Next Pivot Point Podcast Interview about Disabilities in the Workplace
Lesa Bradshaw, Ted Talk speaker and advocate for diversity and inclusion, joined the podcast for our celebratory 100th episode. Lesa’s engaging and authentic style drives home key challenges facing those with disabilities and how to be more inclusive for all humans to thrive at work.
Let’s get to the show notes…
Julie Kratz: We have Lesa Bradshaw and she is a disability inclusion specialist based in Africa, who focuses principally on vigorously nudging the world towards a disability-inclusive economy. She is the founding member of Bradshaw LeRoux Consulting, and works with multiple stakeholders towards shifting perceptions in the value that disability brings business. She has an MBA, a graduate, published author, and international thought leader drawing from her personal and professional experiences to create transformative impact. Lesa, thanks so much for joining us.
Lesa Bradshaw: Thanks for having me, Julie.
Julie Kratz: So you have such a, I think such a great demeanor around this topic of disability in the workplace. And you’ve had a TED Talk that I had the pleasure to watch in preparation for this, that we’ll definitely dive into more, but kick us off, Lesa, with your own personal journey. And you’ve been doing this work in your business, and speaking about this for decades, but how did you get into this? What is your personal story behind, and compassion for folks with disabilities, and the whole diversity and inclusion conversation?
Lesa Bradshaw: Well, I came upon it by accident, believe it or not, I was born with spinal muscular atrophy. So I was born with a disability, and I grew up in a small little town in the east coast of South Africa, which was a small enough town, we grew up with the kids around us and there was one local little farm school that we went to. And so I grew up being completely mainstreamed in everything that I did, and my self perception and in the way I did life. My friends were very on board with just getting on with things, and so my entire upbringing was around, more of it was around a logistical issue as opposed to a disability issue.
And then as I got a bit older, I went to university, I noticed a couple of strange looks, and what I now recognize as the attitudinal, “Oh, shame,” perspectives that were coming through, but I didn’t interpret them as, “Oh, shame,” because again, my self-perception was completely clueless that I was anything other than mainstream in every way, shape and form.
And as I started to get a bit older, I, I opened a business in industrial psychology. So my business was all around finding the right potential and the right competence for the right roles in organizations. And after that point as well, by that stage, I met someone, I got married and that was continuing with a very normal life at it, nothing to do with disability at all.
And then what I noticed was, I was going to see human resources practitioners as part of my client base. And I was selling my assessment services, and they kept saying to me, “Oh, Lesa, we’ve noticed you’re disabled, and we really need to get our hands on disabled people for our employment equity targets. We need to get a certain percentage of our demographic represented by people with disability. Do you know if anybody?” And I would be like, “Well, no, we don’t hang in flocks or groups. I’m not terribly sure what you want me to do, but what type of skill or talent are you looking for?” And they’d say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter. We’ve earmarked this position as suitable for the disabled,” And straight away that gave me a bit of a twitch. And I would say, “Well, how can you earmark a position as suitable for an entire demographic? That’s not going to work at all.”
So the little entrepreneur in me butted up and said, “Well, I think this is potentially a business opportunity. People seem to think I’m the expert on disability, even though I’m completely clueless on it. So let’s open a recruitment division,” which I did, which was around, let’s find talent with a disability and give them a place.
And then, like everybody, I realized that all the barriers to inclusion were still there and nothing was shifting, and I was quite annoyed, really, that I had all this great talent and no one was employing them, and I couldn’t understand what was going on. So I started having very frank conversations with clients to say, “Well, you’re just not seeing the value. Are you?”
And from there, my learning journey really started. So I’d say for the last 20 years, my entire philosophy is based on the fact that people with disabilities are most employable, and have an awful lot to say and do with mainstream society, and how we shape it and how we add value to it. All we need to do is we need to look at the disabling factors and we need to say, “Well, what can we do to shake things up a bit, to minimize the disabling factors, so people can perform like everybody else?”
And that became the whole mantra of my business, which is to say that this economy of ours is sitting in a position where it’s shifting dramatically and yet disability still remains the poor cousin of the D&I bank, and my voice and my pointy finger have risen to say, “You know what? I think we need to start shifting perceptions. I think we need to stop whispering, “Disability.” I think we need to change our perceptions that it’s this psychologically vulnerable group of people that need to have decisions made on their behalf. And I think everybody needs to start just having frank, logistical conversations about, what can we do to make an inclusive economy where all of us actually have the benefit of the value of this type of diversity?”
Julie Kratz: So good, Lesa, so many nuggets that you just shared there that are so powerful. We’ll get into the, you called them, disabling factors. Is that the term? Yeah, we got to dig into that. Because I love the whole point about, we create jobs and label them, “This is for somebody with a disability.”
Before we go there. I’d love to touch on this conversation about D&I, diversity, inclusion, inclusion, diversity, however an organization spells out the acronym and their line in the sand around diversity inclusion, which is very popular right now. Why is it that we still start with race, gender, LGBTQ, maybe, and then disability is like this fourth thing. And I find myself doing it, to be completely vulnerable. I find myself like, “Oh, and disability, like that’s the fourth thing.” And I always call them the dimensions of diversity, but it never feels like I do that one justice. It never feels like I’m really including those with disabilities. Why are we still there with diversity inclusion not really being inclusive for folks with disabilities?
Lesa Bradshaw: I think it comes from two aspects. I think the first thing is it results from the fact that we have very traditionally seen disability as the social welfare and social responsibility item, as opposed to a value adding in the economy item. And so I think that it was only really when the civil rights movements got hold of it, that it became a topic of, “You’re not doing us any favors by leading us in the economy. We are in fact doing you a couple of favors because we’re helping you appreciate the value that diversity brings to innovation and how we do business.”
So I think that we are very used to, by practice, thinking about disability as a nice to have, a feel good, the fluffy bunny, it makes us feel good to know that we are helping people with disabilities, and it just needs to change very rapidly towards saying, “Disability inclusion is about leveling the playing field so everybody can compete.” And in that competition, you’re going to have some that compete poorly, and some that compete brilliantly, because these are just human beings, but how do we level the playing field so that that happens?
I think the second thing is, and it’s really not malicious intent. I think we are still so incredibly, it’s entrenched in us that we have to do disability because it’s part of the compliance and it’s part of the, we were doing the right thing according to labor law and civil rights. But I think it’s also just that we haven’t really, because there hasn’t been a commitment to a shift in the way the economy operates, to allow the value of disability to be demonstrated. We haven’t got very many benchmarks set, so there’s not a lot of leaders for the disability out that are belting around showcasing how the value of this diversity can contribute.
So you get fabulous leaders, you get human rights people, you get people who are in amongst the economy that are doing well. You get people of all different shapes, sizes, races, genders being role models of success, and yet there’s not a lot of people with disabilities in the economy. And I’m talking about an economic space that showcases that value. So for me, it’s two things. Firstly, it’s a vicious cycle. We’re not going to see those people with disabilities entering the job market and clubbing the economy and setting those benchmarks of excellence as role models and thought leaders until we level the playing field. But we’re not convinced that it’s worthwhile leveling the playing field, because we haven’t got the case to support the investment that’s required, and the hassle factor that’s required in the journey.
Julie Kratz: I often talk about the business case and the human case for diversity and inclusion. And you’ve got some powerful stats on just how big folks with disabilities are, as a part of our population, and how vulnerable we all are to that happening to us, to having a disability someday. So 70% of disabilities are acquired in your lifetime, you’re not born with them. I thought it was really an interesting way to look at that, but also I think people think, “It doesn’t happen to me.” And there’s this other conversation where, “I have to make all these accommodations to accommodate folks with disabilities,” which is, you do such a great job at dispelling all of that. So help us understand that business case for folks with disabilities.
Lesa Bradshaw: I think the first thing is to say that, from a business case perspective, there is a wealth of talent out there, of people who have acquired a disability, but because the shift towards continuing to add value in the economy isn’t there, they’ve fallen out of that talent pool. So I think firstly, focusing on the retention side and acknowledging the fact that we have fantastic talent out there, who’ve acquired disabilities on their journey, but still have the history of all that talent, is the one opportunity we’re missing.
But if you have a look, I think it was Rich Donovan from the States, that came up with a fantastic analogy, and he said that disability, the market of disability, is a population the size of China. It is a massive segment of the population. And we haven’t even thought about tapping into that as a consumer base.
I’ll just give you one small example. So I want to go on a holiday destination, we were chatting earlier about going on holiday. The first thing I’m going to do is, let’s say I want to go to Bali, for a tropical Island experience. The first thing I’m going to do is I’m going to go and Google, “Wheelchair accessible accommodation in Bali,” right. I’m probably going to get a couple of hits and then I’m going to go, “Really wheelchair accessible accommodation in Bali.” Okay. In other words, it’s not just a tick box, they’ve done it properly. And I’ll determine that by going to the websites that have a video documentary of what their bathrooms look like, what the access is like, and I will determine how accessible they are based on the video and how they’ve demonstrated it. Okay.
Then I will go, airline, and I know which airlines are preferred to fly because they have had disability etiquette training. Their processes are hassle-free. They know how to engage with me as an adult, instead of trying to wipe my chin and pat me on the head like I’m three. And so I will select which airline I want to choose, based on my customer experience. I then fly off to Bali and I land. And I go to my wheelchair accessible hotel, and then I go and I’ll say, “Well, which tours do I want to do, and which boat trips do I want to take?” And straightaway, I’m going to go with the ones that I know are going to be more inclusive of my needs.
So remember, I wasn’t traveling alone on that trip. I travel with a fiance, I travel with kids. I travel with parents, I travel with aunties and uncles, we travel as a posse in my family. And only one of that posse has a disability, but they’re all spending the same money and the selection is based on inclusivity. So if you have a hotel and you don’t just go, “Wheelchair-friendly rooms, tick,” but you go, “For our wheelchair-user guests, you’re welcome to click here to watch a video of the accessibility features.” You have somebody walking around, videoing everything, and then you come back and you go, “We’ve also negotiated with a couple of our two operators who are more than happy to help you with this, this and this. We’ll make it an excellent experience for you.”
You may now just gain the custom, not just of me, but of the 10 people I was traveling with. And this is the link we miss. So, market the size of China. We’re not looking at it from a, how can we tap into that customer value? We’re not looking at it from a talent pool perspective and this is where I think it’s just completely under-utilized as a potential avenue for the economy.
Julie Kratz: All that lost potential. And I like it too, you do a nice job in your work of showing how companies have sustained a benefit just as much as they do, they’re tied to corporate social responsibility and sustainability. It feels good, as a part of your brand, to truly be representative of all people and with a massive amount, I think you said eight to 10% of the world’s population, I’ve seen some stats here in the US and I think it’s cognitive disabilities, they get added to the mix, push it up to like 25% of our population is estimated to have a disability. And that’s a huge part of our population to leave behind, and such a huge unemployment number too.
One thing I’m curious about, Lesa, being in the throes of COVID and the pandemic world, with virtual work, how has this, we suspect that this would increase accessibility for folks with disabilities, but have you seen anything happening within the current climate and work environment that we’ll learn about for the future of folks with disabilities?
Lesa Bradshaw: Well, I’ve got to have a lot to say on that topic, and I get very excited about it because from my personal experience, a lot of the barriers we experienced with trying to get a talent or somebody with a disability in the workspace, is the client would go, “No, but we haven’t got an accessible infrastructure or the transport system, they won’t get to work reliably. Or,” and there’s all these infrastructural barriers around us that are real, and to try and get rid of those barriers, for an employer, is not always feasible from an economic perspective in the short term. And they need that talent right now, so they must make an employment decision now.
So there’s been a lot of conversations with clients, now that COVID has happened, where I’ve said, “You know that conversation we had about five months ago, when you said you wouldn’t accept the virtual office option and the working from home flexibility? What do you have to say about that right now?” Because what COVID has demonstrated is the rapid pace at which we have been able to shift our economy in response to a change, demonstrates that it was a complete lack of motivation and commitment to the shift, as opposed to a lack of ability to shift. So those excuses aren’t going to work anymore. You’ve got to be a lot more convincing.
The second thing it’s done is it’s made the versatility of the way we do business a lot more inclusive, and has the potential to be incredibly inclusive. Now I just have to watch myself on my first Zoom calls about six months ago, and I experienced what it was like to have a learning or a cognitive disability, because I am completely ineffective in IT, and I had my 15-year-old trying to explain to me how to tap around these computers at a pace at which my brain could not, it’s technology. I’m not born with this natural intuition of how to figure this out. I’m now the expert, but that was a very steep learning curve. And the looks I got from my daughter was that intolerant, “I can’t cope with this,” look, “You must shine up and you must learn quickly,” which is a lot of what people with learning or cognitive disabilities experience when they’re taking on a new job. And they’ve got people who aren’t [inaudible 00:17:21], who aren’t patient or who aren’t teaching in the right way to allow them to learn at the optimum.
So I’ve always said that this kind of a thing is teaching everybody what it’s like to have some disabling factor into your world, be it that you can no longer catch transport, be it that you can’t fly on business anymore, be it that you can’t have a face-to-face conversation with somebody, or be it that you’re having to learn a technology that you are completely clueless about. We’ve all experienced the disabling factors.
Now, what’s important to me is this is probably the first time in history where people with disabilities can put their hands up and go, “Don’t worry, dear. We’ll show you how to do it, because we are the pros. We know how to flex. We know how to do this. We’re the experts. We’ve been doing it for years. So we’ll show you.” So it’s time to look up and listen. And for me, the most important thing is, this is an opportunity to shift the economy, as we are remodeling the way we do business, don’t make the mistake of locking out disability again, because you’re missing out, and learn from what people with a disability have actually had to navigate, entrench it in the way we pivot on business and models, and how we do business, and reap the rewards.
Julie Kratz: That’s such a good comparison of how we’ve all had to learn new skills, and we’ve all felt a little overwhelmed. And so that empathy of knowing what it’s like, when you’re in a totally new environment, like a Zoom environment over the last six months, and the journey, you can learn that. And folks with disabilities oftentimes have to learn things a lot that way, right? They’re put in positions where things aren’t set up for them, the systems aren’t built for them, and so they’re constantly having to navigate that. And so that creative thinking, that innovative mindset, not to mention a lot of the things that behoove folks with disabilities work better for everyone. I think what we’re seeing with diversity, right, we’re seeing that with the virtual environment, this is working better for a lot of people. Not everyone loves it, but the majority of people are like, “Why didn’t we do this before? Oh, because of rigid old thinking.” Right?
Lesa Bradshaw: Absolutely. And there’s not a single measure that you put in place that includes disability, that doesn’t benefit everybody at some point in their lives. So it’s a bit of a win, win.
Julie Kratz: Well, the curb here in the States, when the ADA went in to affect the curb, having to lower that and have curb access for wheelchairs, right. As a mother with a stroller, that benefits me. Bike riders, that benefits me. I love that. Right? And so it benefits this whole other population of people. And then so many times you make the mistake of thinking that accommodation, we’ve got do something special to accommodate that person because of their unique needs. Right. And I know you call these disabling factors inside organizations. So I’d love for you to talk more about that, and what are the objections that your clients come up with? What are the things they invent as reasons why, “I can’t possibly hire somebody with a disability for that job.” And what are some ways to overcome that?
Lesa Bradshaw: I think one of the biggest things is what we touched on, which is, “That’s not how we do things,” and shifting it. “If I do it for one, I’ve got to do it for everybody.” That is the biggest pushback push factor. So what people tend to do is, employees get confused between special treatment and equalizing treatment. And I think that the perception is, that if you take somebody with a disability and you alter or adjust the nature of the work, or the job environment or the work environment, to accommodate their particular, to take the disabling factor away, that is going to be perceived as special treatment, and then everybody else is entitled to it as well.
I’ll give you an example. So let’s just say there’s people that are working shift work, and let’s say you’ve got somebody with a disability, which requires them to take quite serious medication, say it’s a psychiatric disability, and they can’t go on shift, because of health and safety, straight after they’ve taken their medication. So to adjust their shift terms, and to allow them to work the same number of hours every month as somebody else would, but it was flexible in terms of how the working hours were laid out, to accommodate for the safety consideration, that would be that person is still adding the same amount of value to the organization as everybody else. But then everybody else on the shift says, “Well, we also want to have the choice to have flexible working hours.” And so the line manager, or the manager’s concern is, “If I do it for one, I’ve got to do it for everyone.” And so my argument is, “Well, they’re welcome to have that, but they must acquire the disability first, because if you don’t have the disability, you don’t face the disabling factor. You don’t need the equalizing treatment.”
So I think that this is not about, I think inclusion is not about treating everybody the same. It’s about equalizing the opportunities for everybody. And so your conversation shouldn’t be around, “But what is your disability or what is wrong with you?” Or, “What can we fix about you to make you normal?” The conversation should be, “What is disabling you in this work environment, and what can we flex on, or tweak, or adjust to level the playing field so that you can compete like everybody else?”
And so the first thing is, we’ve got to shift perceptions about that. The second thing is, and it’s always my favorite, is the fear of the customer response. So when you’ve got somebody with a disability in a customer-facing role, my favorite, some of the questions or the requirements I’ve had from my clients when we start the conversations. “Can we have somebody with a disability, they must be black and a female,” because we must tick our employment equity boxes, all of them at the same time. “And we can accommodate somebody. Who’s one leg is shorter than the other,” because in their perception that fits beautifully. It’s not too disabled, the customers won’t be concerned. It’ll look quite normal when they stand there, and they…
And my response usually is, “Well, is your floor slanted? Because I would only imagine that you’d want somebody with one leg shorter than the other to ergonomically suit them, and should it be the left leg or the right leg, which one should be shorter?” And does every employee have one leg shorter than the other? Because this is quite interesting. So, but the reality is people have these perceptions about what type of disability they can accommodate. What type of disability is acceptable to a customer.
And my argument is you’re not measuring whether the individual is within the comfort range of the customer. You’re measuring the customer service. So if you’ve got somebody who is hearing impaired, or completely deaf, and they’ve got a client talking to them and they are saying to, they’re trying to respond to the client, but the client doesn’t understand them. Then the protocol is to have a sign up saying, “I’m hearing impaired,” or, “I’m deaf. I’m probably not going to know what you’re saying. Give me one minute and I’ll call the supervisor,” and you ring a bell, and you do it with a smile on your face. You nod, you have all the right positive affirmation. The supervisor then comes and has a discussion with the customer, and the customer has experienced something positive. Okay?
It’s about customer experience. It’s not about staying within the comfort zone. The same way as you wouldn’t accept having a racist customer come and say, “Well, I don’t want to be served by a black employee.” You would say, “Excuse me, that employee is excellent at what they do. You have a right to complain about poor customer service, not about who we select to do the job.”
And we need to start getting our head round the fact that that is exactly the same with disability. The more exposure you have to the diversity of disability, the more everybody stops panicking. The more you have conversations with people and you recognize the person, not the stereotype, the more normalized the conversation becomes. The more normalized the conversation becomes, the less people whisper, “Disability,” and then you stop seeing the disability and you start recognizing the individual and the disabling factors as two separate things. That’s inclusion, and that’s where we want to go.
Julie Kratz: I like what you call disability is just diversity. And I think sometimes we put it as this extra thing, kind of like I’ve been doing, it’s an extra thing that doesn’t quite fit. I want it to fit into the umbrella of diversity and inclusion, but because I personally haven’t experienced it, and I don’t have a close family member or someone in my life that’s experienced, certainly I know plenty of people that have experienced it, but I think for able bodied people, there’s just this vulnerability of, “I don’t get it. I don’t understand it,” right. And that’s what you do such a beautiful job of, with your stories and your examples. Like, “Oh, I get that though, that’s not so hard.” So the more we talk about that, and where we have a dialogue about that, the better we will be. Increasing your comfort, we know with race, white people, the more people of color they know, the better they are at having conversations about race, same kind of thing. So getting comfortable with these issues.
So, Lesa, in wrapping up today, I’m curious, for able bodied folks, for folks especially in HR and making hiring decisions and policies, which I know you don’t love, about folks with disabilities, what are some ways that they can get more comfortable understanding and participating in this conversation versus whisper? I think you label it really well. We tend to whisper it, we tend to shy away from it. How can we get more comfortable? What can people do?
Lesa Bradshaw: I think the first thing you need to do is you need to make sure that the conversation happens regularly and often. So if you’re going to have, in your daily conversations, if you’re going to do an advertising campaign, make sure that people with disabilities doing everyday stuff are included in that advertising campaign, all right. Don’t have us climbing a mountain and then go on to be all inspirational, because most of us are not inspirational. I have no interest whatsoever in climbing a mountain. That’s why they invented helicopters. And don’t make us the person sitting with the cup, begging for charity. Because although like everybody, there are people who require charity, it’s not synonymous with disability. So, have us eating breakfast at the breakfast table, in part of your advertising campaign, if you’re advertising cereal. Or have us draped over the hood of a Porsche, if you’re wanting to advertise a car, we’re good at that. We stay where you put us. It’s very nice.
So my point is, have us everywhere because when you start seeing disability everywhere, you stop noticing that it’s different. And I think, with your children, don’t, and when you have conversations in your social groups, and I’m talking about even with your teams that work consign, stop panicking, stop shushing.
My favorite thing is always, when a mom and a small child approach me and the mom’s giving the child that look that says, “Oh, gosh, I’m terrified. They’re going to slip up. They’re going to say something.” And the child goes, “Mommy, why that lady in a wheelchair? What’s wrong with her?” And you see the parent cringe. It’s the same as in the workplace when people do that, I see the same response. Relax, take a breath, laugh it off. Just go, “Well, I suppose they’re in a wheelchair because they can’t walk.” That is the fact. “But why can’t they walk?” “I don’t know. It could be muscles, could be nerves. Everybody’s different.” It’s a completely normalized conversation.
So my point is that if we start talking about disability in our general, day to day conversations, in our product development conversations, in our customer service conversations, in our marketing campaigns, in our IT systems, if you’re going to bring a new IT platform into your business, is it inclusive? Is it an accessible technology? Is it something that people who use Zoom text readers are able to access? Is our website inclusive? Then you stop panicking, it starts becoming very normalized and everybody just gets on with it.
And so that is my thing is, there shouldn’t be separate disability policies. There shouldn’t be a separate disability anything. It should be additional steps put in your existing policies and procedures that give cognizance to the fact that it requires a bit more tweaking to label the opportunities. And that’s really, I think, the conversations you need to be having.
Julie Kratz: Weave it into your every day. And yeah, I personally have so much passion around the conversation with children, so I’m glad you mentioned that. I have a six year old that asks and says interesting things. And I really try to lean into those conversations instead of fear from them. But it is a wild card, what kids are going to say when they notice a difference, that’s how our brains work. We notice differences. We see color.
Lesa Bradshaw: And it’s how you respond that determines that the emotional connection they give to that difference. If it’s just business as usual, and it’s described factually, it doesn’t have an emotional reflex of, “Oh gosh, shame. That’s terrible.” I always laugh when I’m made the subject of unluckiness. So when you look at your child and you go, “She can’t walk.” That might be a shame. “And do you see how lucky you are?” Because that, by default, that makes me unlucky, and I’m tremendously lucky, actually. So even in that response, we need to learn to lighten up, to laugh a bit, relax. It’s just diversity. Describe it factually, and move on, and stop apologizing for it. I always laugh and say, I’m going to be the sexiest woman in the old age home, because by the time I get there, I’m going to be well-practiced and all of the pedestrians are going to be struggling to maneuver their wheelchairs and get around on their crutches. And I’m going to be the hottest girl in the old age home in my time.
Julie Kratz: Well, you’ll be experienced for sure. Oh, that’s so good. That’s such great tangible nuggets for our listeners to take action on. And I know, for me, so much to unpack here, and this is reinforced in Lesa’s TED Talk, which we’ll link to in the show notes. So be sure to check that out. She has a great sense of humor about this, but I think it is so appreciated that we can have fun while learning about something that’s as sensitive as this topic. So thank you for bringing joy to the work you do. And I agree, we’re so lucky to get to do this work. Isn’t it just such a fun time to have this conversation? It’s an ongoing conversation, we’ll be having it forever, but I’m so thankful there’s people like you that bring such great energy to it. Tell our listeners, as to how they can follow you, stay in touch with you?
Lesa Bradshaw: So I’ve got a cheeky blog page on my website, which is www.bradshawleroux.co.za. And there’s a blog page where I give a couple of points to ponder every month. And then we’ve also got the webinar page, where we’ve got a webinar around COVID and the expertise that disability can bring to a COVID-impacted world, that brings out some nice points to ponder. I’m on LinkedIn as well, but you’re welcome to get hold of me, my personal details are on the website and you’re welcome to get hold of me via email as well. You have any questions?
Julie: Thank you so much for that. I’m sure the blog is as humorous and as full of energy as our conversation was today. So definitely check that out, listeners, and thanks, Lesa, for being on the show.
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