In this episode with Haben Girma, we talk about her new book The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law. We also talk about the state of accessibility and what barriers we still need to remove, the theme of “exclusion” in Haben’s book, and how to change the ableist mindset.
The first deaf-blind person to graduate from Harvard Law School, Haben Girma is a civil rights lawyer and she advocates for equal opportunities for people with disabilities. President Obama named her a White House Champion of Change, and Forbes recognized her in its 30 Under 30 list. Haben travels the world consulting and public speaking, teaching clients the benefits of fully accessible products and services. She is a talented storyteller who helps people frame difference as an asset.
Check out Haben’s book The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law here.
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Introduction: Welcome to the Lawyerist Podcast, a series of conversations about law practice. Each week, we talk with legal entrepreneurs and innovators about building a successful law practice in today’s challenging and constantly changing legal market. And now, here are your hosts.
Sam Glover: Hi, I’m Sam Glover.
Aaron Street: And I’m Aaron Street, and this is episode #236 of the Lawyerist Podcast, part of the Legal Talk Network. Today we’re talking with Haben Girma about her new book, The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law School.
Sam Glover: Today’s podcast is brought to you by Ruby Receptionists, Podium, TextExpander and TimeSolv. We wouldn’t be able to do this show without their support. Stay tuned, we’ll tell you more about them later on.
Aaron Street: I am really excited to have Haben Girma back on the show.
Sam Glover: Totally.
Aaron Street: Her first episode a year and a half ago was, for sure, one of the more interesting conversations and episodes we’ve had, and it’s really cool that she now has her autobiography releasing this week and that we’ve got her on the show.
Sam Glover: Yeah, it’s awesome. My conversation with her is maybe a little chit-chatty, but a really solid look at the state of accessibility 30 years after the ADA and on some related topics related to her book.
Aaron Street: Yeah. And in fairness, if people want a more directed conversation about those topics as opposed to getting to know her better, we already have that first episode with her, which you can check out. This week, we are headed to Labcon.
Sam Glover: Yay.
Aaron Street: This is the week that we bring Lawyerist Lab members together for three days of intensive workshopping and relationship building is for sure one of Lawyerist’s peak times of the year. We all really love and are energized by getting to spend time with our community of lab members and getting to learn from and work with them in a closed environment for a few days.
Sam Glover: Labcon is one of the best things we do. I’ve been trying to share a taste of Labcon around the country as I’ve been going out and speaking. We’ve done workshops now in Colorado, in Ohio and in Minnesota, and it’s been interesting to get the feedback. And some of the people who’ve come said, “I want more and I’m coming to Labcon,” and we will be seeing them in a few days, which is really exciting because I love Labcon Weekend.
Aaron Street: Yeah. Presumably, you will see at least some social media buzz about it in the next couple of days. The reality is it’s a private, invite only event for our community, so there isn’t a lot of live tweeting in the way that-
Sam Glover: In fact we discourage people.
Aaron Street: … yeah, that there might be for some other conference, but I’m sure you will hear people mentioning it in the next few days. And for sure, if you’re interested in coming to a future event, you can check out lawyerist.com/lab to learn more about what it takes to join the group.
Sam Glover: Yeah, we’d love to see you there. So now we’ve got a brief sponsored conversation with Scott Clausen from Timesolv, and then my conversation with Haben.
Scott Classen: This is Scott Classes. I’m with Timesolv. We are a web-based time and billing solution that’s been helping lawyers track their time and send their invoices for over 20 years.
Sam Glover: Hey Scott, thanks for coming back on the podcast.
Scott Classen: Happy to be here.
Sam Glover: So, today, we’re going to follow up on some of the things that we’ve been talking about and talk about migrating to new software. And we’re going to use the example of billing software. And you have a new white paper out, and so that’s why we’re going to cover this, where you cover a lot of the questions, and we’re just going to highlight a few, because there are some obvious answers, right? Like if you’re considering desktop versus cloud, cloud is the obvious answer. But what are some of the other questions that firms should be asking themselves when they’re considering migrating to new billing software?
Scott Classen: Well, I think the first thing is it goes back to a little bit of what we talked about in some previous podcasts is how to think about your billing as… don’t keep it in the box of just, it’s just how I send my invoices out and get paid, but, how can it be used as a marketing tool? How can it be used as a tool to ensure customer satisfaction? So what is the intent of your billing, and can the solution that you’re looking for handle that? If you want to include all of your no-charge works so that it’s very clear that, hey, I did all this added value to the work I did for you and I’m not charging you for it, those sort of things, that you want to make sure that you’re evaluating that.
Scott Classen: Some of the other things we talked about, and I think this really is true of all potential move-to-a-new-solution software, whether it’s billing or otherwise, is we’re talking about it in the context of like, what is your billing workflow? How do you go about accumulating your time, putting it on an invoice, getting it approved, making edits, sending it to the customers, the customers then give you payment, you track… All of that stuff is billing, but oftentimes, that workflow that you have established that may have been in place at your firm for years is not necessarily the optimal way you’d like to do things, but you are forced, if you will, kind of shoehorned into a methodology that might’ve been just because of the limitations of the software you had or even there’s a lot of firms today that we talked to that don’t use anything from a billing solution. They’re still on excel files and Word documents.
Sam Glover: This is a good opportunity to step back and say, what would we like our billing workflow to look like?
Scott Classen: Exactly. What is our best case scenario? And then once you really establish that, I think it’s a real eyeopener to do that, then you can look at, okay, what are the solutions out there, the other products out there that can handle what we would like to do in best case scenario? And then the other, I think, very obvious question to ask is taking a look at the… no client necessarily. You don’t necessarily bill all your clients exactly the same way. So how much flexibility does your solution you might be looking at have, and can you handle client A, who are you going to just build strictly by the hour, time and expenses in the traditional kind of billing model we’re all familiar with.
Scott Classen: Maybe client B though is someone that you… it’s an area of law that requires more or demands more from the client of a fixed fee nature or flat fee nature and then clients C is a retainer model where every month you have to pump out a new invoice to them for payment that… whatever it might be. The point is how flexible is the solution that you might be looking at? You got to make sure that whatever you’re going to be moving to, it’s the right answer. And you need to be like, “Why am I even moving to a new billing software to begin with?” And we have found in our time with Timesolv that if you have a bad methodology and the way you’re currently doing things and you plan on doing the same exact thing with the new software, you’re not really solving the problem you tried to solve. By moving to a new software, you’re just moving into a different looking platform.
Sam Glover: Well, that’s what comes up a lot when I see people evaluating software is, “This doesn’t work the way I am used to things working.” And if you are perfectly happy with the way things are working, why are we looking at new software? This has an opportunity to look for improvements. Although I’ll say like, there is software that attempts to be all things to all people with 100% flexibility, which some software does that quite well, it’s very customizable. But that requires a lot of work on the company’s end to design that workflow, usually with the help of an expensive consultant.
Sam Glover: And so on the other end of things, and most cloud software tends to be flexibility within guide rails, and so then your job is to look at it and say, How do we want to work? What kinds of things do we want to be able to do with our invoices with respect to billing intent? What do we want our workflow to look like? How flexible do we think we need this to be for alternative billing? And then you have to look at the software and say, Okay, how does this software want to be used? Because I think software’s designed with intent as well.
Sam Glover: And then you have to decide, can we meet in the middle and find a solution that is as good as we can get. Because it’s not quite as simple as, does this do things the way I’ve always done it, or have just dreamed up the ideal situation and I’m pissed off that I can’t find software tat is exactly it. You need to find something in between.
Scott Classen: You’re right. I think you hit the nail on the head, and it’s all part of what you described in… it’s the art of software design. And we talked about this with our developers internally-
Sam Glover: And selection, really.
Scott Classen: … Right. It’s all about… Yeah, it’s like you want your product to be flexible enough to handle all the different scenarios you think are out there, but it’s gotta be. I like the term, the guide rails. And what we’ve learned here too is that there’s really two things holding back a lot of law firms from moving new software, that is, can I move my old data, yes or no, to the new product? And B, is it going to take too much time or the learning curve going to be too high? And if you can solve those hurdles as well as answering those questions we discussed earlier, then you’re going to have a more positive experience in the whole process of, we need something new to, now we are on something new that we’re very happy with.
Sam Glover: So speaking of guide rails, if you’d like a little bit of help thinking through migrating to new software, you can find a guide for that at go.timesolv.com/newbillingsoftware. That’s go.timesolv.com/newbillingsoftware. And just as a reminder, Timesolv does not have an e at the end of solve. Thanks so much Scott, we look forward to having you back on the podcast someday.
Scott Classen: Thanks Sam. Appreciate it.
Haben Girma: My name is Haben Girma. I’m a disability rights lawyer, speaker and a new author.
Haben: My book just came out, The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law. And I’ve come up with strategies and solutions to live as a deafblind blind in a sighted, hearing world. Lots of tech solutions such as the one we’re using now throughout this conversation… I have an interpreter typing on a qwerty keyboard and I’m reading real time on the rail computer.
Sam Glover: Thanks so much for being on the podcast again, Haben. It’s great to have you back.
Haben Girma: Thanks for having me back, Sam.
Sam Glover: And it’s great to read your book. I read your book, and I really enjoyed it.
Haben Girma: Excellent. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it.
Sam Glover: It gave me some real insight into your life and your work, and I’d like to hear more about writing it. What’s your goal for it?
Haben Girma: All my life, people have been telling me, “You should write a book. Your Life is interesting. You should write a book.” And I tell them, “No. I’m too busy to write a book. I don’t have time to hide in a cave for a year or two to write a book. I’d rather live life and experience things.”
Sam Glover: That is one of the things I have noticed about you is you are an exuberant experiencer of life.
Haben Girma: I love experiencing things, especially physically engaging. Like, I’m more interested in dancing rather than hearing about other people dancing and just sitting on the sidelines. So whenever I can, I want to engage in activities. And I do a lot of physical activities like kayaking, rock climbing. So those help me feel alive and connected with the world.
Sam Glover: That’s awesome. How did you finish a book? I have tried writing longer things and I’ve struggled. How did you do it?
Haben Girma: So, originally, I was not interested, then I, in the last few years, realized that writing is another form of advocacy and stories are a way to get ideas to stick. I can tell people, “Hey, inclusion is important. Remove all the barriers,” and they might listen, they might not listen. If I frame it in the context of a story though, stories help ideas stick, and people are more likely to engage in accessibility work if they’re drawn to it by a story.
Haben Girma: So I started to see writing as a form of advocacy, and I re-analyzed my life, what are some stories that can highlight the point barriers being arbitrary and created by society rather than by disability? People assume that disability the problem when in actuality, society created barriers that are the problem. So, I picked up stories from my life, from elementary school all the way to law school and the courtroom and the White House, highlighting barriers and coming up with solutions.
Sam Glover: I definitely got that from your book, and I found that really compelling to experience the world in the way that you have over your life.
Haben Girma: The other thing is, I enjoy the process, and that’s what got me to really sit down and write the book. I wrote because it was fun to relive a lot of these experiences and challenge myself to frame it in a way that advocates for inclusion. So, it was a fun job, and I also balanced it out with the rest of my work. I continued to advocate and travel around the world as I was writing the book, and I paced myself, going one story at a time.
Sam Glover: When you think about the ableist mindset, in other words, seeing barriers in the world rather than seeing the disabilities as barriers, how can we all change our mindset on that?
Haben Girma: Stories are a great way to help people change that mindset. And I’ll give an example, the dominant culture believes in ableism. And ableism is the idea that people with disabilities are inferior to the non disabled. So when I was looking for a job, it was really, really hard to get a job because people assumed I was incompetent. They’d look at my resume and get really excited. I was Valedictorian in high school, I had great grades in college, lots of volunteer experience. So employers would ask me to come in for an interview, then they would realize I am deafblind, and they would come up with all kinds of excuses.
Haben Girma: And for weeks, I was struggling to get a job, even though everyone around me, all the college kids around me, had summer jobs. Eventually, I found a manager who believes in inclusion and she didn’t care whether I used my eyes or a non-visual technique as long as I got the job done. And I was working at a gym, a small gym; I was their front desk clerk and I would take care of making sure all the machines worked. I would handle the cash register, cleaning up the changing rooms.
Haben Girma: One day, a woman came up to the front desk and said, “A machine isn’t working. The treadmill’s not working.” And I said, “Okay, let’s go check it out.” So I went over to the treadmill, I checked the top part of the treadmill, turned on the on button, nothing happened. I tried the other buttons on the machine, nothing happened. So I felt the machine from top to bottom, and on the bottom, there was a switch. I flipped the switch and the machine [inaudible 00:14:25]. The lady said, “Oh my goodness, I didn’t see that switch.” I told her, “I didn’t see it either.”
Sam Glover: I love that story because I think it reflects the lack of imagination on the part of abled people when confronted with somebody who has a disability. If you’re a Valedictorian, you just have creative ways to solve problems and maybe we should all just learn from them.
Haben Girma: Exactly. A lot of non disabled people can’t imagine living with a disability. And they think, “Oh, if I can’t come up with the solution, that disabled person can’t come up with a solution.” But that’s not true. I go through life, coming up with solutions all the time, and lots of other people with disabilities are also coming up with solutions, innovating strategies all the time. So give us a chance, ask questions, what are some solutions? What are some accommodations?
Sam Glover: So in your book you talk about the glass wall that excludes you from conversations and interactions happening around you, and that lessens over time as you dial in your assistive technology and you find people who know how to help you and things like that. But I think that also reflects the state of accessibility and inclusion in our society, and I’m wondering if maybe you could tell us about the state of accessibility today. The ADA is nearly 30 years old, and how are we doing?
Haben Girma: We’re doing much better now than in the past. More solutions are available to people with disabilities like tech solutions. Helen Keller lived in an age before the internet, before text messaging and email. It’s hard for me to imagine being deafblind before all of that. But then, maybe I can. Maybe I can go back to middle school and elementary school when I had fewer tools and the isolation I felt, which goes back to what you were saying. At the start of the book, I was way more isolated than I am now. The interesting thing is, my disability has actually decreased over time. I had more vision and hearing when I was younger. I was still deafblind, but I could see and hear a little more, and yet I was more isolated because I didn’t have the tools. That includes tech tools, that also includes confidence and advocacy.
Haben Girma: I wanted to be normal and just like everyone else when I was in middle school. And a lot of people go through that, they want to hide all the ways they’re different. Then as I grew up, I felt more confident and I could tell people, “This is what I need. This is how we can communicate.” And developing those tools, alongside the development of technology has allowed me to feel more connected and have more ways to connect with people. There’s still a bit of a glass wall, there’s still barriers that I’m experiencing that prevent me from fully connecting with members of our society. Able ism is what creates that glass wall.
Sam Glover: What are those barriers? What work do we still have to do?
Haben Girma: People building tech, apps, websites, self-driving cars are not thinking about the disability market. There are over 57 million Americans with disabilities, around the world, there are over 1.3 billion people with disabilities. The disability market is worth over $8 trillion. It’s a significant market. And if we invest in that market, more of our tools, tech, websites, cars will be accessible to more people. That allows those companies to grow their business by reaching more people, including the disability community, and it allows us, people with disabilities, to have more services, more tools, which allows us to contribute our talents to society.
Sam Glover: How does a company figure out what might be useful and test that or sell it?
Haben Girma: People with disabilities are highly experienced with coming up with solutions. One of the best things companies can do is to increase hiring of people with disabilities. There are lots of qualified job applicants with disabilities, and if we add them into our teams, make sure teams are diverse; women, people of Color, people with disabilities, then our teams will be stronger and create more innovative solutions. There are also accessibility consultants who can be brought in to review tech, hiring practices, all aspects of a company to make sure it’s accessible.
Sam Glover: It sounds like the solution is to involve more disabled people in the process of inventing things and designing things.
Haben Girma: Exactly. If we design with access from the start, it’ll be easier to make the resulting product accessible. If you want a skyscraper to have elevators and be accessible to everyone, you need to design for the elevator from the start, rather than building the skyscraper and then once you think it’s done, then adding that elevator. That wastes resources, so plan for accessibility from the start.
Sam Glover: You raised elevators, which is a good point. Elevators make life easier for everyone, including disabled people. You told me about another example of those that I didn’t know of. I know about keyboards and monitors, but I didn’t know about vegetable peelers. Tell me about vegetable peelers.
Haben Girma: We have a lot of tools in our kitchen. Some of them are not well designed. Several years ago, the company… Its name is OX, and I’m not sure how they pronounce it. They came out with a good grips line for their vegetable peelers, and they found adding rubber grips to the vegetable peelers allows people with arthritis to use vegetable peelers and be more productive and engaged in their kitchens. Turns out non-disabled people also find good grips vegetable peelers easier to use. It’s easier for everyone told, not just people with mobility disabilities. So that’s another example of how disability driven design brings us to a product that benefits both disabled people and non-disabled people.
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Sam Glover: We’ve talked about inclusive design before, you and I, and we have, on our website, which is Microsoft’s design philosophy, disabled people have figured out how to solve many problems in the world that we can all learn from.
Haben Girma: Yes, exactly. Our stories are out there, but often times they’re hidden. The mainstream media doesn’t always highlight disability stories. So we need to get these stories out there. We need people to know that people with disabilities are talented and unabated. And when we expand our teams to include people with disabilities, the whole team will be more innovative and come up with solutions that turn into the next big thing.
Sam Glover: I love that. You make the point in the appendix, and I think you just did again, that many people will experience a disability at some point in their lives; for example, arthritis. And one of the things from your book struck me where you were frustrated by two people who were using facial expressions to communicate. And you said, “Their use of inaccessible communication frustrates me. People should just say how they feel.” And we all have trouble communicating non-verbally. Maybe we should all just say how we feel. It’s like curb cuts for conversation.
Haben Girma: Exactly. My parents make so many facial expressions, I can’t see them. When I’m arguing with them, they would just look at each other and make faces and communicate silently. And it was so frustrating, because how could I respond to those arguments when I can’t see the arguments they’re making to each other? So I wanted them to communicate accessibly. I wanted them to say, “Actually Haben, we’re worried about this,” and then I could address that. I find a lot of non-disabled people want the people around them to read their minds, which is not reasonable. No one is a mind reader.
Haben Girma: I know sighted people can pick up on emotions through visual expressions and we can kind of guess what someone is feeling and thinking. It’s much easier though to be direct, “Hey, I’m worried about this,” or “I’m thrilled about this new development.” It’s like curb cuts. Curb cuts benefit wheelchair users from getting on and on and off the sidewalk. Non-disabled people also end up using curb cuts, especially parents pushing strollers, travelers pushing luggage, direct communication benefits disabled people and also benefits non-disabled people.
Sam Glover: So Haben, I’m wondering, you have done some important legal work in opening up online documents to the disabled. What are you doing now?
Haben Girma: When I graduated from law school, I went straight into litigation and worked in a law firm, suing companies and organizations that violate the Americans With Disabilities Act. That was exciting and rewarding to win those cases. At the same time, I was asking myself, Is there a better way? How else can we get people to choose inclusion rather than just suing them? And teaching people to choose inclusion so they don’t get sued is another way to do it. So now, I’m doing trainings and companies hiring me to teach about accessible design and inclusion. I’m also writing. I published a few pieces, short articles, and now there’s my book. The book uses fun, engaging personal stories to help the ideas stick. And then at the back of the book, there’s an accessibility guide with concrete steps that organizations can take.
Sam Glover: Haben, maybe you could leave us with a couple of those steps. Where should someone start if they’re trying to figure out how to make their small law firm more accessible?
Haben Girma: A lot of people access information digitally, so step number one would be to check the website, apps, social media and make it accessible. The elements are, if you have video content, add captions to videos, for podcasts and radios, add transcripts, for images, add image descriptions. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines is a free resource online on how to make digital services accessible. And Apple accessibility guidelines and Android accessibility guidelines teach people, teach developers how to make apps accessible.
Sam Glover: What about things like client interviews? How can lawyers make sure that they are being inclusive when it comes to meeting clients and having communications?
Haben Girma: Our culture has an assumption that people are non-disabled. There are a lot of people with invisible disabilities. And a lot of people are afraid to ask for accommodations because of the risk of discrimination and stigma. So if organizations could be upfront and say, “We’re committed to inclusion. If you have disability related accommodations, please contact,” and then list the contact person, phone number and email address for people who need to request accommodations, that could be employees, that could be new clients.
Sam Glover: When I had Lainey Feingold on the podcast, she recommended having an accessibility statement where you explain what you’re doing and how disabled people can request accommodations or engage. Do you think that’s a good idea?
Haben Girma: Yes. It’s really important that people take the initiative, that organizations take the initiative and say, “We’re committed to accessibility. Here’s who you can contact to request accommodations. These are the services and features available for people searching this website or arranging a visit of this office.”
Sam Glover: Haben, I think your book was really entertaining and our listeners should check it out. What’s your best pitch for why they should pick up a copy of your book?
Haben Girma: I spend hours and hours in books. I love reading so much. TV and movies, not accessible to me. So books are the ways I engage in the world. And in creating this book, I framed this book as a gift to all the other readers out there who turn to books for adventure, for exploration. I framed this book as an adventure book because I want to appeal to the widest audience possible. And I want people to see disability as not just a challenge, but as a challenge that creates opportunities for humor, opportunities for new solutions. And what did you think Sam? Did you have a highlight, or a favorite in the book?
Sam Glover: What I liked, most of it is getting a window into your experience and feeling that I actually understood what it must be like to be sitting inside your head when people are excluding you and when you are confronting barriers in the world. And I found that both inspiring and frustrating. I felt your frustration, and I felt like that is part of what made the book worthwhile, is really gaining some empathy, which sounds like pity. I don’t want that to sound like pity, just understanding.
Haben Girma: Those kinds of insights gain understanding into all kinds of disabilities too. Mine is one specific area type, but it connects to everyone else who has felt excluded and isolated at some point in their lives. And I heard stories of exclusion from Eritrea in East Africa, Somalia to Alaska and even the White House.
Sam Glover: That’s a really… I’m glad you brought that up. My sister lives in Juneau, and I’ve been to Mendenhall glacier, and so I could really picture you climbing on the glaciers around Juneau and I thought that was just so bad ass that you did that.
Haben Girma: Have you climbed one of the icebergs?
Sam Glover: Not as much as you did, just a little. We climbed around on them, but I didn’t do the kind of climbing it sounds like you have.
Haben Girma: It’s a really incredible experience. I grew up in California, sunny, warm, never had to deal with snow. Then all of a sudden to be walking on ice and then climbing icebergs, that was a really amazing experience.
Sam Glover: I also remember you’re feeling good to be back in warm weather.
Haben Girma: So when you’re in Alaska in the winter, you’re so covered up that even when I was petting my guide dog, I had to have a glove between us.
Sam Glover: I imagine that’d be hard for you since a touch is how you experience the world.
Haben Girma: It was really difficult. Down here, in California, I like wearing very flat shoes so that I can feel the ground, I can feel the texture from carpet to wood to pavement. When I’m in wintry places, I have to wear thick socks and thick boots, and it’s more disconnected from the world.
Sam Glover: And how has your new dog Milo working out?
Haben Girma: Milo is doing great. My first dog, Maxine… In the book, I talk about the experience of going guide dog school training with Maxine. I came in expecting her to be perfect. She was a guide dog, she was supposed to be perfect, then I found out she’s still a dog and it takes time to build a working relationship, even with a dog. So we took us a few weeks to get to the point where we felt like we understood each other and after that, we had the most amazing relationship. We’ve traveled all over the country. She went to Harvard Law School with me, helps me guide a drunk classmate home, helped me walk across the graduation stage, guided me through the White House. Last year, she passed away from cancer, and that was extremely difficult to lose someone who was a big part of my life by my side. There’s so many important moments. Several months later, I went back to guide dog school and trained with this new dog named Milo. We’ve been together for a year. He didn’t go to Harvard.
Sam Glover: I hope he’s making up for that.
Haben Girma: He’s doing okay.
Sam Glover: Maxine made a cameo on our last podcast, and I imagine you must miss her very much. I lost a dog a few years ago, and I have a new dog that I love, but there’s no replacing it. There’s no replacing your first love.
Haben Girma: Exactly. She has a very special place in my life and now in my book. I do love Milo. He’s a sweet dog. And you’re not supposed to compare your dog, but you can’t really help but-
Sam Glover: Yeah, I know. Well, Haben it’s been a pleasure having you back on the podcast. Good luck with your book. We will include a link to it in our show notes.
Haben Girma: Thank you, Sam. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.
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