Access to Library Internet Services for Patrons with Disabilities: Pragmatic Consideration for Developers
When libraries offer patron access to the Internet and other on-line services, they must consider the needs of patrons with disabilities who will be using their Internet links either from the library or from remote sites. In planning and implementing technological improvements to optimize access for all patrons, librarians and information specialists must allow for both physical and intellectual access to electronic information. This paper addresses these issues from a pragmatic perspective, reviews available options and suggests strategies for improving access for people with various disabilities.
The Internet Explosion and Patrons with Disabilities
Many libraries are using Internet access to improve patron services. In the United States, an estimated 21% of public libraries have some type of Internet connection, with libraries in urban areas (having a patron base over one million) connected at a rate of 75% (St. Lifer, 1994). These libraries are taking different approaches to providing Internet and on-line services to their patrons. Some have connections from terminals located inside the library; others allow dial-in access from patrons' offices or homes. As services grow in sophistication, so do patron interfaces. Many new computers sport a full-color mouse- driven Graphic User Interface (GUI) which allows access to CD-ROM products, World Wide Web sites, and other multimedia products.
The number of people who have disabilities is also increasing. As a group, Americans are aging, and life spans are increasing. Thanks to improvements in medical technology, more children with disabilities are surviving through infancy and early childhood. Advances in technology are also allowing people with disabilities to have greater freedom of motion, and more effective means of communicating. In 1990, over thirteen million Americans (excluding those living in institutions) reported using some sort of assistive technology device to help compensate for a disability. This reflects a continuing growth in the use of such aids (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1994). This growth has spurred a movement to ensure that educational, cultural, and employment opportunities are open to all, no matter what their disability.
Educational facilities have been at the fore of this movement. Since 1980, the number of children enrolled in educational programs for the disabled has risen by over 400,000. Of these, the majority are in regular classrooms for at least 40% of the school day (U. S. Department of Commerce, 1994). As educational opportunities continue to improve, library services will become even more important.
For patrons with disabilities, expanded library services and new computer access options are especially exciting. The Internet can truly open a world of information to people who have disabilities. Through E-mail, chat groups, and listservs, people can make friends and talk to others even if they have severe communication disorders. People who have rare disabilities can use the Internet to forge links to information and support groups that might otherwise be completely inaccessible. Legislative action alerts and electronic political forums give people who may find travel difficult the opportunity to actively shape government policy.
For these reasons, most people with disabilities welcome library access to the Internet. Many, however, have difficulty using a standard computer interface. For others, multimedia innovations represent potentially insurmountable barricades to full Internet access. Some patrons may also find learning multiple methods of searching to be frustrating or impossible. Most of these barriers were not consciously built by information and computer specialists, and many can be overcome if librarians consider both physical and intellectual access issues when they plan their access options.
Physical Access Problems
Physical access problems are usually obvious and can be addressed by information professionals from many disciplines. Programmers can develop new GUI standards; librarians may offer to sit with patrons and describe multimedia images that are not captioned. Careful planning beginning with the actual computer interface should ensure that every patron has basic physical access to the Internet.
The standard computer interface consists of a keyboard, mouse and screen. Many people with disabilities find this interface cumbersome or impossible to use. Many companies are addressing physical interface difficulties, and work-arounds exist for most potential problems. Not every solution is appropriate for every library. Ideally, libraries would base adaptive technology purchasing decisions solely on patron needs. In the real world, however, cost and space are often big factors in a library's choice among options. Fortunately, augmenting expensive and sophisticated devices are many inexpensive and free products available to help libraries provide the best possible Internet access for patrons with disabilities.
Solutions to overcoming physical access barriers are often free. A computer workstation can be made accessible to people who use wheelchairs by raising the table with wooden blocks. Keeping cables neat and workstations clear of books and supplies may give patrons the extra space they need to manipulate switches, plug in headphones, or adjust monitors. By setting preferences correctly, librarians can make their interfaces more inviting to people with disabilities without spending a dime. The most appealingworkstations include only items that patrons can use and understand, and are clear of any distractions or obstacles. This principle applies not only to the physical work area, but also to the layout of the display on the screen.
- For any computer display, the active window should fill the screen. Every inch of the screen is valuable. If patrons use an on-screen keyboard, the active window should be short enough to accommodate the keyboard, but expanded to the full width of the screen.
- Usually, tool bars should be turned off. Screen readers for the blind do not recognize them, people with low vision cannot see them, and people who have cognitive impairments may not understand them. One exception: people with mobility impairments may want the tool bars left on. For these patrons, it is easier to use the tool bar than to execute multiple-key commands.
- When a computer is set up for use by blind or visually impaired patrons, in-line images should be turned off, or the interface should be through a text-only program such as lynx. Screen readers do not recognize images, but they can interpret image captions.
- Following Internet links will be easier for patrons if the library has its own home page. The page should clearly show common links using a display with large fonts, highlighted anchors, and well-captioned images.
Internet sites are convenient sources of many free programs. The University of Wisconsin Trace Center, for example, offers free adaptive ideas and programs through their gopher site (gopher to trace.wisc.edu). The University of Kansas sponsors a web site with programs for the Mac (http://www.sped.ukans.edu/~dlance/freeindex.html). Not all solutions, of course, are free, but many of those that do cost money cost very little.
One inexpensive and readily available adaptive tool is a screen magnifier. Screen magnifiers are software programs that allow patrons to view the computer screen at various levels of magnification. They may also let the patron manipulate color or intensity to help people who have trouble distinguishing certain color combinations. Screen magnifiers are usually mounted on a PC or MAC platform, rather than on a dumb terminal; this may raise the cost of initial installation. Not all screen magnifiers are identical, and there are several features librarians should look for when considering this type of software.
- Patrons should be able to magnify as much of the screen as they like; this may mean expanding a line, a word, an icon, or the entire screen. Patrons who use screen magnifiers may also have limited mobility, so expansion methods should not involve complex or fussy controls.
- Because patrons have varying print size preferences, a system with adjustable magnification is usually better than one that only offers a normal-to-big toggle. This is especially true if patrons will be using the magnifier with Windows-type interfaces, where font sizes and detail levels vary.
- Patrons using color monitors should be able to change display colors and intensity. On any type of monitor, patrons should be able to reverse the image (changing green-on-black to black-on-green, for example) within the magnified window if they wish to. Again, the commands to do this should be clear and not fussy.
Screen magnifiers may be all that most patrons with low vision need. Some patrons, however, have severe visual impairments or are totally blind, and cannot read a screen even with magnification. For these patrons, voice interfaces are the most common adaptive programs. These systems help the many blind and visually impaired people who do not read Braille. They also aid patrons with learning disabilities that make print comprehension difficult. People who cannot use a keyboard or mouse because of limited mobility may use a voice interface as well. Voice recognition technology is improving, and more non- disabled users are using voice interfaces. This growing interest from many Internet users is helping spur further advances in the technology.
Voice recognition programs do differ. Some voice interfaces are one-way only, reading information that appears on the screen. Others work both ways, allowing the user to dictate material the computer translates into commands or even into written text. Because the technology is so volatile, it is difficult to point with certainty at any one program as the "best." There are, however, features and caveats librarians should keep in mind when evaluating any voice interface.
- A voice interface should have a buffer that stores output so that patrons can replay information if they need to. Commands for doing so should be unambiguous and should not require dexterous multiple keystroke combinations.
- While voice interfaces can identify some icons, buttons, and the like, for the most part they cannot identify pictorial information. Consequently, they work better on textual applications than on multimedia products and web connections. Librarians using a voice interface on a web connection may prefer to go through a textual interface such as lynx.
- Volume controls on voice interfaces should be large and easy to operate, and should have Braille or tactile indicators for blind patrons. As noted below, people who are blind are not necessarily Braille literate. Whenever there is any doubt as to patron preference, the setup should be designed so that a non- Braille reader can negotiate the interface.
- Headphones used with voice interfaces should have separate volume controls for left and right ear inputs. These controls should be easy to operate. If the patron will be plugging in the headphones, the jack should be large and located at the front of the computer, within easy reach of the patron. All inputs should be marked with Braille or tactile labels. Switches which should not be touched should be protected if they are near any input jacks or controls. This will ensure that patrons do not turn the computer off, push the reboot button, or otherwise inadvertently disrupt operations.
- Voice interfaces make noise. Unfortunately, work station designers often overlook this obvious fact. When a system consists of an output-only interface, headphones may be sufficient to ensure privacy and reduce disturbance. If the computer has voice recognition software, however, patrons will be talking as well. In these cases, computers should be housed in separate, quiet areas. At a minimum, each station should have walls, like a study carrel, to reduce extraneous noise and maximize privacy.
- As with screen magnifiers, voice interfaces must be mounted on a computer, rather than on a dumb terminal. Again, this may add to the initial setup costs.
Voice interfaces currently have the most universal appeal among adaptive interfaces. However, for many blind computer users, a Braille display is the preferred interface. Braille displays use a special 8-dot readout (instead of the usual 6-dot Braille cell) to show highlighted or otherwise enhanced items. Braille displays usually augment a standard keyboard. The patron uses the keyboard as an input device, and the Braille display to read what is on the screen. Braille interfaces are quite expensive, and most appropriate for libraries with many blind patrons. Librarians who are thinking of installing Braille interfaces should keep some important points in mind.
- Most blind people do not read Braille. As an example, only 7% of the blind patrons registered with the Louisiana State Library's services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped use Braille material (Anjier, 1995). This number may decrease further as more children are taught in integrated schools where Braille literacy is not stressed.
- Librarians can improve the friendliness of a Braille interface by installing Braille overlays on the keyboard itself. These overlays are very inexpensive and do not generally bother other people who use the computer. If the keyboard is left in an unattended area, the overlays should be checked periodically to ensure that pranksters have not removed, inverted, or switched the overlays.
- Patrons who want to use text-based Internet services such as e-mail, telnet, ftp, and traditional gopher services will get the most benefit from a Braille display. Web users will have more difficulty, because Braille displays cannot interpret pictorial information. Some buttons and icons can be translated, but most visual information cannot be adequately represented. As an easy solution, libraries using Braille displays should get to web sites through a textual interface. Most of these programs will automatically convert multimedia information into text captions.
- Braille printers (and the software to support them) should be provided at all work stations with Braille displays. If the printer does not have Braille control keys, Braille overlays should be added. Some libraries do not allow printing and instead encourage patrons to copy material to floppy disks. When this is the case, file format preferences should be set carefully. Blind patrons will want material copied in flat ASCII files that will work with whatever adaptive programs they normally use.
Alternative Keyboard Options
Blind users may appreciate Braille overlays as an aid to keyboard use. People with mobility and some cognitive impairments may need more radical adjustments to using a keyboard interface. While people with mobility impairments can probably read the computer display without difficulty, they may have a hard time typing commands or moving a mouse. There are, however, options for librarians who want to work around a standard keyboard interface and provide access in the least restrictive way possible.
- Software solutions include work-arounds for multiple-key commands and mouse-clicks. Some also configure the numeric keyboard to replace the mouse for easier cursor movement. Many of these programs are freely available through the Internet. A good overview of available programs is available through the NCSA Mosaic Access Page (NCSA, 1995).
- Keyguards use templates to guide the user's hands. On many templates, keys that are not used can be blocked off, so that there is no chance of a user hitting them accidentally. This type of template is especially useful for interfaces that are entirely menu-driven, but it limits the user's ability to conduct searches.
- Expanded keyboards have extra function keys. The keys may also have slightly larger footprints. The function keys can be configured at will to eliminate the need for multiple-key combinations.
- Programmable adaptive keyboards allow librarians to program keys and adjust options to suit a variety of patron needs. They are usually more versatile than expanded keyboards, because they allow any of the keys to be specially programmed. This type of keyboard may be the best choice for libraries using programs that incorporate many two- or three-key combinations.
- On-screen keyboards are software programs that reproduce the keyboard on the screen. They enable a mouse, trackball, or pointer to act as an on-screen "finger," moving to each letter and clicks on it in turn. Users can program special "hot key" symbols to replace multiple-keystroke commands, further simplifying computer use.
- Trackballs require less movement to operate than a standard mouse and can benefit some people who have limited arm mobility. They may also reduce problems associated with repetitive stress disorders of the upper arm and shoulder. Other alternatives to standard mice include head pointers, digitizing tablets, and finger-operated pads.
- Touch screens can help patrons who cannot manipulate a mouse or trackball, but who can reach the screen. A touch screen may also be a useful interface for menu-driven programs that feature limited choices and big buttons.
Work Station Access
Of course, no computer interface will be accessible until the work space itself is accessible. Many libraries have one "accessible" workstation that incorporates all special adaptive interfaces. The "accessible" station is then set up on a wheelchair-accessible table or stand. Because many people who use wheelchairs have no trouble with a standard computer interface, "regular" stations should also be accessible to wheelchair users. Similarly, some people who do need adaptive equipment cannot use a computer on a low desk. To accommodate these patrons, adaptive workstations should also be placed at a standing height. Librarians designing Internet computer stations should try to follow guidelines to maximize accessibility for all patrons.
- Paths to work stations should be 36" wide whenever possible, and no less than 28" wide at any point to accommodate people who use wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, and other mobility aids.
- If there are multiple work stations available, one should be at a standing height station. This is a benefit to people who have a hard time getting up and down and to those who cannot sit for long periods. Adjustable-height computer tables are available when libraries can install only one adaptive workstation.
- Ideally, all seated work stations should have a 28" vertical floor clearance extending at least 20" under the station to give ample leg room for wheelchair users. This area should be clear of cables, power lines, or other obstructions.
- Keyboard shelves should be adjustable, and monitors should swivel and tilt. A flexible-arm monitor mount is the most versatile and is generally worth the expense. This is especially true if the monitor has a touch screen, since the flexible arm will swing closer to patrons who have shorter arm reach.
- Stations designated specifically for wheelchair access should never be blocked by chairs. Although it seems like simple common sense, this is a typical problem at many libraries, especially when accessible workstations are shared with patrons who do not use wheelchairs.
Even libraries with accessible, state-of-the-art adaptive equipment and helpful staff members will not reach all people with disabilities in the community. Some people simply cannot come to the library at all. For these patrons, remote dial-in access can bring the library to them. Using familiar interfaces, patrons can find library information without worrying about transportation, weather, or air quality. The convenience of dial-in access is such that some patrons who can get to the library still prefer remote connections. The advantages of dial- in access are quite compelling, especially for academic and special libraries.
- Library patrons who use home or office computers to dial in do so on a level footing with any other remote user. There is no fear of prejudice; library staff members will not even know that the dial-in patron has a disability.
- Patrons who have adaptive work stations in their homes or offices can use these same interfaces for Internet access. This makes searching, printing, and downloading files much more efficient. If the patron may download files, information can be translated by the patron's computer into spoken word or Braille formats, or otherwise manipulated at will by the patron.
- Dial-in access is usually available twenty-four hours a day. Patrons can set their own work schedules, which can be especially beneficial to people who have time to spare late at night or in the early morning.
Librarians must not think of remote access as a panacea, however. Dial-in services are out of reach for those patrons with disabilities who cannot afford their own adaptive computer equipment. Dial-in access efforts must include innovative ways to provide full library services, including help with searches, to patrons who rely on remote access. Most important, librarians must ensure that remote access is not used to discourage patrons with disabilities from coming to the library.
Multimedia Web sites
Multimedia Web sites and GUI-based programs present challenges to Internet users with disabilities. Traditional gophers and other text-based sites present few problems to patrons accustomed to using screen readers or other adaptive aids. Many multimedia sites, however, are nightmares. Setting up a home page is quite simple, and many developers are so impressed with the visual possibilities that they build in pretty wallpaper, fancy fonts, and audiovisual clips galore. People with disabilities quickly realized that many of these sites were difficult, if not impossible to negotiate. Researchers and end- users began attempts to work with developers of access programs such as Mosaic and Netscape to standardize Web access methods and accommodate adaptive equipment.
The Mosaic Access Project, with funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation, is the result of one such effort. The project coordinators are devoted to identifying and eliminating barriers to physical access by people with disabilities. Their Web site includes a "wish list" compiled from requests by Internet users who have disabilities. Recent items show the concern people with hearing and visual impairments have about the problems of negotiating a multimedia GUI. A sampling of these suggestions points out areas in which further work is needed (NCSA, 1995).
- Visually impaired patrons want audio- and text-captioned image viewers. Similarly, deaf Mosaic users would like captioned or visually enhanced audio clips.
- Many patrons would appreciate on-line help. Libraries establishing Internet connections could devise their own help screens to assist patrons when the site itself does not have such facilities.
- Mosaic users with visual impairments would benefit from a one-button toggle to set all fonts to a standard default font. Each patron could customize the size, style, color and contrast of the default prompt.
- People who use screen readers would like standards requiring icons to be detectable by screen readers. They also promote requirements for textual labels on all icons and command buttons.
- Users with disabilities also support numbering all anchors in a document sequentially, providing a display of the total count. They further propose a similar scheme for numbering in- line images. This would help people keep track of their relative location in a Web document.
Mosaic programmers have already responded to many requests from the list. Mosaic now supports the display of textual tags on images whenever image auto-load functions are disabled. Font selection, size, and color can be controlled by the individual, and many other features can be customized. Mosaic has switched to standard icons that screen readers are more likely to recognize. The programmers have incorporated several other changes to make Mosaic more accessible. They have also given the program code to researchers at two universities who are working on accessibility issues (NCSA, 1995).
Unfortunately, the people who produce Mosaic are more an exception than the rule. Many software producers are reluctant to spend programmer time on adaptations for a relatively small portion of the market. Still fewer are willing to share copyrighted computer source code. Librarians choosing among access programs should ask vendors what has been done to provide universal access to their programs.
Once the computer has been made physically accessible, librarians and information specialists must consider the intellectual accessibility of their services. Research into on- line retrieval strategies has not focused significantly on differing strategies among people with disabilities. Research in other disciplines has suggested, however, that cognitive processes differ among people with disabilities and among those who speak different languages.
The research implies that some patrons who have learning disabilities that impair print comprehension will benefit from a GUI based system. Others, however, will read print and type without difficulty, but will have trouble understanding icons. Frustratingly, librarians have little or no way to know in advance which interface will prove best for which user. Researchers in cognitive development are working with software developers to create programs to help people with specific cognitive disabilities learn to use computers. These programs are unlikely to help most librarians, however, who must purchase only one or two programs to serve many patrons with different access strategies.
The question of intellectual access also concerns whether a graphical search engine involves more than a simple substitution of pictures for words. A comparison between a DOS menu and a Windows interface offers a simple illustration of this problem. On a menu-driven program, initial choices are usually kept to a minimum. They usually appear in a one- or two-column vertical list with the most common choices listed first, less common choices listed toward the bottom, and an exit or logout option at the end. If there are too many choices to fit onto the list, the menu will lead users to different selections using a tree structure. The menus are generally easy to figure out, even when using a screen reader or magnifier.
Windows interfaces are arranged quite differently. The display can provide the user with many more initial choices, each designated by a pictorial icon and a tiny-type caption. The icons may not be arranged in a standard column. As an example, Microsoft Encarta 1994 has a rainbow shaped icon display, with a second "start" button enigmatically placed at the bottom (Microsoft, 1994). In many programs, there is no obvious way to exit the program without being familiar with Windows commands. The icons may not be in standard form, and would therefore be unrecognized by a screen reader. These problems are typical access barriers associated with GUIs.
Screen reader and other adaptive equipment problems may be solved. Even so, if GUI platforms do represent a new way of searching for and retrieving information, there will be serious implications for people who do not think visually. The questions of cognition are not likely to be closed quickly. For the working librarian who wants all types of patrons to use the Internet, there is help. Following a few general guidelines will help ensure that patrons get the most benefit from the library's system, no matter what their thinking style. Considering the intellectual accessibility of Internet services is at least as important as ensuring physical access.
- Whenever possible, libraries should provide access through both textual and graphical interfaces. When patrons have difficulty with one interface, they can try another.
- Usually, accommodations for people with cognitive disabilities parallel those for patrons with visual impairments. This includes using an uncluttered screen with clear buttons or command choices.
- Patrons with differences in language or cognitive strategies may approach library searches in very disparate ways. Librarians can help these patrons make more efficient use of their time by providing clear models of search strategies, printed in large type and kept near the Internet work stations.
- If possible, a librarian should use this model and go through a few searches with new users, using the same technique. Introducing short cuts or alternative paths is appropriate only after patrons have mastered the basic techniques for navigating the system.
- Because search strategies may be difficult for some people to master, librarians should consider eliminating or expanding time limits for people who are using adaptive equipment or who have cognitive impairments. The added stress of working under a deadline may completely disrupt patrons' search efforts.
Striking a balance
While most libraries would want to provide immediate universal physical and intellectual access to all Internet services, this is beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest libraries. The best course of action involves balancing current patron needs with available resources, and then anticipating the needs of potential users. The following steps can serve as a general guide to making computer information accessible to the broadest possible constituency. A library's goal should be to provide information access; it is not necessary to purchase every adaptive aid on the market.
- Free material can be installed right away, and should be advertised to bring in new patrons. As noted earlier, librarians can obtain many free programs from on-line sources. Vendors and associations that promote computer access for people with disabilities may also offer programs and, sometimes, equipment to libraries. State libraries may also have adaptive programs or equipment available upon request.
- Any purchases or serious programming commitments should be based on the demographics of the library's constituency. Special, school, and academic librarians can probably get information about patron disabilities from their personnel, admissions, and student affairs offices. Public libraries can probably get some demographic information from government and census information or from local disabilities advocacy organizations. Having this information ensures that any adaptive technology purchased or installed will meet the needs of actual users.
- People within the community must be involved in any plans to purchase or install equipment. If the library uses surveys to solicit ideas, they should be distributed to more than current patrons. Many people with disabilities could use the library, but do not know about adaptive interfaces or library services. Others may be unable to use present library services for some reason. Both groups represent important constituencies and must have a voice in any planning process.
- If the library offers dial-in access or adaptive interfaces, these services should be promoted through venues likely to be seen by patrons with disabilities. For example, radio and television notices will reach more visually impaired patrons than will print advertisements, but radio advertisements will not reach most of the deaf community.
- When the library does not have adaptive equipment available, librarians and other staff members must be willing to adopt work- arounds to help patrons. If, for example, there is no interface usable by a patron, a staff member can sit with the patron and type information based on the patron's dictation, reading the screen information back.
- Above all else, staff members must be willing to help. People with disabilities may need more time or assistance when they are using the system. If there are certain times of day that are quieter than others, patrons should know that at those times staff members can give them more one-on-one instruction.
- Both staff and patrons need training to navigate the Internet using adaptive equipment. A connection is useless if the patron does not know the types of information and services available on the Internet. Similarly, a staff member who knows the Internet well but who cannot use adaptive interfaces will not be much help to patrons. Consistent, ongoing training maximizes the effect of any equipment or software the library installs.
- Statistics on library use by patrons with disabilities will measure the success of library efforts. Statistics should include people who used adaptive aids in the library. They should also count those for whom existing equipment was insufficient. Trends in patron demographics are also invaluable when planning purchases of additional equipment or shift resources to help meet those patrons interface needs.
- Each library should designate one person to stay abreast of advances in adaptive equipment and strategies. Two listservs are particularly helpful in this regard. AXSLIB-L is a site for discussion of library access to patrons with disabilities (address: AXSLIB-L@sjuvm.stjohns.edu). ADAPT-L focuses more specifically on adaptive technology solutions to library access problems (address: ADAPT-L@.american.edu). Both sites follow standard listserv format for subscription requests. Browsing gopher and web sites periodically is another good way to keep up with developments.
- Even if a purchase is not immediately planned, somebody from the library should regularly visit vendors at library trade shows and should stay on the mailing list for vendor catalogs. In the past few years, the number of vendors offering adaptive products and equipment has increased dramatically. Following vendor trends and having an in-house person familiar with available products allows librarians to shop effectively. Librarians who are familiar with equipment and software can also make purchases on short notice when funds become available.
No matter what their patron base, libraries will continue to expand on-line and Internet services. These services will only be universally accessible, however, when librarians make the effort to design adaptive work stations taking patrons' special access strategies into account. Both physical and intellectual access options are expanding as adaptive equipment becomes more sophisticated and as Internet developers become more aware of the need to design alternative access methods into their interfaces. More research is needed, though, before the full impact of a switch to GUI-based interfaces can be estimated. Librarians who cannot afford to wait for research results can still help ensure optimal Internet access. They must base adaptive technology purchases on actual patron needs. When adaptive equipment is not available, they must develop work-arounds and be willing to provide additional help to patrons. Finally, they must keep abreast of advances in access technology and strategies. If they do so, librarians will act not as gatekeepers, but as ushers to the Internet, and will help their patrons who have disabilities enter this exciting world of information.
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