Disability and Physical Barriers

Many barriers that people with disabilities face are physical or architectural barriers. Physical barriers happen when features of buildings or spaces limit people’s access. For instance, some physical disability barriers are:

Physical Barriers

These and other physical barriers limit life for people with different disabilities. For example, stairs without ramps or elevators deny access to people using wheelchairs. Likewise, stairs may also limit the access of people with invisible physical disabilities. For instance:

  • Arthritis
  • Difficulties with balance, energy level, or pain level
  • Heart or lung conditions

Furthermore, low lighting makes it hard for people who are deaf to communicate visually. Similarly, low lighting also limits access for people who are visually impaired.

Barrier Removal Helps Everyone

Therefore, organizations that can remove or prevent physical barriers become more welcoming to people with and without disabilities. For instance, stair-free access, wide paths, and automatic doors, are often useful to:

  • Families with small children
  • Parents with strollers
  • Shoppers with bags or carts
  • Travellers with luggage

In other words, many people find barrier-free spaces helpful. However, for people with disabilities, removing barriers is not only a help, but a need. Therefore, organizations should prevent or remove barriers whenever they can. For example, organizations can have:

  • Accessible sidewalks and parking
  • Ramped or level building entrances
  • Automatic doors and wide doorways
  • Good lighting and colour contrast
  • Elevators or lifts
  • Accessible washrooms
  • Wide aisles and hallways
  • Accessible line areas, waiting areas, and service counters

Our next article will consider how organizations can implement these and other solutions for physical barriers.

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Disability Barriers

Many mandates in the AODA are designed to help organizations recognize, prevent, or remove disability barriers. In our next series of articles, we will explore what some types of disability barriers are. Moreover, we will also consider  how to recognize, prevent, and remove them.

What are Disability Barriers?

Under the AODA, a barrier is defined as “anything that prevents a person with a disability from fully participating in all aspects of society because of his or her disability”. In other words, barriers happen when places and activities that all people should have access to are designed in ways that limit this access. Barriers limit the things people with disabilities can do, the places they can go, or the attitudes of others toward them. For example, heavy doors are barriers for people with limited upper body movement. These types of doors prevent people from entering buildings.

Recognizing, Removing, and Preventing Barriers

People who own or operate organizations can welcome more visitors or customers when they recognize, remove, and prevent barriers. Identifying a barrier means knowing that a barrier exists. For instance, a building owner recognizes a barrier when they realize that heavy doors limit people’s access to the building.

Removing a barrier means finding a way for everyone to access the organization. For instance, a building owner can install automatic doors that every visitor can use. Finally, preventing a barrier means knowing about possible barriers in advance and designing barrier-free access. For instance, building designers who plan to have automatic doors in the first place have prevented the barrier of heavy doors.

Five Types of Barriers

Five of the most common kinds of barriers are:

  • Physical or Architectural Barriers
  • Informational or Communicational Barriers
  • Technological Barriers
  • Organizational Barriers
  • Attitudinal Barriers

Fewer Barriers Help Everyone

When organizations remove barriers, they make themselves more accessible to people with disabilities. As a result, they can gain more customers or clients. In addition, they become more welcoming to people without disabilities as well. For instance, the families, friends, neighbours, and colleagues of people with disabilities may want to bring their business to accessible companies. Furthermore, people without disabilities may find accessible features, from widened aisles to welcoming staff, useful or enjoyable. Finally, accessible organizations can also start hiring valuable employees with disabilities.Recognizing, preventing, and removing barriers helps the whole province.

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Overcoming STEM barriers in school

In Part 1 of this article, we explained that every student should learn science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects in school. A strong background in these subjects can lead to more opportunities for careers. However, students with disabilities face many barriers to learning STEM and to pursuing career paths involving STEM. In Part 2, we discuss how teachers and support staff can work together to overcome these barriers.

STEM Accessibility in School

As we discussed in Part 1, STEM subject teachers may not know how to teach visual material in non-visual ways. For instance, teachers often explain spatial reasoning with line drawings of three-dimensional shapes, which can be a challenge for blind students. However, teachers can create lessons that include both the line drawings and matching three-dimensional models. In this way, the teacher would be using a universal design approach that could enhance the lesson for many students.

Staff Working Together

Classroom teachers can overcome this and other barriers by involving support teachers in the planning stages of their lessons. These teachers may be teachers of the visually impaired (TVIs) or other disability-specific support staff. The two types of teachers can network to share their knowledge and make lessons accessible. For most subjects, a teacher can plan lessons before consulting a TVI, who can quickly make handouts and diagrams accessible. However, for STEM subjects, accessibility might depend on strategies for presenting lessons in different ways. For example, a TVI can help a student who is visually impaired learn about experiment results through their other senses. Moreover, a TVI could show the classroom teacher how to balance the student’s safety with their need to be fully involved with the experiment.

TVIs or other professionals can also support students to show evidence of their learning to their teacher or instructor. In higher levels of math, concepts are often taught by showing equations, statements written in mathematical notation, or diagrams. Students who are blind or visually impaired need to understand the correct notation, either in print or in Braille. A TVI can instruct a student on the correct Braille notation. Meanwhile, the classroom teacher will evaluate the student’s ability to show their work. This example highlights the need for classroom teachers and support staff to be in regular communication concerning STEM courses.

Accessible Testing

Teachers also need flexibility and creativity when developing methods of testing. Teachers can give tests and exams orally and students can answer them in the same way. A scribe can read questions out loud or write down answers that students give verbally. If students can answer a question in words or in a diagram, teachers can provide space for both answer methods. This option allows all students to demonstrate their understanding in a method that works best for them.

Moreover, teachers need to understand exactly what knowledge they are testing in order to evaluate accessibly. They must then find ways for students to show that they have gained this knowledge. For example, in an electronics lab, a blind student cannot read the colour-coded bands on a resistor. However, this student can know what the colours and their order represent. Therefore, if someone else looks at the resistor and reads out the colours, the student can interpret this information. In contrast, in a lab about parallel and series circuits, reading resistance is one step in a larger process. However, the student is not being tested on resistance. Therefore, a student might use an ohmmeter to measure resistance for this activity. These testing adaptations are also useful for students with other conditions, such as colour-blindness.

Flexibility and Problem-Solving

STEM teachers need creativity, flexibility, problem-solving and outside-of-the-box thinking to teach students with disabilities. Therefore, the AODA’s education standards should specify that teaching and testing should be flexible. STEM teachers must adapt to the needs of all students and modify their expectations to address different abilities. Nonetheless, they must provide every student with knowledge and understanding of the required STEM skills and competences. The standards for STEM accessibility in school will need to be specific enough to be enforceable. At the same time, they must be open enough to meet the needs of many groups. Standard creators will need to problem-solve and look at situations from many viewpoints, skills learned in STEM fields.  These strategies will allow them to develop a standard that meets the needs of all students.

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STEM Accessibility in School

The AODA does not yet have an education standard. Two committees are making recommendations about what an education standard should include. Our recent articles have considered how the education standards can build on requirements from the AODA’s existing standards. Now, we will explore new mandates that the education standards could create. One area that an education standard should address is an accessible Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) curriculum. Students with disabilities, including students with print disabilities, need STEM accessibility in school.

STEM Accessibility in School, Part 1

All students need a basic understanding of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects. These subjects are part of a well-rounded education and they expand people’s career options. Unfortunately, a lack of accessibility excludes too many students from learning these subjects.

According to a report by the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS), not all students are fully exposed to these subjects in elementary and high school. As a result, students who might have talents for STEM may concentrate on more accessible subjects. Likewise, they may avoid STEM in college or university and choose to follow non-STEM career paths. The NEADS report suggests that students with print disabilities face many barriers to learning STEM and to pursuing career paths involving STEM.

Barriers to STEM Accessibility in School

Barriers of Knowledge

Students face challenges in STEM subjects due to lack of knowledge by teaching staff. Classroom teachers do not always know how to present primarily visual information non-visually or in other ways that a student with a print disability can understand. In addition, teachers, educational assistants, and other staff supporting students with disabilities do not always know the subject matter well. As a result, support staff  have trouble adapting how material is presented. Classroom teachers and support staff must work together to provide a full and accessible curriculum. Otherwise, students cannot participate and enjoy STEM subjects to their full potential.

Fear and Other False Beliefs

In addition, some teachers or parents believe that students with disabilities would not be interested in STEM subjects, or would find them too challenging. This false belief negatively impacts a student’s ability to succeed in these fields. If teachers and support staff approach math and the sciences with too much fear, this fear can be transferred to the student. The student then  questions their own abilities and fails to reach their full potential in these areas.

For instance, a teacher fearing for a student’s safety in science class might place the student too far away from an experiment to see it properly. As a result, the teacher excludes the student from learning. However, students with disabilities can contribute in meaningful ways in science labs. For instance, with the right tools and training, a blind student with steady hands can light a Bunsen burner. Nonetheless, the fear of others, however well-meant, often holds these students back. If a student never has direct exposure to science labs, they may pass high school courses but will lack the experience to do well at science in college, in university, or at work.

Barriers of Flexibility

Another barrier to STEM subjects is that they are often taught in only one way. Teachers expect students to understand math visually, and to memorize rules rather than discuss in-depth why those rules exist. Students who want to understand why a concept works, but who do not receive an adequate explanation, can fall behind. Students who have difficulty interpreting visual information, including students with print disabilities, can fall farther behind. For this reason, teachers must use creative teaching methods to reach all students.

In Part 2 of this article, we discuss how teachers and support staff can work together to overcome these barriers.

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Disability in School Curriculums

The AODA does not yet have an education standard. Two committees are making recommendations about what an education standard should include. Our recent articles have considered how the education standards can build on requirements from the AODA’s existing standards. Now, we will explore new mandates that the education standards could create. One issue that an education standard should address is disability in school curriculums. If students learn about disability during elementary and high school, they will know the truth about how disability impacts people’s lives. Moreover, they will be comfortable interacting with people who have disabilities.

Disability in School Curriculums

Many people without disabilities cannot imagine what it is like to have a disability. As a result, they may think that living with a disability means a low quality of life. They may think this way because they assume it must be hard or impossible for people with disabilities to do many things, such as:

  • Work
  • Raise families
  • Make friends and have fulfilling social lives
  • Travel, from the corner store to vacation destinations

People who do not have any friends or family members with disabilities may also feel uncomfortable starting a conversation with someone with a disability. They may fear saying the wrong thing, or be unsure about what topics the other person would want to talk about. Disability in school curriculums would teach children and young adults that talking to and befriending people with disabilities is easier than they might expect.

Learning about Accessibility, Barriers, and Inclusion

There are resources to help teachers offer lessons about the daily lives of children and adults with various disabilities. For instance, the ReelEducation program provides films about disability that teachers can stream in their classrooms. Films show some barriers that people with disabilities face, and how they can overcome barriers through inclusion and accessibility. Moreover, films are targeted to various age groups and come with lesson plans, so that teachers can hold class discussions or activities. Films also include open captioning and video description. Therefore, they are accessible for students who are deaf, hard of hearing, learning English, or blind. In addition, students without disabilities can learn about how people who are blind or deaf watch TV and movies.

Learning from Lived Experience

Furthermore, teachers can invite guest speakers with disabilities to visit their classrooms. Guest speakers can tell students about their experience growing up with a disability or gaining one later in life. Moreover, they can do live demonstrations of how they:

Furthermore, guest speakers can answer many of the questions students might have about daily life with a disability. For instance, students might be curious about how a guest speaker:

  • Cooks, cleans, or does other household chores
  • Cares for children or pets
  • Travels through the community (by car, bus, cab, special transportation, walking, etc.)
  • Confronts barriers (physical, technological, etc.) or social exclusion

Younger children may have more questions about how a person:

  • Eats
  • Dresses
  • Cares for other daily living needs

Long-Term Benefits of Disability in School Curriculums

Older children who have never met someone with a disability may still wonder about these and other questions. However, when they do meet someone with a disability in their school or neighbourhood, they might feel that asking this kind of question would be rude. As a result, children without discussion of disability in their school curriculum may grow up feeling uncomfortable whenever they meet someone with a disability. Moreover, they may one day believe the idea that people with disabilities always have very hard or sad lives. As a result, they may choose not to get to know neighbours, classmates, or colleagues who could have become their friends.

Disability in school curriculums would ensure that children grow up with realistic ideas about people with disabilities. Mandatory lessons about disability would make more future adults aware of how people with disabilities live day-to-day. Students who learn about disability in school could grow up into adult:

  • Employers happy to hire someone with a disability
  • Architects who design buildings without barriers
  • Restaurant staff or cab drivers who welcome customers with service animals or assistive devices
  • Event organizers who make information and communications accessible

Finally, students would find out that most problems people with disabilities experience are not due to their disabilities. Instead, problems happen because of barriers and misunderstandings. Students who learn about disability in school will understand that preventing and removing disability barriers allows all people to be involved in their communities. More community involvement makes economically and socially stronger cities, provinces, and countries.

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Preventing Accessibility Barriers through Professional School Programs

The AODA does not yet have an education standard. Two committees are making recommendations about what an education standard should include. Our recent articles have considered how the education standards can build on requirements from the AODA’s existing standards. Now, we will explore new mandates that the education standards could create. One issue that an education standard should address is accessibility in professional school programs. In other words, professional school programs should include training for their students on preventing accessibility barriers.

Preventing Accessibility Barriers through Professional School Programs

In earlier articles, we have explored how more training could help educators teach students with disabilities, and work with them outside the classroom. Teachers should be prepared for preventing accessibility barriers during and outside of class. Similarly, other professionals should be prepared to serve all people, including people with disabilities. Therefore, the professional schools that qualify them in their fields should include courses or modules on preventing accessibility barriers.

Preventing Accessibility Barriers in Buildings

For instance, when architects design buildings or public spaces, anyone should be able to move through them. Therefore, architects should know how to design spaces and buildings without barriers. They should learn about design features that create barriers, such as narrow hallways. In addition, they should also learn about design features that improve accessibility, such as contrasting colours and textures. In addition, they could learn about designing with the dignity of all people in mind. For instance, they could understand that an accessible main entrance allows all people to use the front door. In contrast, an accessible back entrance means that some visitors may always need to search for a useable door.

Preventing Accessibility Barriers in Communication

Likewise, communications professionals should also have accessibility training, so that all people can read the information they create. For example, they should be aware of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, which ensure that website content and layouts are accessible. They could also learn about the consequences of inaccessible web design on people’s independence. For instance, they could discover that if a website’s check-out process is not accessible, customers have to reveal banking information that should be confidential. With this knowledge, communication professionals can reach and show respect for everyone in their target audiences.

An education standard could mandate required modules or courses, in these and other programs, about preventing accessibility barriers. In this way, new graduates would know, at the start of their careers, how to serve people of all abilities. A standard could also mandate professional development for people in mid-career, so that they could add accessibility to their existing areas of expertise.

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Interacting with Service Animals in School

Our last article outlined how an education standard could include a province-wide policy for allowing students to bring their service animals to school. Once an elementary or high school student’s service animal is allowed in school, staff should know how to interact with it. In addition, fellow staff members may also have service animals. Moreover, staff of other educational institutions should also know how to behave around service animals. For instance, staff at universities, colleges, and private schools should know how to interact with the service animals of students or colleagues. In this article, we suggest some best practices for interacting with service animals in school.

Interacting with Service Animals in School

Do’s and don’ts when encountering service animals

When service animals are at school, staff should know what to do or not do. They should also be able to explain these do’s and don’ts to other students in the class or school. Here is a list with some suggestions.

For instance, do:

  • Pay attention to the student or staff member, not the animal
  • Ask what tasks the animal assists with, not what the student or staff member’s diagnosis is

On the other hand, don’t:

  • Ask that the animal be left elsewhere
  • Pet the animal, unless its owner gives permission
  • Call the animal
  • Feed the animal
  • Entice the animal with toys
  • Disturb the animal if it is sleeping

Service Animal Responsibilities

Older service-animal owners, such as high school students, adult learners, or staff, should have full responsibility for interacting with their service animals in school. For instance, the animal’s owner should be in charge of:

  • Giving commands, such as “sit” or “stay”
  • Feeding the animal
  • Taking it outside when needed, and cleaning up after it
  • Correcting it if it does something wrong

When students are younger, an adult handler may share or take responsibility for some or all of these tasks. Some service-animal owners may want to tell students about why their animal is there and what it does. Alternatively, others may want their animal’s handler to do so. some owners may also be willing to talk briefly about their disabilities. However, others may prefer to answer curious classmates’ questions but not draw extra attention to the animal. Staff should work with each student or staff member to find out which approach they would like to take.


Under the Customer Service Standards of the AODA, service animals are allowed almost anywhere the public can go. Exceptions include places where food is made, but not where it is served. If school board policies follow this standard, service animals should be able to go almost everywhere their students and staff do. For instance, students and staff should be able to bring their service animals with them:

  • In class
  • In the school yard
  • In the cafeteria

However, students and staff should not bring their service animals into school kitchens or food laboratories. If a student or staff member needs to use them, such as for a cooking or baking activity, their service animal should stay in a different room. Meanwhile, staff should provide a different way for the student or colleague to receive the help the animal usually gives. For instance, an animal may:

  • Calm a student
  • Alert a staff member to sounds
  • Open doors

Staff should work with the animal’s owner to plan how the student or colleague will access the event without the animal.

School staff can best serve all their students when they know about interacting with service animals in school.

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Service Animals in Schools

The AODA does not yet have an education standard. Two committees are making recommendations about what an education standard should include. Our recent articles have considered how the education standards can build on requirements from the AODA’s existing standards. Now, we will explore new mandates that the education standards could create. One issue that an education standard should address is service animals in schools. Currently, students must ask their school boards if they can bring their service animals to school. Every school board must make its own service animal policy. A new standard is needed for service animals in schools.

Service Animals

Service animals are animals, typically dogs, trained to help people with disabilities maintain independence. They help people with many disabilities and medical conditions, such as:

  • Visual impairments
  • Diabetes
  • Epilepsy
  • Autism
  • Hearing disabilities
  • Physical disabilities

Service animals are working animals with duties. They are not pets. Instead, they are assistants or guides and they usually wear harnesses or vests identifying them as service animals.

Moreover, service animals have specialized training to perform tasks, such as:

  • Guiding a person around obstacles
  • Warning a person about low blood sugar
  • Protecting a person during seizures
  • Calming a person in an environment with too much sensory stimulation and preventing behavioural outbursts
  • Retrieving out-of-reach objects
  • Alerting a person to sounds, such as ringing phones or fire alarms

In addition, service animals are also trained to behave appropriately in public places where non-service-animals are not allowed. For example, good service animal behaviour includes:

  • Focusing on the handler’s needs
  • Avoiding distractions
  • Never barking, growling, or jumping

Standard Needed for Service Animals in Schools

Under the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation (IASR), service animals are welcome in all public places. However, the Human Rights Code ruled in 2017 that schools are not places that all members of the public have access to. This ruling means that students with service animals cannot automatically bring their animals to school with them. Instead, they must ask their school boards if they can bring the animal. School boards then make decisions on a case-by-case basis.

There are seventy-two school boards in Ontario. Currently, each school board must develop its own policy  outlining the process families should follow when requesting the accommodation of service animals in schools. As a result, policies may differ widely. Students’ chances to bring service animals to school may depend not on their needs, but on where they live.

When school boards do not have strong policies for students with service animals, children may not receive the classroom accommodations they need. Moreover, students should have the same chance for this accommodation, no matter where they live. A province-wide policy in the education standard could solve this problem. This policy could provide clear guidelines for allowing service animals in schools. It could also offer guidance for situations where staff and students have conflicting accommodation needs. For instance, it could include ways to balance the needs of a service-animal handler and someone with severe allergies to animals.

Our next article will outline some best practices for interacting with service animals.

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Accessible School Field Trips

Our last article outlined how an education standard could improve transportation services for students with disabilities. One improvement could be plans to help more students attend field trips. In this article, we will explore more ways to plan accessible field trips.

Accessible Field Trips

Field trips are an important part of school life. They give students the chance to learn in different ways by visiting new places. Moreover, field trips can help make school subjects mean more for students. For instance, students can take field trips to visit:

  • Museums, to learn more about science or history
  • Theatres, to see performances of plays they have studied
  • Places of worship, for religious studies or services
  • Sports venues, to learn the basics of a sport, such as:
    • Swimming
    • Skiing or snowboarding

In all these places, students can learn from experts in different fields, such as tour guides, theatre professionals, or sports coaches. Furthermore, end-of-year trips to places like amusement parks give elementary-school students a reward for their work during the year. Field trips also bring students together as a group and can be meaningful for their social development. Not all students are exposed to these cultural, athletic, or social activities outside of school. Therefore, all students should have access to field trips.

Accessible Locations

An education standard could mandate that field trips, when possible, should take place in accessible locations. Teachers could find out whether places they plan to visit have accessible features, such as:

  • Ramps, lifts or elevators whenever there are stairs
  • Automatic doors
  • Wide doorways at entrances to buildings and common areas
  • Accessible public washrooms
  • Barrier-free paths of travel into and through buildings
  • Accessible seating in auditoriums
  • Accessible pools and change rooms

Teachers should be encouraged to choose accessible locations for all their field trips. If teachers return to the same places every year with new classes, they will know that every student can enter.

Accessible Programs and Services

In addition, the standard could mandate that field trips should include accessible programming and services, if possible. Many venues offer services that make their events or programs accessible to people with various disabilities. For example, theatres may offer performances with American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation, live description, or touch tours. Similarly, some museums offer ASL-interpreted or tactile tours. Teachers could contact venues to find out if they can arrange these or other services for students during their trip. Likewise, some amusement parks offer accessible attractions. Teachers can find out if a park has rides or other attractions that will be accessible for the students in their classes.

Furthermore, some sports venues, like swimming pools and ski hills, offer programming for learners with and without disabilities. Teachers can contact venues to find out if lessons are available for students with disabilities, including:

  • Physical
  • Intellectual
  • Visual

Some venues may teach students of all abilities together. In contrast, other venues may offer one-on-one lessons for students with disabilities. In both cases, all students can learn the same skill and enjoy time in a new place.

An education standard highlighting the importance of accessible field trips could help teachers plan outings that include all their students.

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School Transportation Services

The AODA does not yet have an education standard. Two committees are making recommendations about what an education standard should include. In the meantime, the Transportation Standards have rules that apply to school transportation. School transportation services make schools more accessible to students with disabilities.

School Transportation Services

Several sections of the Transportation Standards apply to school transportation. For instance, school boards must create individual transportation plans for students with disabilities. In addition, colleges and universities that transport students on their campuses must make this service accessible. They may do so by using accessible vehicles when they transport all students. Alternatively, if they cannot provide integrated service on conventional vehicles, they must have equivalent services on specialized vehicles.

Stronger Standards are Needed

There are many other regulations in the standards that apply to public transportation, such as city buses, but not to school buses. Some of these requirements are:

In addition, the standards list technical rules for making different parts of city buses accessible. For example, some of the rules apply to features such as:

  • Ramps and lifting devices
  • Steps
  • Grab bars, handholds, handrails, and stanchions
  • Floors and carpeted surfaces
  • Lighting
  • Signage

These technical rules make city buses accessible to many passengers with disabilities. In contrast, school buses are not accessible to as many students. While some students can ride the bus with their peers, many others need to use specialized transportation. However, some of these students might ride a conventional school bus if it was slightly more accessible.

Furthermore, individual transportation plans only cover trips to and from school at the beginning and end of the school day. Similarly, universities and colleges only need accessible transportation around their campuses. There are no rules in the standards about how to transport students to special events off school property, such as class field trips. As a result, each student’s family and teachers need to make plans for each trip. An education standard could make this process easier by mandating that individual transportation plans include advance planning about how each student will get to field trips.

Our next article will explore more ways to make field trips accessible.

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