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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 May 2005 Issue  Volume 6  Number 3

Access Issues

Redoing Windows: A Guide for Customizing Windows for Users with Low Vision

Imagine sitting at your computer and being able to see everything on the screen easily. The color scheme is perfect, icons and menus are easy to read, dialog boxes no longer require you to sit with your nose up to the screen. For most computer users with low vision, this scenario seems unattainable. It is time to stop dreaming and make it a reality.

This article details a no-cost solution for customizing your Windows operating system to meet your needs. No extra software is required. If you are using a Windows operating system, you have everything you need.

Through easy-to-follow, step-by-step instruction, you will learn how to change almost every aspect of your screen, from the look of the desktop to the size and font of menus. Because of Windows XP's advanced features for screen customization, all instructions are based on this operating system. However, most of the same features also are available in the Windows 2000, Windows ME, and Windows 98 operating systems. Features exclusive to XP are noted. In an attempt to make this information as user-friendly as possible, instructions are presented in the order that they appear in the appropriate windows or dialog boxes. Also, to satisfy those who love the mouse as well as those who prefer to keep their hands on the keyboard, both mouse and keyboard commands are provided for most functions. (See For More Information at the end of the article for additional keyboard command resources.)

A list of key terms appears in a sidebar at the end of this article, explaining some of the commands as well as the different types of boxes and their components that you will encounter when making the adjustments described in this article. You can refer to this list anytime you have questions.

Before Beginning

In Windows XP, any changes to the computer screen are immediate. This can pose problems if you share the computer with other users such as co-workers or family members. New to Windows XP is the ability to save customized appearance schemes in the Display dialog box on the Themes page. This feature enables you to switch among preset or customized schemes. However, in order to switch among saved schemes, you must be able to access the dialog box and page visually without the benefit of your preferred screen appearance. Because of the difficulty in accessing saved schemes for most users with low vision, this feature is recommended only for more advanced users.

It is recommended instead that you establish a separate User Profile if you are sharing your computer with other users. Any changes to the computer screen's appearance that you establish when you log in under your User Profile will only be effective when using that profile. For beginning users, it is a good idea to establish a separate User Profile in which to save the appearance changes you make. If you want to revert to the original or default appearance settings, all you need to do is log in as a different user and delete the User Profile you created for the appearance changes. To set up a new User Profile, you must have what is termed Administrator access. This means that you have authorization to make changes to the computer's set-up, system, and appearance. This is usually not a problem for most people working on their home personal computers. It is fairly easy to add Administrator access to an existing or new User Profile (see instructions below). However, many employers and organizations limit Administrator access to a select few to protect the computers on the network. If this is the situation, ask the appropriate person to add a new User Profile with administrator access for you or to work with you to make the changes you need.

If you have administrator access, it is fairly easy to set up a new User Profile using the following steps:

  1. Open the Start Menu (click on the Start Button or press the Windows logo key).
  2. Select Control Panel (in some versions it is listed under Settings; see the next section on the Control Panel for detailed instructions).
  3. In the Control Panel window, select the User Accounts item (double click on User Accounts or arrow to User Accounts and press Enter).
  4. Select the Create a New Account link in the User Accounts window (click on the link or Tab to the list of links, arrow to the link, and press Enter).
  5. Type a name for the new account in the edit box (you are automatically placed in the edit box and can begin typing a name for your User Profile). We suggest using your own name here.
  6. Select the Next button (click on the button or Tab to the button and press Enter).
  7. Select either Computer Administrator or Limited from the list of radio buttons (click on the radio button or Up or Down arrow to the desired radio button). Most users prefer to have full computer administrator access.
  8. Select the Create Account button (click on the button or press Tab to the button and press Enter).
  9. Close the User Accounts window (click the X in the top right corner of the window or press Alt+F4).
  10. Close the Control Panel window (click the X in the top right corner of the window or press Alt+F4).
  11. Restart the computer and log in using your new profile.

Note: Previous Windows operating systems (2000, ME, 98) offer the option to save appearance settings in the Display dialog box on the Appearance Page.

Following are some additional tips to help reduce frustration as you work through customizing the computer screen:

  • If possible, have someone without a visual impairment available to assist you with some of the initial modifications.
  • View each change before moving on.
  • The Cancel button or Escape key is your friend. If you are unsure of a change you have made, simply select the Cancel button in the dialog box or press the Escape key. This cancels any changes and returns you to the Control Panel.
  • Take notes. Keep a notebook or recording of any changes you make. First note what the setting was prior to any changes. Then record any changes you make. This enables you to go back easily and modify changes or return your system to its default appearance.
  • If you don't succeed the first time, try, try again. You may think a change to a particular feature of your screen's appearance will work but find it doesn't. Do not get frustrated. Just go back and try another option. Remember, what works for one person may not work for another.

If you use assistive technology, there are a few things you need to be aware of before you begin. Most of the more current versions of screen magnification programs (with or without speech support) such as ZoomText or MAGic, offer many features for customizing the appearance of the screen and mouse. Changes made in Windows may not apply when the screen magnification program is running and, in some cases, may even conflict with your screen magnification program. Check with your screen magnification software manufacturer before making any changes. If you are using screen reading software such as JAWS for Windows or Window-Eyes, changes to the appearance of your screen can often interfere with the screen reading software. Again, consult the software manufacturer prior to making any changes.

The Control Panel

In Windows, the Control Panel does what its name implies: it controls your computer. All of the features that control the computer's appearance are available through the Control Panel. Before beginning any of the instructions in this guide, you first need to open the Control Panel.

The most common way to open the Control Panel is through the Start Menu. To open Control Panel using the Windows XP default Start Menu:

  1. Open the Start Menu (click on the Start button or press the Windows logo key).
  2. Select Control Panel from the Start Menu (click on Control Panel or arrow up or down to Control Panel and press Enter).
  3. Maximize the Control Panel window (click the box in the upper right corner of the window or press Alt+Spacebar, arrow up or down arrow to Maximize, and press Enter).

If you have the Windows Classic Start menu, follow these steps:

  1. Open the Start Menu (click on the Start button or press the Windows logo key).
  2. Select Settings from the Start Menu (click on Settings or arrow up or down to Settings and press Enter). A submenu appears to the right of the Start Menu.
  3. Select Control Panel from the submenu (click on Control Panel or arrow up or down to Control Panel and press Enter).
  4. Maximize the Control Panel window (click the box in the upper right corner of the Window or press Alt+Spacebar, arrow up or down to Maximize, and press Enter).

The Control Panel is a window. If you have not made any previous changes to your settings, the Window may look like a web site. This can be visually confusing to people with low vision. To simplify the look of the Control Panel, follow these steps:

  1. Open the Tools menu on the menu bar (click on Tools or press Alt+T).
  2. Select Folder Options from the Tools menu (click on Folder Options or arrow up or down to Folder Options and press Enter).
  3. Folders Options is a multipage dialog box. Select the General page tab (click on General or hold down Control and press Tab until the General page is selected).
  4. In the General page, select the radio button Use Windows Classic folders (click on the radio button or tab to the field and arrow up or down to the radio button).
  5. Select the View page tab (click on View or hold down the Control key and press Tab until the View page is selected).
  6. Select the Apply to All Folders button (click the button or Tab to the button and press Enter).
  7. Select the OK button (click on the OK button or Tab to the button and press Enter).
  8. Do not worry about other options in the Folder Options dialog box.

You will now be returned to the Control Panel window. The window will now look similar to most other Microsoft windows, with menu and toolbars across the top and a list box below. Depending on any previous settings you have changed, the list box may look like a list of names or a series of icons. To change the appearance of the items in the list box:

  1. Open the View menu on the menu bar (click on View or press Alt+V).
  2. Select the desired appearance from the menu: Icons or List (click on the desired option or arrow up or down to the selection and press Enter). In previous versions of Windows, the choices are Large Icons, Small Icons, or List.
  3. The items in the list box are changed to your selection.

Now you are ready to start customizing the appearance of your computer screen.

Accessibility Options

Accessibility Options enable users to apply certain accessibility features Microsoft has built into Windows. This option is available on most Windows operating systems. However, features within Accessibility Options vary among operating system versions. There are numerous choices in the multipage Accessibility Options dialog box. For the purposes of this guide, we will address only those features that affect the appearance of the cursor.

To open the Accessibility Options dialogue box:

  1. Open the Control Panel.
  2. Select Accessibility Options in the list box (double click on Accessibility Options or arrow to Accessibility Options and press Enter).
  3. Select the Display tab (click on Display or hold down the Control key and press Tab until the Display page is selected).
  4. Ignore the high-contrast setting options. (We will address these settings in the Display Properties section of this guide.)
  5. Select the Cursor Options Blink Rate. Increasing or decreasing the cursor blink rate may make it easier for you to see the cursor when working in word processing programs. This can be changed using a track bar. Moving the bar to the right of the bar increases the cursor blink rate; moving the bar to the left of the bar slows down the cursor blink rate (click on the bar and drag the bar to the right or left or tab to the sliding bar and press the Up or Down Arrow to move the bar).
  6. Select the Cursor Options Width. This option enables you to change the width of the cursor that appears on the screen, making it easier to locate and follow the cursor when entering information. This is another track bar control. Moving the bar to the right increases the cursor width; moving the bar to the left decreases the cursor width (click on the bar and drag the bar to the right or left or tab to the track bar and press the Up or Down Arrow to move the bar).
  7. Select the Apply button (click on the button or Tab to the button and press Enter).
  8. Select the OK button (click on the button or Tab to the button and press Enter).
  9. You are returned to the list box in the Control Panel window. If you want to see the changes you made to the cursor, open a word-processing document in an application such as WordPad or Microsoft Word.

Display Properties

The Display options are where you will make the majority of changes to your computer screen's appearance. Display Properties is a multipage dialog box. Because of the extent of the changes that can be made in this dialog box, each page is reviewed separately here. The page tabs in the Display dialog box are (from left to right): Themes; Desktop; Screen Saver; Appearance; and Settings.

The Display dialog box is significantly different in Windows XP from previous Windows operating systems. For Windows XP users with low vision, this is a plus. You now have the ability to customize just about every aspect of the computer screen. Although not all features provided in this guide are available in previous Windows operating systems, do not give up hope. Features available in previous Windows operating systems are indicated here with an asterisk (*).

The strongest feature in the Display dialog box is the mini-view window. This enables you to see how your choice will affect the look of the different screen features before actually applying any changes.

First, open the Display dialog box:

  1. Open the Control Panel.
  2. Select Display from the list box (double click on Display or arrow up or down to Display and press Enter).

Themes

A theme is a background plus a set of sounds, icons, and other elements to help you personalize your computer. You can create and save a personalized theme on this page, but for this guide we will only cover selecting preset themes.

  1. Select the Theme page (click on Themes or hold down the Control key and press Tab until the Theme page is selected).
  2. In the Themes combo box, select a preset theme such as Windows XP or Windows Classic (click to open the combo box and then click on the desired theme or tab to the combo box, arrow up or down to open the list, and arrow up or down to the desired item).
  3. View the changes in the mini-view window.
  4. Select the Apply button (click on the button or tab to the button and press Enter).

Desktop*

The Desktop Page enables you to select a preset appearance or to customize the appearance of your Desktop. The Desktop is the main screen of the computer that displays icons, the Start Button, Task Bar, and System Folder. (Previous versions of Windows labeled this feature "Background" in the Display dialog box.) For most users with low vision, the appearance of the Desktop can be very frustrating.

To select a preset Desktop background:

  1. Select the Desktop Page tab in the Display dialog box (click on Desktop or hold down the Control key and press Tab until the Desktop Page is selected).
  2. Select a preset background from the List of Backgrounds list box. There are 117 preset backgrounds available in Windows XP (click on a background in the list or tab to the list box and arrow up or down to a background). To scroll through the list, click on the the Up or Down Arrow at the right side of the box (keyboard users can simply arrow up or down through the list).
  3. View the background in the mini-view window.
  4. Select the Apply button to change to the new Desktop background (click on the Apply button or tab to the button and press Enter).

The other feature in the Desktop page that directly affects the appearance of the Desktop is the Position combo box. Position refers to how the Desktop background you selected will appear on the screen. There are three position options: Center will position the background in the center of the Desktop; Tile will position the background in multiple squares across the Desktop; Stretch will position the background across the entire Desktop. To change the Position option:

  1. Open the Position combo box (click on the arrow keys or tab to the combo box and press the Up or Down Arrow).
  2. Select the desired position from the list (click on the selection or arrow up or down to the selection and press Tab to move to the next field).
  3. View the changes to your background in the mini-view window.
  4. Select the Apply button (click on the Apply button or tab to the button and press Enter).

This guide does not address the advanced features available to customize the desktop. For an advanced user, these features can be accessed through the Customize Desktop button.

Screen Saver*

The Screen Saver Page allows you to choose from a list of preset screen savers. A screen saver is a feature that turns on when the computer has been idle for a set period of time. Although using a screen saver is not necessary, it is one way of personalizing your computer. Have fun with this option and pick a screen saver that fits your environment and personality.

To select a preset screen saver:

  1. Select the Screen Saver Page tab (click on Screen Saver or hold down the Control key and press Tab until the Screen Saver page is selected).
  2. Open the Screen Saver combo box (click on the arrow keys at the right of the combo box or tab to the combo box and press the Up or Down Arrow).
  3. Select a preset screen saver from the list (click on the selection or arrow up or down to the item).
  4. Select the Screen Saver Preview button to view the screen saver in full screen format (click the Screen Saver Preview button or tab to the button and press Enter).
  5. Uncheck the check box for On Resume, Display Welcome Screen (click in the check box or Tab to the check box and press Space Bar). Unchecking this feature enables you to close the screen saver and automatically return to your computer screen by simply pressing any key on the keyboard.
  6. Select the Apply button (click on the Apply button or Tab to the button and press Enter).

There are additional options in the Screen Saver Page for customizing the Screen Saver Settings and for Screen Saver Wait (the time elapsed before the screen saver is displayed). More advanced users can feel free to explore these options. However, these features are not critical to the general appearance of the Screen Saver and will not be addressed in this guide.

Another option in the Screen Saver Page is the ability to customize the Power Options for your computer. These are energy-saving features that enable you to set the computer's monitor and other parts of the system to power down (turn off) after a specified length of time. (For ease of access, it is recommended to leave power settings for hard disks, system standby, and system hibernate at Never). Power options for the monitor determine when the screen saver is activated.

To adjust power settings for the monitor:

  1. Select the Power button on the Screen Saver Page (click on the button or tab to the button and press Enter).
  2. The Power Options dialog box is opened.
  3. Select the Power Schemes page tab (click on Power Schemes or hold down the Control key and press Tab until the Power Schemes page is selected).
  4. Open the Turn Off Monitor combo box (click on the arrow keys at the right of the combo box or tab to the combo box and arrow up or down to open the list).
  5. Select a time interval from the list (click or arrow up or down to the desired selection). You can set the monitor to power down and turn on the screen saver in intervals of minutes or hours.
  6. Select the Apply button (click on the Apply button or tab to the button and press Enter).
  7. Select the OK button (click the OK button or tab to the button and press Enter).
  8. You should be returned to the Display dialog box on the Screen Saver Page.
  9. On the Screen Saver page, select the Apply button (click on the Apply button or tab to the button and press Enter).

Appearance*

The Appearance Page is where the choices really get exciting. This is where you can make changes that affect the look of everything from the menu bar to dialog boxes. Because of all the features available on this page, each item is addressed separately.

First, open the Appearance Page: In the Display dialog box, select the Appearance page tab (click on Appearance or hold down the Control key and press Tab until the Appearance page is selected).

Most low vision users can customize their computer's appearance by simply changing the Windows and Buttons scheme, Color Schemes, and Font Size on the Appearance Page. These changes will affect almost every aspect of your screen's appearance, from the size of icons and menus to the color of dialog boxes.

The first option on the Appearance page is to select a look for Windows and Buttons. There are two choices in the combo box: Windows Classic or Windows XP. If you want to customize the color, font, and font size of certain elements, we recommend selecting the Windows Classic option, since some of these features are not available in the Windows XP selection. Also, the Windows Classic option provides an extensive selection of color schemes (see below), including many high-contrast color schemes that work well for users with low vision.

  1. Open the Windows and Buttons combo box (click on the arrows to the right of the combo box or tab to the combo box and arrow up or down to open the list).
  2. Select an option from the list (click on the option or arrow up or down to the item and press Tab to select and move to the next field).
  3. Select the Apply button (click the Apply button or tab to the button and press Enter).

The Color Scheme option enables you to select the color scheme for your computer. If you selected the Windows XP Windows and Buttons option, there are only three color schemes available. The Default Blue is recommended for most users because it is the friendliest version for people with low vision. However, if you selected the Windows Classic Windows and Buttons option, there are 22 different color schemes available. The Windows Classic color schemes also include several high-contrast settings such as High Contrast Black (white text on a black background similar to the negative polarity option on closed-circuit television systems) and High Contrast White (black text on a white background). To select a color scheme:

  1. Select an option from the Color Schemes combo box (click on the arrows at the right of the combo box and then click on a color scheme or tab to the combo box, arrow up or down to a color scheme and press Tab to select).
  2. View the new color scheme in the mini-view window. Try several different color schemes until you find one that works best with your vision.
  3. Select the Apply button (click the Apply button or tab to the button and press Enter).

The Font Size option enables you to set the size of the text for any Windows feature such as icons, menu bars, window title bars, and toolbars, to name just a few. There are three font size options: normal, large, and extra large. To change the font size:

  1. Select a font size from the Font Size combo box (click on the arrows at the right of the combo box and then click on a font size or Tab to the combo box, arrow up or down to the desired font size, and press Tab to select).
  2. View the application of the new font size in the mini-view window. Try each font size option to determine which works best for you.
  3. Select the Apply button (click the Apply button or tab to the button and press Enter).

For those who want, or require, further customization of the screen, we will include a brief overview of the Effects and Advanced features.

Effects and Advanced Features

The Effects button opens a dialog box that enables you to select certain features that affect the visual appearance of your screen such as transition effects for menus and toolbars, font edge smoothing, large icons, and menu shadows (the Control Panel Help explains these features). To access the Effects dialog box:

  1. Select the Effects button (click on the button or press Tab to the button and press Enter).
  2. Check or uncheck items in the Effects dialog box as desired (click in the check box or tab to the check box and press spacebar).
  3. Select the OK button to apply the changes or Cancel to exit the dialog box (click on the button or tab to the button and press Enter).
  4. You are returned to the Display dialog box, Appearance page.
  5. Select the Apply button (click on the button or tab to the button and press Enter). Although the changes you made in Effects should have been applied, they may not be apparent to you until you start working in different programs.

The Advanced button opens a dialog box that enables you to customize certain elements of Windows such as message boxes, menus, and window title bars. Whereas previously you have changed the entire appearance of all items to the same look, the Advanced dialog box allows you to customize individual items by color, font, and font size. To access the Advanced features:

  1. Select the Advanced button (click on the button or tab to the button and press Enter).
  2. Select an item in the list box and make desired changes to the color, font, or font size.
  3. Once you have made all the changes, select the OK button to apply the changes or Cancel to cancel the changes (click on the button or press Tab to the button and press Enter).
  4. You are returned to the Display dialog box on the Appearance page.
  5. Select the Apply button to apply the advanced changes (click the button or press Tab to the button and press Enter). The changes you made should be immediately visible in the mini-view window.

Settings*

The final page in the Display dialog box is the Settings page. Options on this page tell Windows the type of computer monitor being used, set screen resolution and color quality, and provide advanced troubleshooting features. It is recommended that you leave most of the options on this page at the default settings. However, there are a few changes you can make to improve the appearance of your computer screen.

First open the Settings page: In the Display dialog box, click on Settings or hold down the Control key and press Tab until the Settings page is selected). On this page you can set the screen resolution (in older versions of Windows it may be called "screen area." In noncomputer language, screen resolution refers to the degree to which the screen is pixilated. A higher screen resolution means more pixels and a cleaner, tighter appearance. For most users with low vision, a higher screen resolution of 1024 x 768 is preferred. To change the screen resolution:

  1. Move the Screen Resolution track bar to 1024 x 768 (click and drag the pointer or tab to the track bar and press the Up or Down Arrow).
  2. Select the Apply button (click on the Apply button or press Tab to the button and press Enter).
  3. Your screen will disappear for a second and then you will be prompted with a message box asking if you want to use the new settings or revert to the previous settings. Select the Yes button to apply the new screen resolution settings (click the Yes button or press Y).
  4. The screen will disappear for another second and then return with the new screen resolution settings operational.

The Color Quality feature allows you to adjust the color displayed on your computer screen. A higher color setting will render colors more accurately. For most users with low vision, a 32-bit setting is recommended because it provides the closest representation of the intended color and the sharpest color. To change the Color Quality:

  1. Open the Color Quality combo box and select Highest (32 bit) (click on the arrows at the right of the combo box and then click on the selection or tab to the combo box, arrow up or down to the selection, and press Tab to select the option).
  2. Select the Apply button (click on the Apply button or tab to the button and press Enter).

You have now finished making all the changes in the Display dialog box. To accept the changes and close the Display dialog box, select the OK button (click on the OK button or press Tab to the button and press Enter). You are returned to the Control Panel window. Close the Control Panel window (click the X in the upper right corner of the window or press Alt+F4).

A New View

Congratulations! If you completed all the instructions in this guide, you should be looking at a computer screen that is easier to see. Now that you know how to change the appearance of your computer screen, you can continue to customize it to meet your specific visual needs. If you find that a particular feature is not working, or you just get tired of a color, just change it! Upcoming issues of AccessWorld will offer more tips on customizing the mouse pointer and programs such as Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Internet Explorer, and Microsoft Outlook.

For More Information

For additional information on computer adaptations for users with low vision, check out the following web sites:

American Foundation for the Blind: <www.afb.org/Section.asp?SectionID=4&DocumentID=1452 >

Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired: <http://www.tsbvi.edu/technology/index.htm#content>

For a complete listing of keyboard commands for all Windows operating systems and Microsoft programs, visit <www.microsoft.com/enable/products/keyboard.aspx>.

Key Terms

Commands

Arrow: Move the cursor by pressing the Up or Down Arrow keys.

Click: Position the mouse pointer and click once with the left mouse button.

Double Click: Position the mouse pointer and click the left mouse button twice in rapid succession.

Enter: Press the Enter key.

Tab: Press the Tab key.

Types of Boxes

Dialog Box: An enclosed area that appears on the screen to present information or request input. You can navigate through a dialog box to select items, open lists, or enter information by clicking the left mouse button once on the desired item Pressing Tab also will move you through a dialog box and enable you to select or enter information.

List Box: A box containing a list of items; the items can be selected by clicking the left mouse button once or arrowing up or down to the item in the list and pressing Enter.

Multipage Dialog Box: A dialog box consisting of multiple pages. To switch between pages in the dialog box, select the desired page tab listed horizontally across the top of the dialog box. Selecting the page tab will switch the dialog box contents to that page. Page tabs are selected by clicking once with the left mouse button or by holding down the Control key and pressing Tab until the desired page is located.

Dialog Box Elements

Button: A small outlined area in a dialog box that can be clicked on to perform a function. To select a button, position the mouse pointer over it and click once with the left mouse button. You also can Tab to the button and press the Enter key once the button is selected.

Check Box: A small box placed at the beginning of an item or option that you can click to turn the option on or off. To check or uncheck the box, click once with the left mouse button or tab to the check box and press the spacebar.

Combo Box: A box with an Up and Down Arrow at the right edge. You can move through and select items in the list by clicking on the Up or Down Arrow once with the left mouse button and then clicking once on the desired item in the list. Pressing the Up or Down Arrow key also will open and move you through the list. Pressing Tab will select the item from the list and move you to the next field.

Edit Box: A field in a dialog box that requires you to enter specific information, such as a file name, by typing it in the box area. Clicking the left mouse button once or pressing Tab will position a cursor in the box.

Radio Button: A small button in front of each item in a list of options. To select a radio button, click once with the left mouse button on the radio button or tab to the list and arrow up or down to the desired option; then press Tab to move to the next field. Only one of a set of radio buttons can be selected at a time.

Track Bar: A horizontal bar that allows you to increase or decrease a certain feature by sliding the bar to the right or left or up and down. To move the box, click and hold down the left mouse button while dragging the bar to the desired direction. Or, tab to the sliding bar and press the Up or Down Arrow key to move the bar left or right or up or down.

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Copyright © 2005 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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