Wendy Chisholm

Stairs make the building inaccessible, not the wheelchair. Co-author of Universal Design for Web Applications. Strategist for Microsoft. @wendyabc at twitter.

The Girl Effect

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I was so moved by The Girl Effect (video). I wish everyone would watch it. Here’s a transcript for those unable to view it. Note there is no speech during the video only music. The following words display briefly on the screen one or a few at a time. Where the words interact to create an effect, I’ve attempted to describe the animation to convey the message. Enjoy.

The world is a mess. Poverty. AIDS. Hunger. War.

So what else is new?

What if there were an unexpected solution that could turn this sinking ship around?

Would you even know it if you saw it?

It’s not the internet.  It’s not science. It’s not the government. It’s not money.

It’s (dramatic pause) a girl.

Imagine a girl living in poverty. No. Go ahead. Really. Imagine her.

Description: The word “girl” in large orange letters with the small, black words “flies” flying around like flies. “Baby” small and in front of her. The word “husband,” much larger than “girl” falls into the scene and looks to weigh heavily on her. “Hunger” pops up from below, pushing up “husband,” “girl” and “baby.” “HIV” pushes up from below.

[Back to words displaying on the screen one or a few at a time]

Pretend that you can fix this picture.

Description: The stack of husband, girl, baby, hunger, hiv appears. All of the words fall away except “girl.”

Ok. Now she has a chance.

Let’s put her in a school uniform and see her get a loan to buy a cow and use her profits from the milk to help her family.

Pretty soon, her cow becomes a heard. And she becomes the business owner who brings clean water to the village, which makes the men respect her good sense and invite her to the village council where she convinces everyone that all girls are valuable.

Soon, more girls have a chance and the village is thriving.

Description: A stack forms with the following words: Village, Food, Peace, Lower HIV, Healthier babies, Education, Commerce, Sanitation, Stability. The stack becomes so large that the top words have been pushed off of the screen. Stability flashes again briefly.

Which means the economy of the entire country improves and the whole world is better off.

Are you following what’s happening here?

Girl -> School -> Cows -> $ -> Business -> Clean H20 -> Social change -> Stronger economy -> Better world

It’s called the girl effect.

Multiply that by 600 million girls in the developing world and you’ve just changed the course of history.

Written by wendy

January 7th, 2010 at 1:04 am

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

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61 years ago today the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (link to full text). The Human Rights Action Center produced the following beautiful video to summarize the rights. Since the video does not have an audio component, the content is not accessible to some people with low vision or blindness. Linking to the full text of the declaration isn’t a good alternative because the video summarizes the declaration making it easier to understand. The text in the video also has a stronger emotional impact by phrasing the rights in terms of “*you* have the right…” So, here’s the video followed by a transcript.

Every man, woman, and child on earth is born free and equal in dignity and rights.

We are brothers and sisters of this world.

We have reason and conscience and should be friendly towards one another.

Everyone is entitled to the rights set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights regardless of age, sex, race, religion, politics, color, nationality, wealth, language, beliefs, birthplace, traditions, economics, weight, skin, style, thoughts, feelings, hairstyle, differences, size, lifestyle, height, preference, orientation.

You have the right to live in freedom and safety.

Nobody has the right to treat you as their slave or torture you.

The law is the same for everyone.

You have the right to legal protection.

You have the right to a fair and public trial.

No one shall be arrested, put in jail, or exiled without good reason.

You are innocent until proven guilty.

You have the right:

  • to privacy,
  • to move throughout the world,
  • to enjoy freedom from persecution in other countries,
  • to a nationality.

You have the right to marry and have a family.

Your government should protect your family.

You should have the right to own property and possessions.

You have the right to think what you want and say what you like, to practice your religion freely, and organize peacefully.

You have the right to take part in your country’s political affairs.

Governments should be voted for regularly and all votes are equal.

The society in which you live should help you to develop.

You have the right to work and to a fair salary.

Each work day should not be too long.

You have the right to expect a decent standard of living.

You have the right to go to school.

Education should strive to promote peace and understanding among all people.

You have the right to share in your community’s arts and sciences.

You must respect the social order that is necessary for these rights to be available.

You must respect the rights of others, the community, and public property.

Nobody shall attempt in any way to destroy the rights set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Written by wendy

December 10th, 2009 at 9:19 pm

Minnesota Public Radio

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On 23 September, I spoke with John Moe and Darren Burton about technology and disability on Minnesota Public Radio (transcript not yet available). I really enjoyed our discussion and was happy that we talked about challenging people’s assumptions. If you can, give it a listen. Otherwise, watch my blog for a transcript or link to one.

Written by wendy

October 7th, 2009 at 5:47 pm

HTML5 Super Friends

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A few weeks ago, Dan Cederholm, Tantek Çelik, Jeremy Keith, Ethan Marcotte, Eric Meyer, Nicole Sullivan, Jeffrey Zeldman, and I gathered at Happy Cog Studios to talk about HTML5. We’ve dubbed ourselves the “HTML5 Super Friends” and have written a statement that endorses the direction HTML5 is heading as well the Super Friends Guide to HTML5 Hiccups. Most of us have written our own blog posts about the issues and advantages we found in the specification. Please check them all out. It’s good stuff.

I leave tomorrow for a week of vacation and will be completely off of the grid, so I won’t be able to discuss until I’m back. See you all in a week.

Written by wendy

August 31st, 2009 at 8:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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HTML 5–What I’m Watching

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I have recently become glued to my computer monitor as the latest reality show “HTML 5” unfolds. Since I was a participant in previous W3C reality shows (both seasons of WCAG), I understand some of the history and sympathize with many of the participants/actors. Here’s my take on where things are and where I hope they are going.

HTML 5 is the first time where people with disabilities are at the language development table at the same time as everyone else and I think the reason things have gone a little wonky is that we aren’t used to being at the table at all or we show up to the table a decade after everyone has left (Windows and AJAX are both good examples). There are two very different cultures learning how to work together. It’s exciting and frustrating to watch.

For example, Ian suggesting that aria could be incorporated after Last Call stirs up a lot of history and emotion. We’ve seen it happen far too many times where accessibility is thrown out for the sake of progress and it’s nearly impossible to catch up if we miss that initial window. (While some people seem to be assuming a Second Last Call is a given, there is no guarantee.)

In terms of the canvas element, we’ve already missed the window. canvas is implemented in Firefox, Opera, and Safari and several applications exist that are not accessible such as bespin. I’m heartened by the quick pace of the work to remedy the situation, but it’s hard to tell how it will play out.

Here are the things I’ll be watching and hoping for with the spec in general:

  1. As of last Friday’s Canvas Accessibility Task Force meeting, folks at Apple (Doug and James) are working on a prototype that creates a limited object model with aria attributes. I’ll be interested to see what information will be available to access technologies, how that information is provided, and how someone will interact with it.
  2. One of my biggest concerns with canvas is that current implementations use JavaScript to draw pixels and there are no objects or nodes to which you can attach aria semantics. I’m hoping that object-oriented JavaScript libraries (like Objective-J) build in aria and that people will use these instead of just drawing pixels. Folks are talking about creating “shadow DOMs” (or shadow trees) that sit behind or beside a canvas. While I’m happy for a solution that will work, that one doesn’t seem to be directly accessible. There’s a lot to watch in this area to ensure we don’t end up with something that looks like Flash circa 1998.
  3. I like the direction that the HTML WG and the PF WG are taking in integrating ARIA into HTML5. I’ll be watching for the HTML WG response to Steven’s proposal.
  4. The discussion about text alternatives is puzzling. I’ll definitely keep tabs on that, although I have a lot to catch up on to understand the issues.
  5. Dare I even touch the summary attribute? [grin] It seems that it was used as a sacrificial lamb to make a process point. While it was intense, the energy and space that were created as a result look promising and I hope are sustainable.

Overall, I think things are heading in a good direction. Having been an editor on two specifications that were fairly contentious, I know it is hard work to find the “right” words that a disparate set of people will be willing to build consensus around. And, consensus is really, really hard. It isn’t unanimous; it’s “what can we all live with.” And since we all have to live with compromise, it isn’t perfect in anyone’s eyes–that’s the most disappointing aspect of specification writing. But, that same compromise is also the beauty because it shows commitment and connection for the future.

So, I’ll keep watching the “HTML5 Reality Show” and hope that accessibility doesn’t get voted off of the island. On the surface the discussion is about elements, attributes and apis, but at its heart it is about everyone’s ability to participate in the future society that will be based on these technologies.

A big shout out to all of you in the HTML 5 trenches. This is really hard work and keep at it. I’m watching, cheering, and jeering from safely behind my monitor. [grin]

Written by wendy

August 25th, 2009 at 7:54 pm

Interview transcript

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From KUOW 949 Seattle, I’m Jeannie Yandel.

If you’ve ever used a large-handled can opener or a door with a lever instead of a knob, you’ve benefited from universal design. Universal Design is a relatively new approach to creating products and buildings. The goal is to make everything usable and effective for everyone. That means people who have disabilities… and people who don’t.

Wendy Chisholm is a computer programmer and developer. She’s also co-author of the book “Universal Design for Web Applications”. I met Wendy at her home office in Seattle’s north Ballard neighborhood.
And she explained why she’s working to make the Internet universally accessible.

Wendy Chisholm first started thinking about universal design when she was in college. She was studying computer programming. And one of her professors asked her to tutor a blind student in a statistics class.

Wendy: I couldn’t figure out how to teach him about scatterplots and bar graphs and those things, so I just got really creative.  I started using legos to teach about bar graphs, and pins to make holes in the scatterplots and make raised line drawings.  I thought, there must be an easier way to do these things.  There must be some way to use computers to help him instead of me making rough tools.

Jeannie: Were you able to help him?

Wendy: To some extent.I think.I did an ok job but…

Jeannie: What does that mean, you did an OK job?

Wendy: He got a C in the class, but I don’t think he went on to be a statistics master. He passed the class, and I think that’s what he probably wanted to do.  But, you know, we could have done so much more.

Although Wendy didn’t help the blind student as much as she wanted to, the experience got her thinking about what computers could do for people with disabilities. It was right in line with why she got into programming in the first place.

Wendy: I knew going into computer science I wanted to somehow merge the computer interface, or just make computers more useable.  I was always interested in people and I wanted somehow to combine them.  But I wasn’t sure how to do that. The program I was in was very much about the computer science aspect, the computing and algorithims.  And I went on to become a programmer.   It’s when I was a programmer at the University of Chicago, and I read an article about Dr. Gregg Vanderheiden at the University of Wisconsin.  And his project, his purpose, was to make technology accessible to people with disabilities. And I got very excited about that.  I got into his program, and the rest was history.

At the University of Wisconsin Wendy started focusing on the Internet. She learned it was initially really exciting for people with disabilities.

Wendy: So take the example of someone who is blind and wants to read a newspaper.  Before the web, you would have to wait for the news to be brailled.  I don’t know how long that would take, but when it arrived, it weighs a lot. Braille is heavy and big.  Or you would have to wait for someone who’d read the paper on the radio, my grandparents would do that, or you’d get a cassette of someone reading it.  You wouldn’t get it as it happened.  There was a delay.  And suddenly, you could just get it at the same time as everyone else.   If you think about someone with a physical disability – that person may not be able to hold the paper or turn pages.  Interacting with the paper through the computer meant no more turning pages.  You could just navigate through it as you needed. So it brought about independent, and an experience that was more immediate, and it was much more similar to what other people were experiencing.  So it was very liberating and empowering.

People with reading disabilities or sight deficiencies could use a screen reader to surf the web. A synthesized voice read the text on a web page aloud. This was great in the early 90’s, when the Internet was mainly text. But by 1995, when Wendy was at the University of Wisconsin, images were becoming a bigger part of the Internet experience. It was a big step forward for the web. But images weren’t always created so screen readers could describe them.

So it was a big step backwards for people with disabilities.

Wendy and her colleagues started establishing guidelines for accessible web design. And she turned one of her mentors, a man named Neal Ewers. He’s blind. And he helped Wendy understand what being blind was like.

Wendy: He’d have me walk down the hallway and listen to where the doors were, I’d close my eyes and I’d get a sense of the echo that we’d create with our footsteps when we approached a door or hallway.  He’d give me his cane and I’d use it to walk home.  It was a mile walk home, and I’d take off my glasses, and I see OK without my glasses, but it was a very different experience.  Having that cane let other people know I didn’t exactly know what I was doing.  And it gave me a sense that it was OK to explore what it was like to not really see what I was used to seeing.  And we spent a lot of time playing with web pages and adding different features to web pages and seeing what screen readers would do with them, just getting a sense of what he needed to use his websites.  And a lot of times I’d turn off my monitor and just use the screen reader to see how confusing it would be or what kind of landmarks someone would need.

Based on those experiences, Wendy and others wrote new universal accessibility guidelines for web developers. The guidelines said web developers needed to provide equivalent alternatives to sound-based content and image-based content. They explained developers would benefit from making their content available to a much wider audience. In 1999, the World Wide Web Consortium adopted the guidelines as an international standard for web site design. The US, the European Union, Japan, and South Korea were just a few of the countries that adoped the guidelines as well.

So that should be the end of the story, right?

Then the web was universally accessible for everyone.

The end.

Except that now, in 2009, this how someone with a sight impairment experiences an important local website.

Wendy:  Let me pull this up here. One of my favorite examples is, here in Seattle,  the Metro bus line.  And this is a schedule for bus route 48, which I take all the time to go to work.

Wendy turns on her screen reader as she navigates to the 48 schedule page on the Metro site.

[We hear sound of the screen reader reading the top of the route schedule.]

Wendy:  Ideally, this would be marked up as a table and I could also have a bunch of other commands I could use to navigate through the columns and the rows and all of that.  Unfortunately it’s not marked as a table.  It’s just marked as text.  So there’s no function, no framework for me to navigate.

[We hear robotic screen reader voice reading across each line of text on the Metro 48 schedule page on the website]

Wendy: So what it’s done…there are 1, 2, 3. there’s 10 columns.  And it’s just reading the very first line of each of those.  So it’s reading.

Jeannie: It’s reading in reading in rows instead of columns.

Wendy:  Right, yeah.  It’s reading across all this.

Jeannie:  How do you catch a bus like that?!

Wendy:  [laughs]You don’t, I don’t think.  Luckily the Metro site provides several other ways, like the Trip Planner, to get the information. But if you just want to look at a timetable, with a screen reader there’s no way to do it.  If I go down a couple more lines…

[ screen reader voice reading across, listing times the 48 arrives ]

Wendy:  So again, you know the bus is coming at those times, but you don’t know where it will be stopping [laughs].

Jeannie: I take the bus everywhere!  This would drive me crazy!

Wendy:  Yeah.  And luckily, there are a variety of other apps to get this information.  But, yeah.  It’s really amazing that this is not set up better so it’s more accessible.  We were writing the book, and this was one of the first examples we found, so this is a bad example we use in the book.  So I started looking.  You know, Chicago, Paris, New York.  Anywhere I thought would have a public bus system website.  And I didn’t find one that was really accessible.  So it’s not just a Seattle problem, unfortunately.

And it’s not just a transit website problem.

YouTube doesn’t ensure all of its images have captioning for people with hearing impairments.

CNN’s videos don’t always have captioning either.

The Web accessibility guidelines Wendy and others wrote back in the 90’s could help.if everyone followed them.

But one of the Internet’s greatest strengths is one of the biggest obstacles for universal accessibility.

It’s completely decentralized.

More people are producing content for the web than ever before.

And many of them never consider whether their content is universally accessible.

So what will it take to provide equal web access for everyone?

Wendy: Well, I think there are three things that have to happen.  One is, I talked a little bit about how tech needs accessibility built in.  You don’t need to think about accessibility, it’s just accessible by default.  Or at least, as accessible as can be.

The second is a cultural shift.  You know, so many of people think people with disabilities don’t shop, don’t work, aren’t capable of so many things that they’re capable of.  They’re people.  They have ideas, and wishes, and experiences, just like everyone else.  That’s been one of the most shocking things to me in this work…how many people don’t believe that. But it’s a cultural thing.  And it’s just like the civil rights movement or the women’s rights movement. There is a disability rights movement around the world.  And that hopefully will help bring about the same rights of experience, of equality for people with disabilities as it has for women and for everyone.

And finally the third thing would be that people with disabilities need to be included in the creation of all this as we move forward.  So as technology is being developed, as new ideas are coming to the web, if more of those ideas are being created by or with people with disabilities, accessibility will just be at the table. People with disabilities need to be at the table, they need to be part of the conversations.  And that’ll really be a huge change.  And that’s part of the equality issue is as well.

Actually, one of my favorite quotes is it’s not the wheelchair that makes a building inaccessible, it’s the stairs. And it’s so true.  If things were just designed differently, there wouldn’t really be the same sense of disability that there is now.  It’d be about people having different needs.  That was a huge piece for me.  And that’s why I am so passionate about this work.  Web design is so easy to change.  The web itself is so malleable and flexible.  If people just did a few things, it would really be more useable.  And our society would be so much richer for that experience of having more contact and more communication with more people.

Jeannie: Well Wendy, what’s in it for people without disabilities to be part of this movement that you’re talking about?

Wendy:  Honestly, I think it’s world peace! [laughs]   I really do.  I have another mentor. His name is William Loughborough.  He has this thing: “everyone, everywhere, always connected”.  If more people were more connected, there’d be less war.  There’d be more equality of people.  We’d all have richer experiences knowing more diverse people.  I think it’d benefit all of us to have a wide variety of perspectives to pull from in creating the world we want to create.  I know it sounds cheesy, but I honestly believe it leads to world peace.  [laughs]

Jeannie: That’s kind of a far-off goal, world peace.

Wendy: Yes, it is.

Jeannie: So what’s in it for people without disabilities to join this cause now?

Wendy: Well, it’ll make it easier for all of us to use the web.  Especially now that everyone’s got their iPhone or their Google phone, you know their Android phone, so this will help those things.  If you have a website, it’ll be easier to be found, because all the information screen readers use is the same information search engines use.  So if you consider Google a blind and deaf user, and all this information and structure you provide will make your site more usable. One of the cool things YouTube is doing is promoting the use of captions to search both for video and search within video.  So you can go to a specific scene in a video just by having the captions associated with the time codes.
Throughout history, technologies that have been developed for people with disabilities and by people with disabilities have changed our world.  The modem, speech synthesis. One of my favorite new examples is the way you can pinch and zoom on the iPhone, that [screen magnification] was developed for people with low vision who had difficulties reading text.  So all of these technologies are going to help us.  And we don’t even understand yet how applying those technologies in a mainstream venue will benefit us.  But it will benefit all of us.

Wendy Chisholm is a developer and computer programmer. She also co-authored the book Universal Design for Web Applications. She told me why she’s working to make the web accessible to everyone. You can learn more at KUOW dot org. Search for web or universal design.

From KUOW 949 Seattle, I’m Jeannie Yandel.

Written by wendy

August 14th, 2009 at 11:41 pm

KUOW Interview: Web Accessibility for Everyone

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I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Jeannie Yandel from Puget Sound Public Radio (KUOW) in a segment called, “Web Accessibility for Everyone.” They have provided a few audio options to listen to the interview and I’m working to get a transcript published. Check it out!

Written by wendy

July 26th, 2009 at 8:58 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


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All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort — a sustained effort — to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings.

–President Barack Obama

Written by wendy

June 4th, 2009 at 4:59 pm

Posted in musings

Chasing our tails?

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I saw this exchange between Christian Heilmann and Jared Smith on twitter today:

jared_w_smith “There are no bigger problems in Accessibility than following every paragraph of the guidelines.” says @codepo8. Amen brother!

codepo8 @jared_w_smith seriously, every forum and mailing list is running in circles. Accessibility is stuck in 1998, web development in 2012.

I follow most of the accessibility forums and have since 1995. In 1998, people were asking if the “alt” attribute had anything to do with the “alt key” on the keyboard. Today’s questions are about menus, gmail, ARIA, forms…When DHTML was first surfacing as a technique we were panicking because NO ONE was talking about it. Look where we are now: ARIA built into several toolkits and the major browsers and access technologies understand it.

Yes, the accessibility forums are not as far ahead as the developer forums and that sucks. But, there is a larger disconnect between accessibility and technology that shapes this gap. Accessibility and disability awareness is not part of everyone’s everyday experience. The cultural dialogue about basic human rights is ongoing…we’re still debating if accessibility is even a human right! Until it is assumed that every web site, every web application, every web service must be accessible, this gap will exist.

So, yes, the guidelines are pretty dense, but so is every other technical specification and that hasn’t stopped them from being adopted and used. There are bigger issues at play here.

Written by wendy

June 3rd, 2009 at 8:54 pm

Is web accessibility a human rights issue?

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A post from David Baron questions if web accessibility is a human rights issue.  Here’s a quick summary of some of his major points: He acknowledges that laws exist that give people with disabilities basic human rights and that on-line government services should be made accessible. He disagrees that Flickr should require all photos to have alt-text and he believes that requiring all web services and applications be accessible would stymie innovation. He calls people such as John Foliot and Matt May extremists and worries that “this community is in significant danger of being taken over by, or at least best known by, those within it who espouse such extreme positions that they risk causing the entire community to be ignored.”

David says, “It’s far better for accessibility to be the automatic result of writing HTML in the normal way rather than something that has to be done as an extra development step” Yes! That’s part of the goal of the W3C Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG). If the tools just produced accessible content, then voila. The web would be more accessible.

David wants us to explain why access to the web is a human rights issue.

Human rights refer to the “basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled.”[1] Examples of rights and freedoms which have come to be commonly thought of as human rights include civil and political rights, such as the right to life and liberty, freedom of expression, and equality before the law; and social, cultural and economic rights, including the right to participate in culture, the right to food, the right to work, and the right to education.

Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_rights. Fetched 12 March 2009

Web services and applications are becoming the way that people participate in culture, buy food, work, and learn. Therefore, ensuring that they are accessible to all people is a human right. This is supported in the United Nations  Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that has been signed by 139 countries. Article 9 – Accessibility and Article 21 – Freedom of expression and opinion, and access to information specifically mention services provided via the internet.

It’s important for us to recognize each other’s concerns. On the one hand we have technologists who want to create things to help make the world better–help people communicate more richly and quickly, to create technologies for self-expression and commerce. Rock on. We want you to innovate because you’re changing the world.  On the other hand we have people who want to use the technologies and to participate in society. When the technologists say, “Don’t make me think about accessibility, I want to be innovative.” The response from people with disabilities can be hostile because the message from the technologists is, “I do not value you enough to include you in my innovation.”

The funny thing about David’s post is that he mentions the invention of the telephone. Thomas Edison was hard of hearing and part of the reason he spent so much time experimenting was that he wanted a device to help him hear. For Edison’s invention to be complete, it took the help of another person involved in the Deaf community, Alexander Graham Bell, who in his experiments to understand speech,  invented the microphone. In both instances, inspired by friends and family who had hearing loss, they changed the world.

The irony is that these technologies changed the way we communicate so much, that people who are deaf were unable to participate and it was later that the modem (for the TDD) and other devices were developed. But, those tools were in response to the earlier inventions and have further changed the way we communicate.

Therefore, the exact worry that David has–lack of innovation–is exactly what we’ll avoid if people with disabilities *are* considered in the design and experimentation of new ideas!  So, see, we really *all* can get along and no one gets hurt. Come on folks, let’s go play and have some fun.

Written by wendy

March 12th, 2009 at 3:52 pm