was a convenient employee, but not necessarily an optimal one. In the disability world, you often get what you pay for, and the nonprofit tendency to use no or low-cost alternatives to standard products spurred me to avoid asking for anything at all unless my job depended on it. My employer checked in periodically to make sure I didn’t need anything new, but I insisted I was just fine, thanks. Again and again, I chose the long, winding path to every goal—whether at work or in my personal life–because it meant conserving other people’s money and time. What could be more important than that?

Recently, I switched to a position in which employees are expected to make any reasonable request that will increase their productivity. Nothing is promised, but much is delivered, and my shoestring habits are neither lauded nor useful. Profligacy isn’t encouraged, but neither am I praised for taking hours to perform simple tasks just because I used a cheaper option, or refused to ask for help, or failed to request an accommodation. In my new environment, resources are plentiful, and I’ve had to do major soul-searching to become comfortable with that.

It has taken me years to pinpoint why I find the hard way so easy. The trouble with the shoestring lifestyle is that while it’s not enjoyable, it’s comforting. If no one can accuse you of being a drag on the system because of those dreaded “special needs” of yours, you can indulge in self-righteous piety. Doing everything the difficult but economical way is a bulwark against societal pressure to take as little from a harsh world as you can. I convinced myself I had to earn my right to work, which meant ensuring that no employer or disabled peer could view me as financially burdensome. Amid all my anxiety about costing too much or needing too much help, I forgot that employers are typically more attached to excellence and efficiency than economy. If I proved to be valuable and competent, employers would find ways to accommodate me. On the other hand, if I cost them next to nothing but lagged in terms of productivity, they’d be well within their rights to trade me in.

A lawyer friend said it best: “A good dose of get-sh*t-done is important, but time is money.” Cultivating an independent, innovative spirit is worthwhile, but it’s equally important to identify what you need, and have the guts to ask for it. Shoestrings make great security blankets, but when resources are within reach, it’s best to snip those strings. The severing exposes you to potential criticism, yes, and it means someone might conceivably make the case that you’re too costly to keep, sure …

But it also means you’ll do your best work, in good time, with minimal risk of burnout. What could be better for your work-life balance, your health, and your employer’s bottom line?

I’ll keep my ability to improvise and adapt. I’ll hang onto my talent for working under tight budgets and tighter deadlines. I’ll learn multiple ways of circumventing disability barriers, because the ideal environment will not always be there.

As for the scarcity-based, shoestring mentality? I think it’s time I let that go.

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“Are You Afraid of the Dark?”: a Sighted Person’s Adventures With the Screen Reader Experience

When my friend Laura told me she was considering a screen-free vacation, I assumed she was speaking of a general unplugging from all her favourite technology. She clarified the point: she would spend her holiday using nothing but screen readers.
For the average screen reader user, this doesn’t sound like much of an undertaking, but while Laura works with screen readers constantly in her role as accessibility tester, she is fully sighted and had never depended exclusively on a screen reader before. Since Laura is always finding new ways to become even better at what she does, she felt this challenge would enhance her skills at work and give her a better, if not complete, understanding of what the computing experience is like for the everyday visually impaired person.
To my immense delight, Laura agreed to write an account of her adventures, her discoveries, and her advice for other sighted people who want to try the same experiment.


“To alcohol,” once proclaimed Homer Simpson, “the cause of – and solution to – all life’s problems.” Apply this logic to screen readers and this quote sums up my recent winter break.
Screen readers and other assistive tools make technology usable for people with differing abilities relating to vision, hearing, motor skills, etc. Assistive tech achieves this by converting one type of information into other types depending on the user’s preference. For example, screen reader software converts what would be visual words on a computer monitor or phone screen into electronically generated speech and sounds. Likewise, captioning turns speech and sounds into visual words. The field of accessibility covers both the production of technologies like these, and information conversion. To further my skills in this field, I decided to try using these tools on a more personal level. I decided that I was holding myself back in my accessibility career by relying on looking at the screen while using a screen reader. It was the easy way out, and as JFK once said, “we choose to go to the moon… and do the other things… not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

The “Screen-Free Holiday” Experiment

In my life, I’ve undertaken some wacky challenges that have brought me some new and interesting insights. My week of wearing DIY upcycled thrift store clothes taught me that while a duct taped hem is good in a pinch, it can get pretty uncomfortable when it starts to stick to your legs; that yes, free chocolate is so powerful a force that it is possible to give a single talk about making both bacon chocolate truffles and vegan chocolate truffles without starting a riot. Most recently, I decided to rely as much as possible on assistive technology for two weeks, even though I am sighted, just to see what would happen. Here were my plans for a screen-free holiday break from work with the following rules:

  • While in my hometown of Pittsburgh, I would avoid looking at screens and would instead rely on screen readers and other assistive technology as needed.
  • Paper wouldn’t count as a screen, so reading newspapers and books was okay. There was no way I was going to pass up my grandmother’s Reader’s Digest magazines.
  • If I cheated and looked at the screen, I’d need a good reason to explain why I did it.

I knew there would need to be exceptions built in to my process. For example, I was planning on going to the movies with a friend, and while I would request the industry-standard free headset that describes what’s happening in the movie to me, I would not watch the movie with my eyes closed. I also knew I’d be unable to avoid screens around the house, like clocks or oven screens. And, since my dad takes great pride in being able to show people cool things on his smartphone, I wouldn’t object if he called me over to watch something. Overall, I wanted to establish guidelines, not black and white rules.

What This Article is Not About

Here are a few necessary disclaimers before we get to the fun stuff:

  • The opinions expressed in this article are my own and not those of my employer. This was an independent experiment.
  • This challenge should not be construed as a blindness simulation. The article covers my own personal experience, not those of others, blind or sighted.
  • My challenge was not specific to any platform. In fact, I will intentionally use ambiguous language to avoid revealing which tech I used. All that’s important is that I used a phone and a laptop.
  • Finally, I won’t be complaining. I have the luxury of choosing when and if I can depend on assistive technology while others do not.

Screen-Free Stage 1: Biting off More Than I can Chew

Much like grief, learning to use a screen reader brought me through multiple emotional stages.
First, there was the initial “biting off more than I could chew” phase. I had some previous experience with keystrokes and smartphone gestures, but I hadn’t actually done much beyond the basics. I quickly realized that I had a lot to learn, and did my best to avoid slipping into hopelessness.
I found myself soldiering on through brute force, trying everything I could think of to get what I wanted done. Often, I was so focused on figuring out how to perform a task that I’d forget what I was attempting to accomplish in the first place. That note I had wanted to take was lost from my memory by the time I’d thought to try the speech-to-text engine, for example.
Full disclosure: I resorted to cheating when entering longer blocks of complex text, such as wireless network passwords. Cheating also became necessary when trying for literally hours to perform what I thought were basic tasks, like copy/pasting a URL or entering a new phone contact.

Screen-Free Stage 2: Embarrassing Run-Ins (and a Dash of Swearing)

Next, I entered the swearing stage, in which I had several embarrassing run-ins. I couldn’t figure out how to prevent the mobile screen reader from announcing everything out loud, even when the screen was locked. It’s a good thing I don’t lead a secret other life!
I felt such a sinking feeling when a friend sent me an image with text inside it. These are ubiquitous online, but screen readers can’t interpret them without additional software. I ended up using OCR (optical character recognition) to read the picture, but struggled to tell her about what she had done wrong in a tactful way.
Using speech-to-text was another significant adjustment for me. I kept treating dictation like recording a voicemail, failing to speak punctuation and often ending all texts with “ok, bye.” The quality of my messages improved after Meagan, an experienced screen reader user, kindly pointed out that I could (and should!) speak my punctuation aloud to make my messages more readable, but the process remained challenging.
There was a humiliating incident where I couldn’t figure out how to answer the phone when an extremely time sensitive phone call was coming through.
Eventually, my abnormal behaviour became apparent to my family and friends. I was struggling and needed a way forward.

Screen-Free Stage 3: Back to Basics

Tired of the chaos, I decided to go back to basics and RTFM (read the “freaking” manual). I went through each tutorial slowly and carefully, searching for more information online along the way. Things seemed to get easier, but really the only thing that changed was that I got better at using screen readers, slowly but surely. Learning to use a screen reader is just like any other skill, such as learning to play an instrument. In both cases, you press buttons to try to get the sound you desire. Beginners can hit some jarringly wrong notes, while experienced players sound like geniuses to those around them.
My high school band director liked to say that practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes permanent. I had been practicing using a screen reader while still relying on my vision, so I was developing some bad habits that could have become permanent if not for this practice, like using the mouse to navigate instead of learning new keystrokes. I may not have tested every facet of the screen reader experience—I was not brave enough to try online shopping, since my confidence was not high enough to risk spending money—but I did make real progress. By the end of my break, I had tried a few “stunts,” like sending an important, although short, email to a colleague and I even took and posted a picture to social media, all without looking at a screen! My crowning achievement was writing this blog post without using my sight. (Fortunately, Meagan used her excellent editing skills to make this legible. I came back in and added some more comments afterward without using a screen reader. Since I was back in my “normal” life I realized that if I wanted to just finish this piece I couldn’t also take the time needed to become a screen reader user who can also do word processing well. Progress, not perfection.)
Finally, I reached a place of acceptance. Acceptance is not agreeance, and it doesn’t mean I liked everything about my experience, but I was at least about to sit down and face reality.

New Lessons, New Growth

I learned a few unexpected lessons along this journey…
First up: earphones are so important! As I mentioned earlier, screen readers can seriously compromise privacy, especially for novice users. Earphones fulfill the dual purpose of protecting your privacy while letting people know you are occupied with your phone or computer. (Since your eyes won’t necessarily be on the screen, people may not realize you’re working on something.) I have started wearing my headphones over just one ear with the other ear exposed, to signal to others that I’m open to talking if they want. I also learned that screen readers can help with focusing in on specific content; listening to just one thing can be easier than looking at multiple information streams simultaneously.
Second, using a screen reader does not have to be a chaotic experience. Despite the issues I faced at the beginning, using screen readers helped me relax during my vacation by allowing me some time away from social media and my email while I was learning. I had felt anxious about disconnecting, but I’m glad I did. Moderate disconnection gave me the space to work on a new skill while moving into a growth mindset. After a few days of consuming less media, so many ideas came to me.
Third, using a screen reader means heavy exposure to synthetic speech, so choosing the right voice is essential. I learned that the voice employed by the screen reader can really make a difference. I switched between four types of English during the challenge, and the variations helped me keep things fresh and prevented me from getting annoyed by too much of the same voice.
Fourth, going screen-free can open up the visual world in unexpected ways. As my eyes spent less time glued to a screen, I was able to notice small details, like a cute cat-shaped zipper pull on the bag of the person ahead of me in line, and the larger ones, like the beauty of snow and holiday decorations.

Advice for Future Challenge-Takers

Here are a few words of advice for sighted people thinking of following in my footsteps and taking a screen-free break.

  • Learn to use your computer without a mouse before diving into screen reader use. Keyboard navigation is available for nearly every function a mouse performs and it will cut down on the learning curve required for the whole screen reader experience.
  • Be prepared for your friends and family to be confused by your new strange behaviors and messages.
  • Don’t be afraid to take notes with pen and paper, even if you tend to lose paper the way I do. It can make life so much easier.
  • Enjoy non-computer entertainment, especially when you need a break from learning.
  • Try to be patient with yourself and persistent against the problems around you.

What’s it all for, Exactly?

Fellow sighted tech lovers may well ask why I put myself through this while on vacation, over and above the career development possibilities. Their confusion would make sense: I remember when I set the screen on my phone to go dark and I was really in for the project. It felt like a door slamming shut and made me really nervous. However, when I sent my first text after that, I felt amazing! It was worth it.
Screen readers are a vital part of the computing experience for so many, but those who don’t need them don’t typically understand what it’s like to depend on technology few people understand or accommodate. I hope that, by reading this guide, sighted people may be inspired to take a closer look at screen readers, how they function, and what steps can be taken to build a more accessible computing experience for everyone.
A final analogy that came to me during this time seems relevant here: Imagine that you run a business that ships shiny, fun gadgets to your customers. For a certain percentage of your customers, the shipments arrive without issue and they are happy. However, other customers open their packages to find that the labels have fallen off the buttons, the instructions have been replaced with a list of meaningless file names, and there is a bunch of extra junk in the box that makes it hard to find the actual product. These customers paid the same amount of money and are equal users in every respect except that some of them got this bad deal. Now imagine that instead of a fun gadget, you’re actually shipping out the tools people need to do their jobs or connect with loved ones. When web content is put up that isn’t accessible or new problems arise with an app or phone interface, it’s equivalent to sending out that terrible package and product. Imagine opening it on the first day on a new job or giving it as a gift to your grandmother. Do your research on this aspect of product design. Accessibility matters.

Yes, Blind People Can Use Computers

Being blind in the 21st century means I get to have conversations like the following two:
1. “So, I’m interested in this job…”
“Oh, no, impossible, sorry.”
“Why?”
“Well…you’d need to use a computer, you see…”
2. “Hi. I’m new to this chat site and I can’t figure out what I’m doing. I’m blind, so I need some shortcut keys instead of mouse commands. Does anyone know any?”
“If ur blind then how are u using a computer? Ur obviously faking it.”
“…What?”
“Ur looking for attention”

I’d like to think that awareness of what blind people can and can’t do is more widespread than it’s ever been, thanks to the internet and the many blind writers and speakers out there. Despite all the awareness campaigns and advocacy groups, the idea that blindness and computers don’t mix remains stubbornly entrenched. While most people seem to understand that I must use some kind of computer—probably a “special” one—many are still under the impression that I must dictate my blog posts to a hired aide. Given how prevalent computers are in every facet of society, and how vital they are for the accomplishment of even the simplest tasks, it’s no wonder that people believe we’re on the fringes! It’s not surprising that we’d be lumped in with, say, Great Aunt Rosie who still refuses to touch a keyboard.

No matter how often we tweet, “like,” share, blog, and text, some people are still convinced we are unable to use a computer or similar electronic device independently (or at all). I suppose they assume we have assistants who manage every aspect of our online lives. Who knows what they assume goes on when we try to work? When you think about it, it’s not altogether unreasonable for these people to believe we couldn’t possibly work, because of how deeply computers have penetrated the workplace. How can we be expected to function as equal, contributing members of society if we can’t even update our Facebook statuses or pay the phone bill on our own? Even if we can use computers, how exactly do we manage it, since we can’t see the screen?

In my everyday life, computers are not only usable, but necessary. I have a smart phone and a laptop, and I use both daily. As I’ve previously discussed on this blog, computers help me through a variety of hurdles, among them reading printed documents, deciphering labels, finding my way around the city, and communicating via all the social networks. Computers are not only within my ability to use; they are also a portal to parts of the world I never could have accessed without them.
So, how do I use computers? Since I can’t see the screen at all, my smart phone and laptop are both equipped with a screen reader, which is a piece of software that runs in the background and reads the information on the screen using text-to-speech output. (For the low-vision users among us, screen magnification suffices.) It is also possible to read what’s on the screen in braille, provided you have a braille display handy. If you have an iPhone, you can demo Voiceover, the built-in screen reader; it’s lots of fun. Otherwise, there is a wealth of information online about all the different screen readers, so if you want to learn more about them, you could easily dedicate an afternoon to that research. For our purposes, all you really need to know is that, with the help of special software, computers and phones are mostly, if not totally, accessible to blind people all over the world. Assistive technology is expanding so that we can access everything from GPS trackers, to smart televisions, to bank machines. With the help of this software, I can do most of what a sighted computer user can, putting me on a more equal playing field than a blind person from the past could even imagine. While using a computer to navigate the internet, you’d never even know there was anything different about me at all.

Yes, blind people can use computers, and have done so for decades. Yes, we can (usually) perform well in workplaces using computer software, as long as that software supports our screen readers. Yes, we can send texts, write tweets, and manage online banking independently. Yes, we can develop software, write programs, and administer technical support.
Yes, we can keep up.

So, next time you meet someone who believes blindness and computers are like oil and water, do us all a favour, and pass on the good news!

In Praise Of TapTapSee

I’ve always been skeptical of image recognition apps that try to compensate for a pair of broken eyes. I remember, rather too vividly, a CNIB demonstration of a colour indicator. The thing was outrageously priced, and in any case it really didn’t work. The salesperson didn’t do a very good job of hiding her dismay when it failed, during multiple attempts, to get the colour right—or even close to right. Since then I’ve been, perhaps unfairly, disenchanted with image recognition technology.

an image recognition app called TapTapSee came on the scene and encouraged me to think differently. Sure, it had a few kinks to be worked out, and even today, it’s not always spot on. (During one memorable session, it informed me that a teabag I was photographing said “tips about relationships.”) Despite its occasional mistakes, and its apparent inability to master colour indication, its uses cannot be quantified. It recognizes labels on packaging, articles of clothing, and almost anything else you’d need help to identify. Sometimes, it’s so descriptive that it scares me a little: it once told me that my profile picture included a “woman in a black tank top smiling in a field of yellow flowers.” The detail (and accuracy) was enough to make my jaw drop. It’s worth noting, however, that the magic happens largely because of the efforts of sighted volunteers. Without their insight, the app would be just as clumsy and ineffectual as all the others. Those volunteers, in particular, are what make TapTapSee shine.

It’s still best to label everything and keep my belongings organized. However, it’s nice to know that a clever app like TapTapSee has my back. It has only improved with time, and I can’t wait to see where image recognition technology goes from here.

In Praise of Voice Dream Reader

I’m a voracious bookworm, and I do mean voracious. I devour books as though they are my lifeblood, and if I go too long without a good book, I wilt like a neglected little flower, languishing in my own personal desert. When I discovered Voice Dream Reader, my reading experience improved dramatically. Instead of reading EBooks through apps like Kindle and iBooks, both of which work but are clunky and inefficient for power readers, I could load them into a highly-accessible app that boasts outstanding features and always delivers robust performance. I could listen to audio books without resorting to the dreaded iTunes. I could navigate EBooks with an ease I’d never yet encountered outside of a PC application, and I could choose from a wide variety of text-to-speech voices to read to me as I tackled my leaning tower of dishes.

While the app is very useful for blind readers, it’s also designed to accommodate low-vision readers who require high contrast and enlarged font. It’s even tailored for those with dyslexia, brand new readers who need to trace each word with a finger to stay on track, and dedicated speed readers who want to use the “pack-man” method developed by Harvard and MIT. In short, it really does have something for everyone.

When a new update was released, carrying with it some substantial changes, I discovered that some unhappy user, apparently opposed to change, had given the app a one-star review. Everyone is entitled to dislike an app, but many disgruntled users give unjustifiably low ratings based on personal preferences, sparing little thought to the impact these reviews have on the developer. App developers need to contend with the massive hit the app’s standing will take from even a single one-star review. This customer may have had his reasons, and I don’t think it was immoral of him to give the app such an abysmal rating, but I have joined the ranks of those grateful users who have rallied around the developer, reiterating that we love the app and appreciate the hard work that goes into its development. I hope this post will serve as encouragement, reassurance, and well-deserved praise. Voice Dream Reader is my favourite app by far, and I do not anticipate that anything else will top it for a long time to come.

The Cost Of Disability: Or, Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Being disabled is expensive. Slap a label like “adaptive” or “assistive” on a product and the price skyrockets, just like that. It seems odd, doesn’t it? Exploitative? Yet, that’s what happens.

The free market was supposed to help us all. The invisible hand of competition was supposed to keep prices reasonable. We were supposed to have choice. Unfortunately, capitalism can’t accommodate markets that are too small to inspire competition, nor can it liberate us from monopolies that keep prices extortionately high. I don’t begrudge these companies the right to value the bottom line. People need to eat, after all. There’s such a thing as going too far, though. With basic Braille technology costing several thousands and wheelchairs so expensive you’d need a full-scale fundraiser to afford them, the landscape for low-income disabled people is grim unless they have access to substantial funding.
Considering that we have to use screen readers, wheelchairs and other assistive devices every day, it’s not practical to expect us to simply go without. We’re not a manipulative community whining about handouts. We really do need these products, especially in professional and educational contexts.

Living as a disabled person can incur significant costs when adaptable housing is needed. Installing adjustable beds and stair lifts can become staggeringly expensive, and for those living in low-income housing, proper accessibility is by no means guaranteed. It’s bad enough to be chronically unemployed and live in low-income housing; but living in a place where you lose much of your independence adds considerable insult to injury. Don’t even get me started on the markups on prescription drugs. Even life-saving drugs routinely sell at a 400% markup (100% is generally what is considered reasonable). It no longer surprises me when I see the lengths to which companies will go to monopolize a market and shamelessly exploit people who are already disadvantaged. We’re not asking for a pity party, to be sure, but a little reason would not go amiss.

We’re not the only ones affected, either. There are numerous grants available from governments and charities, which are intended to ease our financial burden. For example, the Government of Alberta provides $8000 a year which is spent on assistive technology and disability-related costs while I’m at university. You would think that’s overgenerous—I certainly did—but even during years when I did not buy any assistive technology at all, the entire grant was put towards paying for the editing of inaccessible textbooks. What is more, the grant did not even meet the full cost; my university covered the rest. It makes my head spin a bit, it really does. Governments are well and truly stuck, because manufacturers of accessible products have few incentives to lower their prices. Why mess with a business model that is working so well? There is more competition than there used to be, it is true, but for the most part, prices remain astronomical.

Worse still, these companies have managed to convince charities and governments that their most expensive products are the best, in any situation. Even though there are other viable options out there, many school divisions and universities insist that JAWS, one of the priciest screen readers, is the only wise choice. Encouraging this view is advantageous, so companies are happy to charge what they do, knowing that someone will gather the necessary funding.

The little things bother me, too. Take watches, for example: very few stylish accessible watches exist. Most are either obnoxious talking watches that draw a lot of unwanted attention (and make startling bonging sounds when you’re not expecting it), or braille watches (which aren’t braille at all, but tactile). These watches are generally affordable enough, but they are seldom fashionable. This may seem like a frivolous gripe, given the more serious struggles we face, but why can’t we have nice things? Why do we have to wear tacky accessories just because we’re disabled? I’m not a huge fan of braille accessories, but a lot of blind people are. Why can’t they have more legitimate selection? I mean, have a look at these charming braille hoodies: they say things like “peace”, “joy”, “Jesus”, and my personal favourite, “Can you read this?” The site boasts that you can “spark conversations with total strangers!” Uh, no thanks. If I really want to spark conversations with strangers, I’ll get a dog.

Simply having a disability is financially and socially punitive, and there are many who are happy to capitalize on the issue for personal gain. Certainly, this willingness to exploit customers is not unique to assistive technology companies. However, the problem is compounded when we’re forced to purchase necessary products, much as we wish we could do without them. It’s encouraging to see how many grassroots attempts to provide affordable adaptive products and services are emerging now. I am immensely proud of open-source screen readers and inexpensive mobile apps. We’ve come a long way. Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s wise to ignore the nasty elephant in the room: being disabled is prohibitively expensive, and few people know it.