The initial legislation, PL 94-142 (now IDEA, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), allowed all students with disabilities to enter school in their own communities. The 504 Regulations required higher education institutions to make their programs accessible to qualified students with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) opened more doors on campus and to schools, libraries, science centers, and auditoria by requiring curb cuts, ramps, and elevators.
Beyond ramps and elevators, the ENTRY POINT! and ACCESS students excel in academics, internships, and employment because they have assistive technology. They absolutely could not achieve without it. The technology ranges from low-tech to high-tech; some is off-the-shelf, and some is highly customized. Most has been developed during the past 25 years, and some as recently as 5 years ago.
Being able-bodied is a temporary condition. People become less able-bodied with time's slow advance, the sudden occurrence of severe illness, or out-of-the-blue accidents like the one that changed life for "Lightning" Leaman.
The kids at East Stroudsburg High School in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania nicknamed Jesse "Lightning." A forward on the Cavaliers' soccer team, Jesse covered the field in a flash, helping to make the Cavaliers conference champs in 1995. Then an accident left the scholar - athlete almost totally without movement.
"I wanted to prove to myself that I could do a forward flip off my 15-foot-high porch into the snow below," Jesse said. "Unfortunately, my first attempt was my last. Tucking my knees in for a split second too long, I landed headfirst. The result: a broken neck. My fourth cervical vertebra was pulverized, and the third and fifth ones shattered." Jesse lay in the snow, unable to breathe.
Dad, Rick Leaman, kept Jesse alive with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until emergency help arrived. A MedEvac helicopter flew Jesse to Lehigh Valley Hospital, where surgeons fused a piece of hip bone to the broken vertebrae. Jesse was on a respirator for three weeks before he could breathe on his own. After three more weeks in the Shock Trauma Unit, and another in monitored care, Jesse was transferred to the Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital in Allentown.
A different future
There, the 18-year-old came to understand that the future would be a little different than what everyone expected a few months earlier. A fund-raising poster on the wall of his room described his physical condition. "Help Jesse, Our Fallen Star." Jesse was a total quadriplegic, able to move only his head. "I realized that I could vegetate in some institution or go home and start a new life," Jesse said. "I was determined not to spend the rest of my life hiding away from society, surviving from month to month on welfare checks. Instead, I would try to live as normal a life as possible."
At Good Shepherd, the 18-year-old discovered the assistive technology that has made it possible and changed a fallen star into a rising star.
Jesse is something of a rocket scientist. The University of Maryland (UMD) astronomy major had an ENTRY POINT!/ACCESS internship in 1998 at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. It led to another ENTRY POINT!/ACCESS internship in the space physics data facility at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD. In 1999, Jesse worked in Goddard's Space Physics Data Facility, analyzing data from the Geotail spacecraft. Those experiences paved the way in 2000 for Jesse to become a co-op student at Goddard and UMD. Working in the high-energy astrophysics lab, he helped calibrate the X-ray detectors for NASA's Constellation-X satellite mission. "Upon graduation in spring 2002," Jesse said, "I hope to earn my master's degree and Ph.D. and eventually become a career research scientist with NASA."
Assistive technology enables individuals with disabilities to perform the most common tasks of everyday life that people who are able-bodied take for granted. Like turning the pages of a book when you can't move your arms or hands.
The technology goes far beyond motorized wheelchairs and remote-controlled door openers. At Good Shepherd, Jesse discovered the electronic page-turner. A slight shrug of the head or shoulder activates the apparatus, which looks like a stand for sheet music, and makes it flip from one page to another. When Jesse was at Good Shepherd, he learned to use "Calvin." This is what he named the environmental control unit (ECU). An ECU is any of a group of devices that allow individuals with disabilities to control aspects of their environment operated by electricity.
"Calvin, turn on the light."
"Calvin, dial the phone."
"Calvin, turn up the heat."
Unfortunately, he couldn't keep Calvin, because his insurance company would not cover it. Someday, though, he hopes to get one of his own. Speech-recognition software gave him access to computers via voice commands. Speaking through a microphone to a program called Dragon Dictate, Jesse could write reports and e-mail, navigate the Internet, and use other programs - all without touching the keyboard or mouse. Jesse has used the software on desktop and laptop computers at home, school, and work.
Indeed, some computer technology originally developed for people with physical disabilities is becoming popular with people who are able-bodied. Physicians, writers, and others find it more convenient to dictate text to speech-recognition software, such as Via-Voice or Dragon Dictate, rather than keyboard it. Many other people use the accessibility options in Windows to make monitor images easier to see, choose a more comfortable mouse-click speed, and adopt other user user-friendly features.
Assistive technology evolves in response to new situations. The ENTRY POINT!/ACCESS internship at NASA - Marshall, for instance, was Jesse's initiation into a real-life workplace. One benefit of the ENTRY POINT! experience is in helping interns and their employers discover simple, creative solutions to problems that individuals with disabilities may encounter in a workplace.
"My first work experience as someone with a disability couldn't have happened at a better place than NASA," Jesse said. "Faced with the challenge of providing me with a telephone, they developed a photoelectric cell that would act as an on - off switch for a speaker phone. If I create a shadow in front of the cell with my wheelchair, the speaker phone goes on, and I can use the computer and voice-recognition software to dial the number."
Another problem solved at Marshall was Jesse's inability to turn around and look behind him - to see co-workers before reversing or to back out of narrow areas. NASA mounted an inexpensive surveillance camera to the battery pack on his wheelchair and connected it to an LCD screen that Jesse can view.
Assistive technology and accommodations made possible by federal legislation (#504 Regulations and the ADA) were available from the very start of his disability. When he began studying astronomy at East Stroudsburg University, Jesse had priority registration for classes, personal note takers, scribes for tests, special seating arrangements, and other accommodations. He noted that assistive technology will grow in importance. For example, medical advances are helping more individuals with severe spinal cord injuries to survive their accident and become part of the workforce.
Gaps remain, however. When searching for an apartment near UMD and Goddard, Jesse found plenty advertised as accessible within a 20-mile radius. Yet the apartments do not have roll-in showers, making them inaccessible to Jesse.
"Assistive technology plays an important role in my life," Jesse said. "However, we should not overlook the fact that accidents and illnesses do not just affect the individual, but their friends and family as well. My parents and two younger sisters have sacrificed greatly for me to be able to get to this point."
Assistive technology enables individuals with disabilities to perform the most common tasks of everyday life that people who are able-bodied take for granted. Like turning the pages of a book when you can't move your arms or hands.
"Calvin, dial the phone"
Mention JAWS to Marco Midon, and prepare for an outpouring of praise. Marco is an engineer in the microwave systems branch at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD.
And, no, he's not hooked on shark movies. The JAWS Marco admires so much is Job Access with Speech, a computer program that provides persons who are blind and visually impaired with access to many widely used software applications and the Internet. E-mail. Word processors. Spreadsheets. Web browsers. Contract management software. Web and software development tools. Sound editing software. Database management software.
JAWS makes computers talk. One of the most popular screen readers, it outputs the content of a computer screen to speakers or "refreshable" or "paperless" braille displays. These devices display braille as it is being written, with pins corresponding to braille dots that pop up on a template. The display is refreshable in the sense that it changes as new text is added, word by word or line by line. Marco has used JAWS to monitor and control test and measurement equipment, track satellites, and evaluate electronic components for a new generation of compact ground-based receivers for satellite transmissions.
He comes with accessories
"I can do my job in no small part due to JAWS and other assistive technology," Marco said. "If I want to be the best, and compete on the same level as those in the sighted world, I need to have the best equipment. It enables me to maximize communications with others, and get things done. I consider my communications and other technology to be a part of me, and I take it wherever I go."
One of those accessories is an external speech synthesizer, often used in conjunction with JAWS, which Marco finds valuable when his computer sound card is occupied with other tasks. When Marco wants to find a specific computer file, for instance, software outputs a list of folder contents to his computer sound card or speech synthesizer. Marco hears each file name, instead of visually scrolling down a list. Then the software reads the file contents.
Another is Type 'n Speak, an electronic note taker. An electronic note taker is to a person who is blind what a Palm Pilot-type personal digital assistant or a traditional paper-and-ink Day-Timer is to a person who is sighted. Some electronic note takers have a "Qwerty" keyboard, and others have a braille keyboard. The user types or brailles-in information and gets speech output. "It is so much a part of me that I can't imagine being without it," Marco said. The device is portable (about the size of a sheet of paper and runs on battery power) and goes everywhere with him. He uses it to enter and store notes, reminders, to-do lists, appointments, expenses, and other information. It outputs in speech.
Marco uses a lot of other assistive technology, including volt-ohm meters and other instruments that output their readings to the serial port of a computer, which software and a sound card convert into speech.
"I realize that my views on technology may be a little controversial," Marco said. "Some of the assistive technology is expensive. The note taker. The speech synthesizer. That makes money my source of independence. With money, I can buy the technology that I need. If I want to be the best, and compete on the same level as the sighted world, I need to have the best equipment. Money serves to level the playing field because it allows me to compete on the same level."
A winding road
The road that took Marco to a master's degree in electrical engineering and his career at NASA had its share of unexpected twists and turns. It covered a few miles. And it required some extraordinary persistence; Marco's trip from his first year in college to earning a master's degree took about 15 years. "Done," Marco remarked, "is better than not done."
Marco and his twin brother, Raul, were born prematurely - unable to breathe on their own because of immature lungs. They were placed in incubators in the hospital. At the time, it was standard practice to provide incubators with high levels of oxygen. Lower levels have been used for years because of an undesirable side effect of the oxygen-rich environment that became apparent. It caused an accelerated growth of tissue in the retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye. Termed retinopathy of prematurity, it caused retinal scarring that sometimes resulted in vision loss or blindness. Raul left the hospital totally blind. Marco had limited sight until age 16. The boys' mom died when they were four, and their dad, Jorge, raised them.
One signpost was a mentor who motivated Marco and got him interested in electrical engineering. It was a science teacher who was sighted at the New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped in Alamogordo, which the boys attended from ages 5 to 15. Marilyn Redman was an amateur ham radio enthusiast who spoke with other hams around the world. Marco became fascinated with the basic electronics involved in radio and gradually realized that electrical engineering was the way to go.
Marco said that Marilyn also was a little unconventional and daring, which left an impression. "She knew that in rural New Mexico, many of these kids would be driving cars - not on highways, but somewhere. She decided to teach some of them how to drive in the school parking lot. She claimed she was dealing with reality. Of course, she got into trouble."
By age 15, Marco and Raul knew they wanted to go to college. Raul was interested in music, Marco in engineering. They got scholarships to attend the Santa Fe Preparatory School. With help from Jorge on homework and accommodating teachers (who read exams and had Marco and Raul complete assignments on tape or orally), both enrolled at the University of Miami (UM). Raul got a degree in studio music and jazz in 1990. Marco chose electrical engineering, but left the university in 1992 with about 75% of his courses completed, but without a degree.
Jorge's question was another signpost. "Look, Marco. You need to do something to get that degree. What are you expecting to do with your life?" After leaving UM, Marco had a few consulting and broadcast engineering jobs, but essentially "just hung around, marking time." Jorge's question encouraged Marco to return to school, this time at Florida International University (FIU) in Miami.
At FIU, Marco found another mentor, Dr. Gustavo Roig, associate dean of electrical engineering. "He took me under his wing as soon as I got there," Marco said. "Dr. Roig encouraged me, counseled me, inspired me. He knew that I wanted to work at NASA some day, and encouraged that. Dr. Roig still is my mentor. When
I need advice, that's where I turn."
With many of his credits transferring, Marco received his undergraduate degree in 1996, and he decided to continue on at FIU for a master's degree. At one point, he contemplated going to law school and combining the engineering degree with a law degree. Marco scored well on the LSAT, and started winnowing through a list of law schools.
And a rampway marked ENTRY POINT!
Dr. Roig told Marco about the ENTRY POINT!/ACCESS internship, which would mean 10 weeks during the summer at NASA - Goddard. With encouragement from Dr. Roig and Jorge, Marco accepted. While at Goddard, Marco worked on several projects, including one involving the design of less-expensive ground stations - using commercial computer software and other off-the-shelf components - for receiving satellite data transmissions.
"That internship was essential," Marco said. "That's how my career with NASA started. I was able to make enough out of it, and perform well enough, that they wanted me back."
Marco's advice for students with blindness or low vision, as they navigate their own roads toward science or engineering careers?
Technology. Technology. Technology.
"Try to obtain as much of your own assistive technology as possible, rather than relying on technology provided by schools or employers," Marco said. "In my view, technology really needs to be tailored for your own needs. If you own it, it's configured for your own use once, and you won't have other users changing it. It will be available whenever you need it."
Also essential, Marco said, is to keep updating the technology and make use of new assistive devices constantly appearing on the market.
Erika L. Nelson, who has been profoundly deaf since birth, talks on an ordinary telephone; carries on conversations with friends while walking the campus at Dartmouth College; rarely misses a word during lectures, even when the professor turns away or speaks indistinctly; plays the piano; and even enjoys hearing the gentle patter of raindrops in an April shower.
"Assistive technology has made all the difference in the world for me," Erika said. "It has enabled me to get a good education, look forward to starting a career, and have a good social life. My life would have been a lot different, and a lot more difficult, without the technology."
Erika was almost three years old when her hearing loss was detected. She was having difficulty learning speech and had a vocabulary of barely 100 words. With hearing aids, speech therapy, and a preschool program for children with hearing impairments in her hometown near Los Angeles, she made rapid progress. For kindergarten, she spent a half-day in a special school and a half-day in regular elementary school. Erika attended mainstream schools from 2nd grade on.
During elementary school and most of high school, Erika's main assistive technology was an FM system. These are small-scale FM radio broadcast and receiving systems that transmit sound directly to people with hearing loss. The teacher speaks into a microphone, and the signal is transmitted to the individual who is hearing impaired, who wears a personal receiver. In some systems, the signal travels directly into one or both hearing aids through a cord that connects the receiver and the hearing aid. In others, the person wears a neck loop that passes a wireless signal to the hearing aids.
Erika described one significant teacher, Mrs. Lowrey, who taught 4th grade. "Until then, I wasn't a very good student," Erika said. "I didn't do homework assignments, didn't study, and really didn't care about doing the best possible classroom work. Mrs. Lowrey inspired me to excel. She had high expectations, and I worked hard to meet them."
"The teachers were always very cooperative with the FM system," Erika said. "At the start of each class, they'd put on the microphone, and I'd wear my neck loop. It worked really well, and I never used interpreters, note takers, or any other assistance."
That changed later in high school, as Erika recognized that real-time captioning (CART; see Kelly Halacka's profile) could be extremely helpful in understanding teachers. She learned about captioning while visiting colleges and discovered that some, such as Notre Dame University, provided it on request. During senior year, Erika participated in a special program in which she took all her classes at De Anza College in San Jose instead of Lynbrook High School. Erika felt that real-time classroom captioning now was essential. "The school district refused to provide captioning because I was going to the community college," Erika said. "The community college refused to provide it as well because I was going there as part of a high school program. So it was a battle of wills."
Captioned by dad
Lawrence Nelson, Erika's dad, helped out and became her personal captioner. Lawrence worked as a professional stenographer before Erika was born in 1980. "When the trouble started my senior year of high school, he tried his hand at stenographing again, this time with the modern real-time technology of laptops, which were not available when he did transcribing with typewriters in the late 70s. He had to relearn how to transcribe and relearn the language of stenographing, and it only took him a matter of months."
Within a couple of years, dad decided to take the certification test, which qualified him to do professional court reporting, and he returned to taking depositions in the San Francisco Bay area and the Silicon Valley area. "I'm grateful to my father because he allowed me to get captioning for the first time for classroom use when I requested it."
De Anza College did not have a captioning program in place for its own students who are hearing impaired. Erika was the first to request it. After Erika left, the college did institute a captioning program, because other students who are hearing impaired were asking for it.
Erika enjoyed science and math courses in high school but was undecided about a college major. She kept that in mind when picking a college. "I wanted an East Coast college that could provide all the skills necessary to enter almost any kind of career. The academic reputation and the close, family-type atmosphere at Dartmouth really impressed me." Erika entered Dartmouth as an economics major, but she later switched to psychology. "I switched to psychology at Dartmouth because of the personal benefit that I thought I would gain from studying it. It just happened to be the most fascinating subject."
The summer before college, Erika began using another key technology. It was a cochlear implant, which is a small, complex, electronic device that can help to provide a sense of sound to some persons who are profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing. A cochlear implant is an "artificial inner ear," which partially takes over the job of the cochlea, the snail-shaped organ that translates sound energy into nerve impulses and sends those impulses to the brain for processing. The implant is surgically placed under the skin behind the ear.* Intense follow-up therapy teaches the person with the implant to hear and understand speech.
When Erika started at Dartmouth, the college provided CART for lectures. Sophomore year, no captioner could be found in the Hanover, NH, area. So dad helped out again, this time in the capacity of a distance captioner. Just before the start of each lecture, Erika would open a telephone link between Hanover and San Jose, where her family lived. Lawrence listened to the lecture and keyboarded the words to Erika's laptop computer over an Internet link and Ethernet connection to the campus computer network.
"In spring of my junior year at Dartmouth, I felt that my hearing with the cochlear implant had improved so much that I could try classes without using real-time captioning," Erika said. "I realized that I might have to change my mind and decide that I still needed the technology if it proved too difficult, but it turned out all right, and I did pretty well."
After graduation in 2001, Erika plans to work as an analyst at Accenture (formerly Andersen Consulting) in Los Angeles. "I think my two ENTRY POINT! internships at IBM's Santa Teresa facility gave me a lot of skills that I can apply toward my new job in Los Angeles," Erika said. She interned at IBM's Santa Teresa software development center in San Jose, CA. "Andersen focuses a lot on technology strategy, so I'll be working with the technical side." More distant plans include graduate school, possibly after a few years of work.
*A cochlear implant consists of external and internal components, including a microphone, which picks up sound from the environment; a speech processor, which converts sound into digital signals; a transmitter and receiver/stimulator, which receive signals from the speech processor and convert them into electric impulses; and electrodes, which transmit impulses from the stimulator to nerves in the inner ear that lead to the brain. An implant may provide near-normal hearing, or give a person who is deaf useful auditory understanding of the environment that can help to understand speech.
Randy Horwitz used to bring a laptop computer to interviews when he was a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) applying for cooperative education jobs - those co-ops that allow college students to take a break from classes and gain real-world work experience in industry or government.
It seemed like a good way to make interviewers understand that this computer science major used computers differently. Randy is blind. He doesn't look at a computer monitor. He listens to it with a "screen reader" that synthesizes a voice from the digital code that constitutes an image. He doesn't issue commands with mouse clicks on icons. He only uses the keyboard. He doesn't read e-mail. Speech synthesizer software reads it to him, in an electronic voice that can rattle off several hundred rapid-fire words per minute.
Different, yes. But extraordinarily effective.
Randy is proficient with a lot of other assistive technology, which he uses daily in his job as a software engineer at IBM's Poughkeepsie, NY, facility. But he was not in a show-off mode or on an educate-the-public mission with those laptop demonstrations. Rather, they originated in frustration at the closed doors Randy encountered as his journey toward a science and engineering career neared the goal of getting that first job.
Although sent on interviews by the RIT co-op office, with a résumé listing that included an award for "Young Blind Person of the Year," Randy encountered what he said was blatant discrimination from several potential co-op employers. "I sent out about 25 résumés and got like five responses," Randy said. "Friends of mine with similar grades would send out five résumés and get five responses. In at least three co-op interviews, there were discriminatory comments, or if it was not said directly, it was heavily implied via tone of voice. Interviewers couldn't imagine me doing computer work. I would try to explain to them how a screen reader worked. I even started bringing my laptop to interviews to show folks."
Even though the interviews took place in the late 1990s, Randy encountered surprising lack of knowledge from potential employers about assistive technology for people who are blind. That technology, which puts individuals who are visually impaired on a more even footing with sighted people, enabled Randy to complete his precollege education, get a computer science degree from RIT in 1999, and work effectively at IBM.
Randy has been blind since 18 months of age. As an infant, he developed retinoblastoma, a rare form of cancer that occurs in the retina, the light-sensitive tissue in the eye. It took constant advocacy from Randy's parents, who lived in Syracuse, NY, to ensure that he was put into regular school classes and got needed services. School officials, for instance, were worried that Randy could not keep up with other students in regular classes. His parents objected. School officials decided Randy would have to take an I.Q. test to demonstrate his aptitude for learning. He scored well on the test and got into a mainstream kindergarten class.
Getting the school district to provide an acceptable braille teacher also took repeated parental intervention. The school district provided one teacher who only read poetry to Randy. His parents intervened. The schools provided a braille teacher who was blind, but he had transportation problems and was unable to get to class on a regular basis. His parents intervened again. Randy finally got braille instruction from a teacher who worked with him from the summer after kindergarten through high school. The school district also provided a teaching assistant who brailled all of Randy's classroom instruction and translated his completed assignments and tests back into traditional script.
Randy first became interested in computers in the 6th grade. A family friend working on a master's degree needed a volunteer subject and enlisted Randy. During participation in the study, Randy learned basic programming and began to recognize the power of computer technology, including its potential as assistive technology for individuals with disabilities.
Teacher and mentor
A 6th-grade science teacher served as a mentor who encouraged Randy's overall interest in science. Ironically, she was the same teacher who in 5th grade wrote a five-page letter to school officials describing why a student who was blind could not succeed in a regular science class. Randy's parents and his braille teacher met with the teacher and convinced her to give Randy a chance. He became the star student. "She ended up teaching 6th-grade science and specifically requested that I be in her class."
Randy described another motivational teacher, a gymnastics coach, who taught him how persistence can overcome obstacles and enable an individual to excel. Randy did well at gymnastics, despite blindness, thanks to the coach's lesson.
The interest in science continued during Randy's high school years, when he enjoyed chemistry and biology and did well in other subjects. Several forms of assistive technology for persons who are blind and visually impaired made it possible. For instance, Randy used brailled textbooks and other resources. A heat-sensitive paper, known as capsule paper, helped him understand diagrams and other graphical information. The teacher or aid draws or traces the diagram - of a cell, atom, or graphed mathematical function, for instance - on the capsule paper. The paper is run through a machine that provides a controlled heat source that "develops" the paper, transforming the tracing into a raised, tactile image. Teachers and aids also used a simple tracing wheel for other graphical images. The sharp-spoked wheel is rolled over the lines on a paper diagram, producing perforations that the individual who is visually impaired can feel with the fingers. Mathematical formulas were written in braille. Teachers also cooperated by reading out loud as they wrote material on the chalkboard and in many other ways.
During school breaks and summer vacations, Randy demonstrated an entrepreneurial flare, making and selling braille menus to local restaurants.
Excelling at RIT
Many of those same high school accommodations enabled Randy to excel at RIT. He used recorded textbooks borrowed from Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D) and a variety of computer hardware and software. Indeed, the computer gear was extensive enough for RIT to provide Randy with a single-occupancy dormitory room. It also was home to Jerald, a yellow Labrador retriever who is Randy's guide dog. For pictures and diagrams in biology lab sections, RIT often had 3-D models of cells, anatomical structures, and other objects being studied in class. Randy used those to get tactile images of the objects. Lab partners, of course, helped with oral explanations. Randy also met with lab instructors for an hour each week to get extra descriptions. In math courses, Randy took notes with a braille display connected to his laptop computer. It allowed him to input lecture notes and equations. Again, professors read aloud as they wrote material on the chalkboards or described it on overhead projections.
One computer science professor was so impressed with Randy's work that he made Randy team leader of a software-engineering project that included seven students. "That was the first time a student had a chance to do something like that in one of his courses. He believed in me."
Randy's co-op interviews eventually turned more positive, and he was placed with three different companies and received valuable on-the-job experience. His 1999 internship with IBM led to a full-time job.
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Profiles: Assistive Technology | Persistence | Beyond All Expectations | Late Diagnosis | The Golden Door | Informal Science and Popular Culture | The Pinball Effect | Families
Additional Materials: The Roadmaps Game | Afterward | Students' Backgrounds | Assistive Technology | Notes on Disabilities | 1990s Profile of Students with Students in Higher Education | Acknowledgments | References
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