I am Dyslexic: Moses and Me, Dyslexia and My Bar Mitzvah

Brennan Ratican is a 13 year old boy, who became a Bar Mitzvah at Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, California). Brennan spoke about being dyslexic, inspiring the entire congregation. He gave us permission to excerpt portions of his d’var Torah (speech):

I am dyslexic. Dyslexia is just a fancy word to describe a uniqueness in the way my brain is wired that makes me learn differently from most people.

I have embraced that being dyslexic is just one part of who I am and I have grown to be very proud of that. Part of accepting my reality was appreciating that my differences could help others feel a part of something much bigger than the isolation they may feel by being singled out as being different or learning disabled. I now appreciate that part of my purpose in life is helping other dyslexic kids feel the way I do now… proud of who I am and confident that I can accomplish whatever I set my mind to.

My Torah portion (Shemot, Exodus 5) talks about another person with a uniqueness that made him seem different at first, but then helped him become an important leader of the Jewish people. Our ancestor Moses was very self-conscious about what he felt was a disability. Jewish teachings tell us that Moses stuttered intensely when he spoke. Moses was so concerned about how others would perceive him as God’s messenger that at the burning bush, when God told him to go to Egypt to get Pharaoh to let God’s people go, Moses begged God to choose someone else. Moses did not think that he was good enough to do God’s work.

But God does everything for a purpose, and He wanted Moses to be His leader. To meet God’s expectations of him, Moses and God created a plan. God sent Moses’ brother Aaron to be Moses’ spokesperson. Just like Moses, sometimes to get over hurdles in our lives, we just need to make a plan and look outside ourselves to find the tools we need to accomplish our goals.

My Second Grade Teacher Told Me I was Lazy

I wanted to become a Bar Mitzvah ever since I was in second grade. That was the year my teacher told me that I would never accomplish anything because I was lazy and could not read. Over and over again that year, my teacher reminded me that my work was not good enough and compared me unfavorably to my classmates. I felt horrible about myself and I was just 8 years old. I had my whole life ahead of me, and I was being told that I wasn’t good enough. At that time, I did not know I could speak up to a teach, that I could advocate for what I needed to be able to learn and keep up in class.

Imagine if God had responded like my teacher, telling Moses that he was not good enough or that he was too lazy to meet God’s expectations of him. With this self-doubt, Moses likely would not have gone to Pharaoh because God would have crushed his self-esteem and willingness to keep trying. Instead, I imagine that Moses had the resilience to persevere, working as hard as necessary to do his assigned work.

The Torah talks about working hard without the support of others. Earlier in Exodus, Pharaoh gave the Israelites straw and mud to make their daily quota of bricks. Later, Pharaoh forced them to find their own straw and mud and still make the same number of bricks each day. This reminded me of recent research that shows that providing dyslexic students with accommodations like extended time for tests and teacher lecture notes only levels the playing field for those students. It does not provide them with any advantage over non-dyslexic students. Without accommodations, people with dyslexia must work on average ten times harder to keep up with and complete the same amount of work as their classmates or work partners – just like the Israelites who had to find their own mud and straw.

(credit: Jay Lawrence Goldman Photography)

(credit: Jay Lawrence Goldman Photography)

Embracing Dyslexia and Becoming a Bar Mitzvah

I thought becoming a Bar Mitzvah would be ten times harder for me, and sometimes it was. Once we joined Congregation Or Ami, which is very welcoming to all children, and I began working with my Bar Mitzvah tutor Diane Townsend, I knew I was in the right place. I knew in my heart that I could make this happen. Diane was there with me every Monday reminding me how to practice so to I could make myself proud. Thankfully, she believed in me too.

My rabbi, Paul Kipnes, teaches that when we are involved in Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), we are actually partnering with that Force in the world that created and sustains existence. To me, that partnership is what God is…the feeling we get when we are working together to make the world a better place.

Learning Ally: My Bar Mitzvah Project

Over the years, I wanted more of that feeling in my life. For my mitzvah project, we reached out to Learning Ally, a non-profit focused on making books accessible to people with visual impairments and dyslexia. Learning Ally’s audiobooks help me so much. When I hear the words and follow along in my book, the material sinks into my brain much better. I use the app a lot to read textbooks to help me keep up with the pace of school. Since audiobooks, especially textbooks, aren’t always easy to find, I wanted to make the Learning Ally tool available to other dyslexic kids whose schools or families cannot afford to join Learning Ally.

To help others learn about dyslexia and the Learning Ally tool, I partnered with Learning Ally to build a presentation, community engagement plan and webpage. I am encouraging others to learn about dyslexia, volunteer to record audiobooks, send a letter to legislators to support a dyslexia bill pending in the U.S. House of Representatives, and/or donate money to help kids like me gain access to Learning Ally.

I also started raising awareness about dyslexia at local schools and the importance of self-advocacy to other dyslexic kids. I am meeting with school principals and have hosted a self-advocacy workshop for dyslexic kids and their families with Learning Ally and the local chapter of the International Dyslexia Association.

Dyslexia is my life

Dyslexia is my life and I embrace this reality. Judaism teaches that Jews are Am HaSefer, the people of the book. This means that we place a very high value on learning throughout our lives. With Learning Ally, my Congregation Or Ami, and my work raising awareness about dyslexia, I am making sure that all people, even those with reading challenges, can embrace learning.

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The Favorite Student

Sandra Morton WeizmanBy: Sandra Morton Weizman

My son, Benji, was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder at the age of two and a half. One of the characteristics of autism is the preponderance of obsessive or perseverative interests that can become a single-minded focus, becoming all the individual wants to talk about. Common obsessive interests for kids on the spectrum include trains, sports teams, snakes, prehistoric animals, computers and electronics. My own son’s special interest is everything to do with Judaism, and particularly Jewish customs and rituals. He has had this special interest since the age of two; he is now 19 and it has never wavered. He has always been happiest when he is praying.

When he was four years old, the psychologist who used to do his annual psycho-educational assessments was interested in evaluating his imaginary play skills, since lack of appropriate imaginary play is a hallmark of autism. She asked him to role-play something with her, suggesting playing house or playing doctor as possible choices. He replied, “Let’s play synagogue. I’ll be the rabbi.” The psychologist had never been to a synagogue before and didn’t know how to play.

When we began planning for Benji’s bar mitzvah, Sandy, the woman who used to tutor him privately in Jewish Studies and had a special education background, strongly urged us to approach Sam, the man who tutored all the boys in our shul (synagogue). Sam was initially reluctant to take Benji on as a student, reiterating that he wasn’t sure how much Benji would be able to do. He told me that he wanted to audition Benji to determine if he could carry a tune and that he wouldn’t guarantee that he would take him on as a student. I wasn’t particularly phased by this, but when I mentioned it to Sandy, she indignantly responded: “This is not about being a Pavaroti. This is about a young man’s relationship with G-d!”

For Benji, his bar mitzvah lessons were the highlight of his life. Not only did he devote countless hours to practicing each and every day, he became so absorbed that when he wanted to just relax in his bedroom, he would listen to Sam chanting on his cassette player. Each week after the Sabbath service, I would observe Benji approach Sam and tell him how excited he was for his upcoming lesson the following day. Gradually, Sam would beam. After all, how many 12-year-old boys had ever told him that and meant it so sincerely?

After three months of lessons Sam reported that Benji would be able to do everything expected of a bar mitzvah boy in an Orthodox synagogue, including the entire Torah reading, the haftorah (reading from Prophets), Musaf prayer service and Dvar Torah (speech). After six months, Sam claimed that Benji was the best student he had ever taught!

bar mitzva

At the bar mitzvah, Benji’s voice filled the sanctuary with the volume and confidence of a grown man. While it was difficult for me to see over the mechitza (partition), I heard from others that the same men who had been the most intolerant of Benji’s behavior problems when he was younger, were the very ones who were choking back the tears during his flawless Torah reading. When it was time for Sam to address him on the bimah (pulpit), he announced that tutoring Benji had been the most unparalleled experience of his 35-year career as a bar mitzvah tutor and he promptly burst into tears. If I told you that there was not a dry eye in the sanctuary, it would be a gross understatement as many congregants had tears streaming down their faces. Even our rabbi was too choked up to give his Dvar Torah, stating that he was too overcome with emotion to say a single word.

For the next two weeks my husband and I were overcome by letters, emails, cards, flowers and library books donated in Benji’s honor. Most of these were not even from our invited guests, but from members of our congregation who had watched Benji grow up. We received letters from people telling us that Benji had inspired them to overcome all of their personal challenges in their lives. His bar mitzvah was a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit.

A couple of days after the bar mitzvah, Benji left for summer camp for six weeks, returning in mid-August. The Friday morning after his return, Sam called to say that he wouldn’t be at shul the next day for Shabbat, but that he was ready to resume his more advanced Torah reading lessons with Benji that Sunday. When I informed him that we were going to take the rest of the summer off and would resume after Labor Day, I detected the disappointment in Sam’s voice. The once reluctant tutor could hardly wait to resume lessons with his favorite student!

Sandra Morton Weizman chairs the Inclusion Task Force for the Calgary Jewish Federation in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She is a Museum and Heritage consultant and the mother of two adult children, one of whom has an autism spectrum disorder.

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Twenty Years?!

Today’s blog post comes from Australia. This article in Mashable highlights a local train station which is clearly not accessible for people with disabilities. Two things stand out:

1) The state Transport Minister called the below video “distressing.” Just distressing?

2) The article states that area residents have been involved in a TWENTY YEAR BATTLE to make the station accessible. Unbelievable.

Watch the video below and see for yourselves:

Hopefully the video will cause this “distressing” situation to immediately be taken care of by local authorities.

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Jewish Self-Advocacy Education

(credit: Rachel Moses)

(credit: Rachel Moses)

By: Rachel Delman Turniansky

Rabbi Hillel asked: If I am not for myself, who is for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” – Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers 1:13)

Wrightslaw gives the following definition of self-advocacy:

“… learning how to speak up for yourself, making your own decisions about your own life, learning how to get information so that you can understand things that are of interest to you, finding out who will support you in your journey, knowing your rights and responsibilities, problem solving, listening and learning, reaching out to others when you need help and friendship and learning about self-determination.”

There are times when well-intentioned professionals and family members have a dominating voice when it comes to decisions that impact the lives of people with disabilities (PWD), as opposed to allowing them to self-advocate. I feel that thee Jewish community needs to support the development of self-advocacy and leadership skills in a Jewish context. The need for self-advocacy education that includes Jewish middot (values) is significant. Jewish life centers around family and community connections. People with disabilities are often left on the sidelines when it comes to participating in Jewish life.

A Jewish self-advocacy training program is being piloted through Baltimore’s TAG program. TAG is a division of Gesher LaTorah, a community-based Jewish education program for students with disabilities facilitated by the Macks Center for Jewish Education. TAG stands for Torah, Avodah v’Gimilut Chassadim – Torah learning, prayer and acts of loving kindness. Self-advocacy through a Jewish lens starts with cheshbon hanefesh (self-reflection). In thinking about Hillel’s wise words, we need to first think about who we are and how we want to fit into the Jewish world. TAG participants develop their Jewish identity and build connection to the community. They work on improving communication skills and goal-setting as well as how to voice their needs in a variety of situations. Students learn how to navigate the world using the Jewish values emulated by the name of the TAG program, along with others such as kavod – respect, derech eretz – showing good manners and being a “mensch”, and b’tzelem E’lokim – people are created in God’s image. Growing as a person and as a Jew is an important step towards advocating for acceptance.

Benyamin Waldman, Nechemya Jakobovitz and Mordechai Cohen enjoy learning and laughing together at Gesher LaTorah.

Benyamin Waldman, Nechemya Jakobovitz and Mordechai Cohen enjoy learning and laughing together at Gesher LaTorah.

Exploring the Jewish community and learning how to interact with others are also components. Students spend time discussing various aspects of what it means to be a member of the Jewish community and ways to strengthen their relationships with others. Through hands-on learning, role playing and multimedia experiences, students embrace v’ahavta l’reyecha k’mocha – love your neighbor as yourself and rodef shalom – pursue peace, while learning to interact in a variety of situations. Developing social skills and leadership qualities leads to building confidence and independence.

Many Jewish communal agencies are fortunate to have programming, support and advocacy for people with disabilities. It’s time for these Jewish professionals to understand that true support must be with the PWD. To echo the message of many disability advocacy groups, an important component to this effort is embodied in the phrase: “Nothing About Us Without Us.” With the proper tools and support, PWD can explore their own strengths and challenges and become self-advocates. People with disabilities are the primary stakeholders in creating a culture of inclusion throughout the Jewish community. As self-advocates, people with disabilities can join with advisors and allies to lend their voice to the endeavor to ensure their rightful place as members of our kehillah – community.

Rachel Delman Turniansky is the Coordinator of Special Needs Programs at the Center for Jewish Education and Principal of Gesher LaTorah. The TAG – Torah, Avodah, v’Gimilut Chasadim program is the adult Jewish education program under the auspices of Gesher LaTorah. Through the support of the #MakeItHappen grant (a joint partnership of the Schusterman and Ruderman Family Foundations) TAG implemented a Jewish Self-Advocacy Program in which students are developing self-awareness, leadership and Jewish identity. Learn more about Gesher LaTorah by Liking them on Facebook.

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The ADA- Unfulfilled Promises

2015 is the 25th anniversary of the signing of the ADA. We will be posting 25 posts over the next 12 months which will focus on the ADA- how it has changed society and what still needs to be done. Our goal is to cover for you, dear reader, as many different angles and issues as possible. Below is the third post in our #ADA25For25 series. The most recent post can be viewed here

By: Barbara Burton

Before passing the ADA, Congress examined the state of people with disabilities in America. They found people with disabilities experienced discrimination in areas such as employment, housing, education, transportation, communication, recreation, institutionalization, health services, voting and access to public services. People with disabilities were frequently isolated and segregated from the rest of society and were routinely excluded from many aspects of life due to a lack of accessibility. Further, they found people with disabilities who have experienced discrimination, unlike people who experienced discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, religion or age, often had no legal recourse for that discrimination and were unable to win compensation.

Congress decided the nation’s goals regarding individuals with disabilities are to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency. Then it decided the purposes of the Americans with Disabilities Act are (among others): to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities; to provide clear, strong, consistent, enforceable standards addressing discrimination against people with disabilities; and to ensure that the federal government plays a central role in enforcing the standards established in behalf of people with disabilities.

To the people who had worked hard to secure the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (the closest thing to a precursor of ADA there was) including participating in long-term takeovers of HEW buildings in San Francisco and other cities, the first version of the ADA introduced to Congress in 1988 was exciting and promised an end to lives of segregation and ongoing discrimination. While the final version of the ADA signed by President Bush in July 1990 came with changes and compromises, across America people with disabilities cheered their victory.

Now here we are 25 years after that historic day. How do we decide if the ADA is all it was supposed to be? I suggest making it personal. 25 years later are people with disabilities doing better than prior to 1990? Are we doing as well as Congress promised?

More people with disabilities are employed now than were in 1990, but overall people with disabilities are underemployed and have an employment rate much lower than people who have no disclosed disabilities.

Wheelchair users traveling by air recount horror stories about damaged or lost wheelchairs and injuries caused by contract employees who do not know how to transfer the traveler safely from the aisle chair to a seat on the plane. Guide dog and service dog teams report a routine inability to hail a taxi in cities across America because drivers do not want the dogs in their cabs.

Reports released in 2014 confirm that healthcare is unavailable to many people with disabilities. Physicians refuse to hire ASL interpreters for patients who are deaf, instead insisting the patient’s children interpret for them. Wheelchair users are often turned away when trying to make an appointment because the office is not accessible.

Voters who are blind or vision impaired find they are unable to vote at the polls because of poorly trained poll workers or non-functioning accessible voting machines. Voters who use wheelchairs frequently discover their polling place is inaccessible.

mid sidewalk poleCity infrastructure is often poorly maintained and designed, making travel around town difficult for people with a variety of disabilities. In some towns utility poles are installed in the middle of the sidewalk leaving no room for a wheelchair. In my city, our new Town Square comes with very high curbs. In one area there is no curb cut allowing someone to cross the street to reach the curb cut on the other side.

It is not unusual for people with severe disabilities to wait for years on a list hoping to be assigned care providers and home services. Until that time many are sent to nursing homes or other institutions. Imagine being a 16 year-old with quadriplegia and living among people in their 70s and 80s. This is true segregation.

This is where we are 25 years later. Yes, we have seen gains, but they have come very slowly. We have bounced back and forth as court decisions whittle away those gains and then return them piecemeal.

Why are we still fighting 25 years later? Where are the legal solutions promised in 1990? The business community, which should be embracing ADA as a relatively inexpensive way to achieve a larger customer base, has fought the changes imposed on it. They balk at installing accessible bathrooms and ramped entrances claiming the cost will put them out of business. With over 20% of the population experiencing some kind of disability, it seems the cost of installing an accessible entrance will be defrayed by the increase in business. We are an aging population and more and more of us require accessibility features.

We cannot legislate respect. After 25 years of the ADA what will it take to change the way Americans think about people with disabilities? Without respect there is no interest in or commitment to change.

Barbara C. Burton, M.Ed., owns Capitol Inclusion, an accessibility and inclusion consulting company. Follow her blog and engage Barbara on Twitter.

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National ‘Ruderman Best In Business Campaign’ Launched

LogoThe Ruderman Family Foundation, in partnership with the Jewish Week Media Group, is proud to announce an innovative competition highlighting North American for profit businesses who have shown exemplary practices in hiring, training and supporting people with disabilities. Those selected will be recognized with a Ruderman “Best in Business Award” and featured in a supplement in The Jewish Week June 19th edition- both printed and online.

“The surest path to full inclusion in our society comes from meaningful employment” said Jay Ruderman, the foundation’s president. “People with disabilities are the most excluded members of our society because they are unemployed at the rate of 70 percent.” As a result, he said, “we must hold up as shining examples those employers who have demonstrated a commitment to hiring people with disabilities. We are proud to partner with The Jewish Week to recognize these employers as the best in the business.”

The awards will showcase those businesses — whether large corporations or small companies —that have a history of:

  • employing people with disabilities
  • training and supporting employees with disabilities
  • developing innovative approaches to maximizing employee’s abilities

For additional information and to make a nomination, please complete the online form Nominations will be accepted through March 27, 2015.

A panel of experts in the field of inclusion and disability will select the winners. Learn more about the experts here.

Each winner will be featured in the supplement with a profile that includes their business logo, a photo, link to their website and description of their inclusive policies.

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Fighting For My Life

(Credit: Georganne Garfinkel)

(Credit: Georganne Garfinkel)

By: Chava Willig Levy

I grew up proud to be a polio survivor, blissfully unaware of the stigma many people attach to paralysis and deformity. I grew up proud to be a Jew, blissfully unaware of the stigma many people attach to my faith. I grew up proud to be a girl, blissfully unaware of the stigma many people attach to my gender.

It was only later, on the cusp of adulthood, that on all three fronts I was rudely awakened. Against my will, I became a warrior. And nowhere did the battle rage more fiercely than at the intersection where all three identities converged: the dating front.

I had battled exclusion before. I always won. The movie theater, the restaurant, the concert hall, the university, the world of work: they had dispensed my basic training. This time the barricades wouldn’t budge. When it came to marriage, so central to my Orthodox Jewish upbringing, I seemed destined to remain on the sidelines forever.

With every passing year, I searched more and more frantically for someone, anyone, who believed—as I did—that I would marry. It’s not that my parents didn’t believe it. When I asked, they assured me that they did. But I didn’t want to ask. I wanted their words to reach me unbidden. I wanted to hear unshakable conviction, even righteous indignation, in their voices. I didn’t.

One day, I heard a lilting song about Vincent van Gogh on the radio. It became a life preserver.

Now I understand
What you tried to say to me,
And how you suffered for your sanity,
And how you tried to set them free.
They would not listen, they did not know how.
Perhaps they’ll listen now.

Surely I couldn’t be the only sane one in my world. And if I were, I refused to believe that the world expected me to embrace its insanity. I often found myself humming a strident, long-forgotten folksong I had known since childhood, I Don’t Want to Get Adjusted to This World. If being well adjusted meant adjusting to society’s maladjusted view of life with a disability, I’d stay maladjusted, thank you very much.

The author on her wedding day (credit: Jerry Meyer)

The author on her wedding day (credit: Jerry Meyer)

Happily, a paperback book on my friend’s living room shelf enabled me to do just that.

It almost escaped my notice, that’s how slender it was. But like candy, its spine’s graphic design- pink and orange against a black background- caught my eye and whetted my appetite. Equally diminutive was its title: Stigma. But its author, sociologist Erving Goffman, was an intellectual giant.

Stigma: a little word whose meaning I did not know. Goffman wasted no time enlightening me: Stigma is an “attribute that is deeply discrediting” and that reduces the bearer “from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one.”

Goffman postulated that a stigmatized individual may consider himself “normal,” a human being like everyone else. At the same time, he may detect—and not without reason—that others do not accept him. And the kicker: As a product of the same society whose members stigmatize him, the stigmatized person subscribes to many of its attitudes, making him “intimately alive to what others see as his failing, inevitably causing him, if only for moments, to agree that he does indeed fall short of what he really ought to be.”

Time and again, I saw myself in Stigma’s pages, never more cathartically than in Goffman’s excerpts from The Little Locksmith, the 1943 memoir by Katherine Butler Hathaway, with whose scoliosis I thoroughly identified.

When I got up at last… and had learned to walk again, one day I took a hand glass and went to a long mirror to look at myself… That person in the mirror couldn’t be me. I felt inside like a healthy, ordinary, lucky person—oh, not like the one back in the mirror!

The discrepancy between Hathaway’s body image and her mirror’s reflection reminded me of the time my cousin Avrumi took me to a New York Knicks game at Madison Square Garden. After the game, we were waiting outside the Garden for my taxi to arrive. Traffic was horrendous and at least fifteen minutes went by—and still, no cab. Then, all of a sudden, I saw Avrumi lifting a wheelchair into the trunk of a yellow taxi.

“No!” I called out to him in alarm. “The car we’re expecting is dark blue!”

Bewildered, Avrumi turned toward me, the wheelchair in midair. “But this is not your wheelchair.”

Equally bewildered, I looked down. Avrumi couldn’t have been lifting my chair; I was still sitting in it.

Reading Stigma at age 20 clarified why, unless society holds its “mirror” up to my face, I often have no idea that I am sitting in a wheelchair. It’s almost as if the chair is so much a part of me that I don’t even know it’s there. That night waiting outside Madison Square Garden, I actually thought I was standing.

Nourished by Goffman, determined to fight stigma tooth and nail rather than internalize it, it was disheartening that with every passing year, my chances for love seemed to dwindle. When I was twenty-eight years old, my tender Tante (Aunt) Miriam helped me get dressed for the very first time. Several hours later, cheeks blushing, eyes luminous, she confided, “I never realized how attractive your body is. I told Uncle Moshe that I can envision a man wanting to marry you.” My confidence boost was short-lived. What did it matter what Tante Miriam could envision, what I could envision, if a man could not?

Two years later, in 1982, Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was released. The theater lights dimmed and soon I saw two elongated, reptilian fingers rising ominously. They pulled down a branch, juxtaposed against a globe of light glowing in the night sky. Those fingers terrified me. They disgusted me. And based on the audience’s collective gasp, I knew I wasn’t alone. Then, magic. Gradually, the fingers became far more than tolerable. They were lovable. Loving. Life-giving. It occurred to me that mine were too.

Within the year, I met and married my husband.

Chava Willig Levy is a New York-based writer, editor, advocate and lecturer who zips around in a motorized wheelchair and communicates about the quality and meaning of life. Her memoir, A Life Not with Standing, was published in 2013. Engage Chava Willig Levy on Twitter and follow her on Facebook.

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