Penny Forward Transcript: How a Veteran Reinvented Himself and Coded us Zanagrams (Mentions of attempted suicide)

Trigger Warning: The following podcast episode contains discussions related to attempted suicide. We understand that this topic may be sensitive and potentially distressing for some listeners. While we approach this topic with care and sensitivity, we want to emphasize that it may evoke emotional responses or trigger personal experiences. We encourage you to prioritize your mental and emotional well-being throughout the episode and to reach out to appropriate support resources if needed. One resource is to call the 988 hotline. Listener discretion is advised.
In this episode we shed light on the journey of a veteran who went through challenging experiences, including his blindness resulting from an attempted suicide, and how he found his way out of darkness through the creation of the Zanagrams word game app.


Select here to listen to the audio podcast and see the show notes…




Pre-episode Disclaimer


Chris: Hi, this is Chris Peterson, President and CEO of Penny Forward. Before we start today’s episode, I wanted to let you know that this episode contains references to attempted suicide. If you or someone you know needs help in this area, please call 988, and speak with someone immediately. Thank you.


Chris: This is the Penny Forward podcast, a show about blind people building bright futures, one penny at a time. I’m Chris Peterson, …


Liz: I’m Liz Bottner, …


MOe: I’m MOe Carpenter, …


Chris: And we’re glad to have Liz back this week! And today, we are going to be talking with Zac Tidwell. Zac is a former US marine who lost his vision later in life, and taught himself how to code, and is about to release his first mobile app. Which is a game. And he’s about to tell us about all of those things coming up right now. Zac, thanks for being here.


Zac: Yeah. Thanks for having me on.


Chris: Tell us about yourself.


Zac: So, I’m 27. I’m, I’m based out of Denver and, and doing my own thing with my new business called Dark Horse Game Studios. Like you said,  I was in the marines for four years, and it’s now been four years since I lost my sight. I was struggling with depression after I got out of the marines, just from some personal stuff that I went through, and a bad combination of head injuries, and, got to the point where I didn’t feel like I wanted to be here anymore, so I actually, I shot myself four years ago. And that’s, now I’m totally blind, and, after I regained some independence, and learned how to use screen reading software, I found out how many things are inaccessible, and a couple years later, we’ve now come to where I am now, trying to make accessible apps for our community.


Liz: First off, Zac, thank you for your service. You’ve told us a little bit about your loss of vision. How did your life change once you experienced vision loss?


Zac: There was a lot going on at that time just in general. I had just, straight out of high school, I, I  enlisted in the marines, and did my four years, I was a machine gunner, so it’s a pretty masculine job for an eighteen-year-old that wants to be a, a stud, and do manly stuff. And I got out, and was going to school, and there’s the big change of losing that fraternity that you have while you’re in, and I already just wasn’t in a good place. So, waking up from a suicide attempt, and then not having any vision, or hearing in one ear, threw me on my head again, (Chuckle.) In a different way, so, obviously, I … I had to relearn how to do everything. And you all know how many extra steps it takes to do things when you’re dealing with access technology and things like that. Obviously, after learning that I was going to be completely blind, because they, they initially thought that I would get some sight back after I had my facial reconstruction surgery, there was a really dark period again, no pun intended, where I just, I couldn’t do anything for myself. And having to ask my mom to cook me breakfast, (Chuckle.) And move back in with my parents and things like that was tough. That’s hard to swallow your pride through all that. And it’s, it’s hard to ask for help, when you need it, and I’m still not that great at that, but I’m a lot better with it. But a big thing for me was getting into adaptive sports. So I was snowboarding and rock climbing and stuff like that before I knew how to cook for myself, or, or use a computer fully again. And, as I made progress there, everything else in my life just kind of started to fall back into place.


MOe: Zac, I know you went into a little bit about the challenges you came upon. Could you go into a little more detail?


Zac: Yeah. I’m, I’m very fortunate that I have my veteran’s benefits, so all of my blind rehab training was actually handled through the VA. So, I was in the hospital for … I think 51 days after I shot myself, just recovering physically, and, and waiting for my facial reconstruction surgery, and all that good stuff, and then, the VA sent me to a blind rehab center for two and a half months. And I basically went to school to learn how to be a blind guy, and learn the basics of everything, and took an interest in restoring as many of the old hobbies as I, I, as I could, as well as taking on new ones. And, for me, as I, as I regained access to everything with a computer, and then realized that there’s another barrier in terms of how inaccessible many applications and websites are, I started to research why that is, and why my computer can read some things, but can’t read others, and I found out that that all comes down to the code running in the background, and that it takes extra code for developers to make things accessible. And so I started dabbling in coding. And we’re almost two years, now, I think, since I started teaching myself, and I actually just put the, the final touches on Zanagrams yesterday. After, kind of taking all the feedback that I got from my beta, and applying fixes to the, the feedback, or changes or new features to the app, and now it’s, it’s ready to go.


Chris: Wow, that’s really exciting. Depression, and I know this firsthand, can be, uh, something that makes it really hard to get started on anything, and I’m curious to know, with being depressed, having gone through a suicide attempt, then having to learn life skills all over again, what was it that allowed you to overcome some of that stuff, and, and, move past it and actually get, get into some of this learning, and then how did you go about it?


Zac: This is probably gonna sound silly, but you have to think of this from an outsider perspective, I had never met a blind person in my life, before I shot myself. So, when I woke up, and initially, I was so out of it, just from all the medications I was on, and the brain injury, from, I mean that’s about the worst concussion that you can have probably, I … I, I was so distracted with everything that was going on that it, kind of, I mean it did just that. It distracted me from the reality of everything, but I also thought that I would have to live in a nursing home for the rest of my life, and then one day, a, a blind rehab professional with the VA came into my room. And, they (, you know, kind of, … mention, “Hey, we, we understand that you just recently found out that you’re going to be completely blind,” and then told me about everything that’s out there, and that, that I was going to go to blind rehab and learn how to do all this stuff. And, in that same conversation is when they, we, we got into what my hobbies were before my suicide attempt, and it was like, “I lift weights. And I mountain bike. I do downhill mountain biking. I ski, and I snowboard, and I ride motocross, and …” the response was pretty much like, “Okay, you’re … you can still do all of that except for the moto cross and stuff.” (Chuckle.) Like, “You’re not gonna be riding motor cycles, but the rest of that stuff, you can do,” and they told me all about adaptive sports. And then, even though I couldn’t do things by myself for several months after that, I, the fact of, of knowing that I could go to these organizations when I got out of the hospital, and have someone help me get down a mountain on a snowboard just by being my eyes and stuff like that, was huge. And again, it was another distraction and, and just goaling towards. Because I, I wasted away while I was in the hospital. Because they had intubated me, and because of where, so I shot myself right between the eyes, so, my sinuses were blown out, and my right orbital area was blown out, and typically, they put feeding tubes in through your nose, and directly down the back of your throat, and they couldn’t, because they were worried about damaging my brain more. So there was a period where I just, I was knocked out, and wasn’t being fed, so, I just, I atrophied really poorly. And so, having that goal to build myself back up physically to do that stuff, even when I didn’t have independence, was huge. And, I, I think it, it … restoring that sense of normalcy as much as possible, even though it’s in small things like that, really helped me cope. My family was incredible throughout all that. So my, my parents were at the hospital with me all day, every day, kind of taking shifts for the first little while, while I was getting stable and stuff again, and … I just wanted to throw that out there. (Laugh.) ’cause that, that was huge for me.


Liz: First off, snowboarding is awesome. I happen to enjoy that myself. As a certified blind rehab professional, I have always said, and will continue to always say, that participating in sports and recreation and other activities, outside of the quote unquote “classroom,” is one of the best ways, if not the best way, to practice any blind rehab skills you are learning. And you talked previously about some of the challenges that you had and how you overcame them. For our listeners who maybe are new to vision loss, and kind of wondering, you know, “I don’t know what to do, what can I do,” what were some of your early successes? In your training, or just in accepting your vision loss, what did that look like?


Zac: In terms of early successes, you know, while I was still in the hospital, that, that same blind rehab professional that came in and spoke with me brought in a, like an, an intro to Grade one braille book for me. Where it was kind of, she, she showed me the basics, and oriented me to a braille cell, and the letters, and she would come in along with the physical therapy, and other stuff I had going on pre-blind rehab, and, once I learned the first several letters of alphabet, then the book progresses on to spelling out individual words that are only comprised of those letters that you’ve learned. And it incrementally builds on that, and eventually you’re getting sentences. And again, I think that speaks to my personality more so, that I’m pretty goal oriented, and so, they gave me a task, I do the task. I figure out the task. And for me, that was the first big blindness related win for me, was learning, the first word I ever read was “cabbage,” and it “, I just like, I don’t know that I’ll ever forget that. It, you know, it probably took me two minutes to read it, just going back and forth with my fingers, but that was a big win for me, and then when I first got introduced to a cane.


MOe: I know that we were talking about your small wins, or your first wins rather, and I’m curious how we got from just learning the basics of being blind to coding and releasing a project that you’ve been working on. Can you kind of talk about that journey?


Zac: Yeah. After I got home from blind rehab, they, they taught me Jaws while I was at blind rehab, and just the very basics. None of the, the access technology instructors that I had were blind themselves. They were instructors, so they have a certain level of expertise in, in the screen reading software, but not to the level of someone who uses it all day every day. So, I, I actually got back into, into school, after I got home from blind rehab, and that, I was just taking some basic English classes, so it was good practice for me to use my screen reader, and as I developed those skills, that’s when I started researching the accessibility portion of what actually makes things run behind the scenes. And I found a programming language that was supposedly … it, it’s called “Quorum.” And it’s, it’s maintained, and currently being developed by the University of Las Vegas  Nevada. They were supposed to have an accessible game engine, so I started trying to teach myself that language, and my computer skills just weren’t up to par. So I took some time off, came back to it later, and then eventually, ended up realizing that I needed to learn Apple’s programming language, Swift. Because I wanted to make iPhone apps. And so, I used Jaws to teach myself how to use Voiceover on the mac, and then I just started reading online. There’s this awesome tutorial website called “Hacking With Swift,” and the gentleman that runs that actually he has a “One hundred days of Swift UI” course, which is the, the front end framework that you use. Like their most modern framework that you use to develop all the interfaces inside of your apps, and I went along with that course, and did every lesson that I could. There are some that you can’t complete because of accessibility issues with the developer tools, but everything on that site is accessible. And so, I learned that way, and followed through all the, the tutorials that I could finish in that hundred days course, and started out on Zanagrams. And that was, I looked back this morning in my code, and I started Zanagrams at the beginning of August last year. So it’s been a, it’s been a long hall, but it’s kind of wild to know that it’s about to be out there.


Chris: Tell us about Zanagrams. What is it, what does it do, what are people going to experience when they download it?


Zac: So, Zanagrams is a word puzzle game, and if, if you’re familiar with word puzzle games, it, it kind of puts a spin on Anagrams. Which, if you’re not familiar with them, an anagram, you’ll typically get a hint, and then, there’s an answer to the hint, and it’s scrambled in a bunch, in, with a bunch of other letters. In Zanagrams, every puzzle that you play has six anagrams in it, and it tell, it will give you the clue for the anagram, and then at the end of the clue, it tells you the number of letters that are contained in the answer. And then all of those answers, all six of those answers, are split up into groups of two or three letters, and those letters are displayed as buttons at the bottom of the screen. So, if your anagram clue was the, “A bird’s equivalent of hair,” and the answer was “feather,” that might, that’s gonna be broken up into groups of two or three letters, but it’s also gonna be mixed in with the letters from all of the other answers. And to try and spell out any of the answers to the, the anagrams, you just tap on a button and it adds it to your current spelling, and if you successfully spell one of the answers, the game automatically detects that, will let you know that you’ve solved that anagram, and then all of the buttons associated with that answer will disappear. So you can use the process of elimination to work through some of the harder puzzles, and I think it gives a really unique spin to what’s in a, a, a classic style word game.


Liz: That’s awesome. After you release Zanagrams, what’s next up for you in terms of projects?


(Zac laughs.)


Zac: I’ve, I’ve started dabbling with it a little bit, but I want to make a, like an action, fantasy RPG style game. And so, I’ve been building out these procedural generation end-ins where, to, to make things so that any event that you’re doing in the game, or any action that you might take, is described differently every time dependent on what’s going on in the environment around your character, but that will be way down the road, (Laugh.) Before it comes out. Honestly, I just want to focus on Zanagrams right now, and because I’m totally blind, I know everything works perfectly with voice over, but I actually didn’t get a lot of feedback from low vision folks, so I’m expecting to hear from that side of our community about areas that I could fix, and I just want to make it as accessible for them as it is for voice over users, and spread the word about Zanagrams and get it out there. Because I’d, ideally, in a perfect world, I would hope that Zanagrams gets some traction, and I’m able to bring on other developers, and have a company that only produces accessible games. But, we’ll see.


MOe: Is it going to be available anywhere else?


Zac: No, I … just to leverage all of the accessibility features available on an iPhone, the best choice for me was to make it only available for IOS, because you have to write it in Apple’s programming language, which Apple doesn’t like to share, so they don’t … (laugh.) Let that expand anywhere else, but maybe down the road, but not right now.


Chris: So, you said it’s about to be released. What are the next steps in the process for you, uh, before you get it released, and when are you expecting that Zanagrams will be available to the general public?


Zac: So if, if everything goes right, I, I … actually, I’m waiting until I have a family member at my house at some point, whenever I see my family over the next couple days, ’cause I need help changing one setting in the developer tool that I use called Ex-code, that’s just inaccessible for me, and then, once they can come click those few buttons that I need pressed, then I can submit it to Apple, and if they approve it, which, that can be a back-and-forth process, they, they examine everything to make sure it’s not malware, and that it coincides with their, their code of conduct and stuff like that, but if they approve it, I, I have it set to be auto released on the fourth of July.


Liz: You mentioned that your app works really well with Voiceover, but you’re not as sure about low vision accessibility. Uh, if potentially you might want feedback once the app, or just in general, if you’re willing to share contact information, how can people contact you?


Zac: Yeah, that would be awesome. I, I need that, and I, like I said, I want to make it accessible for everyone. And, because I’ve, (Chuckle.) Made the interfaces myself, like, I, I can’t necessarily test the contrasts of those since I can’t see the screen myself.  So, if people want to reach out, it’s, my business email address is

It’s a long one, but I also, I own that domain, so you can go to the website at

and that will be the best way to contact me for right now.


Chris: Well Zac, thank you so much for sharing your story, again, thank you for your service, we really appreciate it, glad that you’re doing better. It sounds like things were really, really rough for you. And we’re glad you’re still here, and that we were able to talk with you today.


Zac: Yeah. Thank you guys so much for having me on. I really appreciate it. It’s, it’s huge, so thank you for your time.


Liz: You’re welcome. Thank you for yours.


Chris: Yeah. Absolutely.  Thanks for listening to the Penny Forward podcast. If you enjoy this content, and you would like to learn more about Penny Forward, please go and visit our website at

While you are there, please consider joining Penny Forward, for just $9.99 a month or 99 dollars a year, and you will get access to our online financial literacy education courses, our weekly members only group chats, our weekly email newsletter, and early access to every Penny Forward podcast episode. Plus, discounted access to one on one financial coaching, and much, much more. And if you’re on the fence about trying that, then consider joining as a guest member. As a guest member, you will receive early access to the Penny Forward podcast, as well as access to our Budgeting and Banking Basics course so you can get an idea for what our online courses are like. And, don’t forget to come and visit us at the  American Council of the Blind and National Federation of the Blind national conventions coming up in July.  The Penny Forward podcast  is produced by Chris Peterson and Liz Bottner, with assistance from MOe Carpenter. Audio editing and post production is provided by Brynn Lee at

transcription is provided by Anne Verduin, and the music is performed and composed by Andre Louis. Penny Forward is a 503 C 3 nonprofit organization whose mission is to help blind people navigate the complicated landscape of personal finance through education, mentoring, and mutual support. Visit our website to learn more at

Now, for all of us in the Penny Forward community, I’m Chris Peterson, …


Liz: I’m Liz Bottner, …


MOe: And I’m MOe Carpenter.


Chris: Have a great week, and thanks for listening.


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