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Responding to the Needs of Special Audiences

[Note: See /advocacy.html for additional information related to this chapter.]

Janice Freeman had been confined to a wheelchair for the past fifteen years, the result of an automobile injury of the brain stem that left her paralyzed from the waist down and with some speech problems. She had overcome many of her disabilities and worked as a computer operator for a local financial institution.

Now at forty-five years of age, she was looking to enhance her career in some way. Her supervisor told her about a new certificate program in computer programming offered by a nearby university that could lead to job advancement. Janice decided to look into the program to see if it fit her needs.

After work, Janice called the university to inquire about the certificate program. She was told that it was designed for working people who wished to obtain new or upgrade their current skills in computer programming. All classes were offered late in the afternoon or evening, and financial aid was available, too. Janice explained that financial aid was unnecessary since her employer would cover the tuition costs, but she wondered if the instructors could work with handicapped adults. She was assured that

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they could and in fact, each instructor was required to take a workshop in special education before they could teach in the program. This delighted Janice who confided that she was relegated to a wheelchair and had some speech difficulties. The university representative emphasized once again how they were ready and willing to help Janice out and encouraged her to stop by soon for more information. She said she would the next day.

George Hammond, on the other hand, was very spry for a man of 78. He walked to just about every place in the city that he needed to go. Widowed for three years now, he found himself becoming discontented with just his church and senior citizen center activities to occupy his time. He finally visited the Volunteer Center and the director, Jane Paige, asked if he would be willing to volunteer in the Red Cross Center three afternoons a week. He enthusiastically agreed and Jane signed him up for the orientation workshop beginning the following Monday.

The workshop coordinator, Ralph Jameson, began with an introduction activity that George enjoyed. By the time that first hour was over, George knew the names of and something about all the other six senior citizen volunteers in the group. He also felt at ease with Ralph's instructional process. Ralph took special care to involve each of the seven people and helped them establish personal learning goals. He employed a pace that seemed appropriate for people in their sixties and seventies. George was especially pleased that Ralph made sure he could hear and see all that was going on as George's eyesight and hearing were not what they used to be. By the end of the two-day workshop George was confident he would be a useful volunteer at the Center.

Most instructors or trainers of adults will work with a wide variety of learners in terms of ability, background, experience, and expectation,

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including learners like Janice and George. The individualizing process works not only in some of the formal or non-traditional settings described thus far, but also with various types of learners. Disabled adults, elderly learners, special need adults, adult literacy groups, institutionalized people, vocational rehabilitation participants, and people from foreign countries who need special language or cultural training are only some of the many audiences who can benefit from individualized opportunities.

However, certain adjustments need to be made in terms of the ability, expectations, or special needs of some learners. For example, Janice's instructor will need to ensure that the classroom and building are accessible by wheelchairs. Ralph Jameson had been careful to account for hearing and vision problems.

The purpose of this chapter is to examine the question of how the process is used with different audiences. We focus on only two groups, those adults with special needs or disabilities and the elderly, to describe some of the different problems or concerns that can affect the individualizing process. Some of the instructional adjustments required to work with these two audiences will be of value as you think of ways to adapt the process to any particular audience with whom you work. In addition, the resources section contains material related to instructing adult students in graduate courses and individuals involved in apprenticeship training as further examples of ways the process can be adapted. Finally, the last portion of this chapter contains some questions that instructors should consider in analyzing the various audiences with whom they may come in contact.

Adult with Special Needs

1. Instructors need to master some unique knowledge about adults with special needs or adults who are learning disabled in some way.

Some learners can be identified as special in nature or learning disabled in terms of their physical, emotional, developmental, or psychological condition. In many ways such people can be treated as typical learners, but the United States' Public Law 94-112 pertaining to education and the handicapped has resulted in research, instructional experiences, and corresponding ideas for adapting teaching approaches. In reality, most aspects of the individualizing process works well with adults who have special needs or disabilities. However, there are some differences which will impact on the instructional process.

Our understanding and use of "learning disabilities" as a concept in thinking about learners is quite recent: "The term, 'learning disabilities,' came into use in the early 1960's, replacing such terms as brain damaged, minimal brain dysfunction, word blindness, and perceptual handicaps. . . . manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening,

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speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities" (Hebert, 1988, p. 7). Polloway, Smith, and Patton (1984) have noted that the concept has been used in association with adults even more recently:

Somewhat surprisingly learning disabilities in adulthood received limited attention until the last decade. This is especially perplexing since some of the most important early work in the field was conducted with brain-damaged adults. . . . However, the degree of attention paid to LD [learning disabled] adults has increased dramatically in recent years. (p. 179)

This attention has resulted in several efforts to build some categories or frameworks for understanding the concept in relation to instruction and learning needs. Brown (1982) describes disabilities within four functional discrepancies: (a) Dyscalculia, inabilities related to performing mathematical operations; (b) Dysgraphia, inabilities related to writing skills; (c) Dyslexia, inabilities related to reading and comprehending, and (d) Cognitive and Perceptual problems or inabilities related to taking in or processing information via any of the senses. Jordan (1977, 1988) includes "dyslexia" in a framework of disabilities all tied in some way to faulty processing by the central nervous system: "Minimal Brain Dysfunction (MBD), Primary Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Disorder Syndrome, residual type" (1988, p. 3).

Lean (1983) talks about types of learning disabilities in terms of the problems an affected adult faces:

  1. Visual Perceptual Problems - difficulties in obtaining information via the sense of sight.
  2. Auditory Perceptual Problems - difficulties in obtaining information via the sense of hearing.
  3. Intersensory Problems - difficulties in using two or more senses at the same time.
  4. Motor Problems - difficulties in using the body efficiently in performing some task.
  5. Directional Problems - difficulties in distinguishing physical directions or in telling left from right.

Regardless of what particular framework is used, any such functional discrepancies can affect a person's ability to perform in an educational setting.

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Polloway, Smith, and Patton (1984) describe the various problems LD adults can have that educators should take into account: affective deficits, emotional instability, social imperceptions, communication difficulties, low social skills, and low self-esteems. Problems associated with learning disability have even impacted on training in the workplace, although Lean (1983) points to the difficulties most trainers have in identifying LD adults who become quite skilled at disguising personal problems. She outlines several behaviors which if exhibited by a person provide clues for trainers or teachers of adults with some type of learning disability:

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A similar checklist is provided by Jordan (1988) that is adapted from a George Washington University document, although he adds comments about poor handwriting and difficulties in sticking to simple schedules as other problem signs. Finally, Mays and Imel (1984) describe similar problematic characteristics, but add vision problems, production of extraneous vocal sounds, inability to match sounds or symbols, and physical conditions resulting from metabolism problems as others of concern.

2. There is increasing interest in and attention being given to some of the instructional needs associated with adults who have special needs, problems, or disabilities.

There are many different kinds of instructional resources becoming available. The U. S. Department of Education's Division of Adult Education has developed a "Clearinghouse on Adult Education" primarily under the leadership of William Langner. This clearinghouse has funded projects, coordinated national conferences, and produced various documents of value to instructors of the learning disabled as well as anyone with some type of disability. In 1987 Langner coordinated the compilation of a directory of resources for adults with disabilities. Rees (1988) has produced another directory on the resources available at various governmental levels.

These directories provide someone interested in the individualizing process with a good description of various federal and non-federal organizations which work in some way with LD adults, mobility impaired adults, deaf and hearing impaired adults, blind and visually impaired adults, mentally retarded adults, and mentally ill adults. They also provide descriptions of media services for handicapped, the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation (a post-secondary education program for handicapped), and a program of vocational rehabilitation for severely disabled. Similar directories, clearinghouses, or resource guides may be available to you as you seek assistance in adapting aspects of the individualizing process to your particular audiences.

Besides such resources, various individuals have provided some ideas or suggestions regarding the instructional process. Dailey (1982) believes that instruction for disabled adults requires considerable innovation, creativity, and new thinking about the teaching process.

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Fettgather (1989), for example, is concerned about the patronizing and condescending use of language that occurs due to a lack of sensitivity. A concern for many instructors, regardless of audience, is learning to use gender-free language. Thus, we suggest the need to think about language in preparing learning materials and experiences.

In the case of special audience adults, this includes becoming sensitized to the use of childlike labels for retarded adults, such as certain "nicknames (e.g., Little Ron) or collective terms (e.g., gang, kids) [that] may clearly characterize the adult student as a child. In some instances, informal versions of first names with with 'y' or 'ie' endings may subtly infantilize the adult student as well" (Fettgather, 1989, p. 4). This also can include using unusually high-pitched voices, speaking in "baby-talk," providing unnecessary assistance to slow responses, affectionate touching or patting, threats, or even criticisms. The North Carolina Council on Developmental Disabilities (n.d.) urges that words be chosen with dignity, with the person rather than the disability preferred:

Use: person who is blind

Use: hearing impaired

Use: physically disabled

Use: unable to speak, nonverbal

Use: person with epilepsy, person with a seizure disorder

Use: person with mental retardation, person who is mentally handicapped

Use: person with cerebral palsy

Use: person who has . . .

Use: person with Down's Syndrome (p. 2).

Any audience with whom you work may find various terms, labels, or gender specific pronouns to be demeaning or derogatory, so you should endeavor to learn what they are and avoid their use.

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The Council on Exceptional Children (Imel, 1986) has proposed four basic principles to be used in the development of educational programs for adults with disabilities. Although they are specific to a certain audience, in many ways the principles have applicability for many groups of learners:

  1. Individuals with disabilities should be respected as adults and their rights to make decisions about their education should be respected. Belief in the autonomy of the individual is an underlying principle of adult education and should be applied to all adults.
  2. Handicapped individuals should have available to them the wide range of programmatic options available to non-handicapped individuals. Adult education programs will need to ensure that there are no barriers to participation for handicapped individuals in the programs offered to the community.
  3. Handicapped individuals should be provided with educational programs on the same economic and administrative terms as are applied to nonhandicapped individuals. Any adjustments in these terms should be made on the basis of an individual's ability to pay, not on the basis of handicap and condition.
  4. Handicapped individuals should have the same benefits as the nonhandicapped when they participate in adult education. If necessary, facility and program adaptation should be made to achieve this result. (pp. 1-2)

Table 3 provides further suggestions for instructors of the disabled, several of which fit well within the various individualizing notions presented in earlier chapters and also have applicability to other audiences. We would add to such suggestions ideas presented earlier regarding the value of involving learners in assessing needs, the use of learning contracts, and the utilization of a variety of learning resources.

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Table 3. Techniques and Strategies for Teaching Learning Disabled Adults.

Technique or Strategy

Instructional Implications

Break learning tasks into small increments. Present material in a parced or sequential manner. Make shorter and more varied assignments. Break directions into steps that can  be presented one at a time. Deemphasize timed tests and provide additional time for task completion.
Sequence learning tasks. Build on acquired skills or knowledge only after ascertaining what levels have been achieved. Teach new concepts as concretely as possible. Relate new materials to life experiences whenever possible.
Provide frequent feedback. Let learners know periodically how they are doing in terms of quality and appropriateness of their learning. Provide activities that allow learners to experience small successes.
Use many sensory modalities (sight, sound, touch, and so on). Outline materials in more than one way (for example, written on a board or flip chart, presented orally, outlined in a handout, and so on). Use a variety of devices to present material. Help learners use their strongest sensory channels to obtain information. Teach to students' learning strengths (visual or auditory, for example, whenever possible. Provide opportunities for handling and touch materials when possible. Use color and color coding whenever possible.
Use direct approaches in presenting information Review new vocabulary, use a directed-reading approach, and establish purposes for all readings. Make announcements in both oral and written forms. Speak at an even speed, emphasizing and enumerating important points.
Manipulate the physical environment Encourage learners to sit where they can hear and see well. Ensure that physical comfort is as high as possible. Ensure that the learning environment is as free from sensory distractions as possible.
Enhance self-concept. Encourage learners who are self-conscious about talking in front of groups to  provide short answers. Provide opportunities for learners to repeat verbally what has been learned as a check for accuracy.

Adapted from Fluke (1988).

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Finally, it should be noted that just as for most audiences, technological advances are making the task of instructing learning disabled adults easier: "Several computer enhancements that permit wide access to educational resources have been developed for learners with disabilities. For example, voice recognition systems help students who cannot type but can vocalize sounds. . . . For people with visual impairments, there is access technology, which endows the computer with synthetic speech, enables the output to be produced in large print on the screen and from the printer, and produces output in braille. . . . For students with impaired learning, modems can be used to communicate with others, with or without learning impairments, over the phone. . . . Word processing programs, with their capacity to identify misspelled words, mistakes in punctuation, and grammar errors, should reduce the impact of these disabilities on the production of documents" (Carrier, 1987, p. 58).

The Older Adult as Learner

3. The growth of the elderly population in the United States (as well as many other countries) has been accelerating rapidly in the past two decades.

By the year 2000, it is estimated that at least thirteen percent of the U.S. population will be 65 years of age or older, and that percentage will climb to perhaps as high as twenty-two percent by 2030 (Fowles, 1984). Most older people also are reasonably healthy, have active minds, and enjoy being involved in various activities. Some enjoy volunteering like George Hammond whom we introduced earlier in the chapter, including as he did participating in the training required to be a successful volunteer (Hiemstra, 1987b). Some find great satisfaction by participating in senior citizen center activities, traveling, or working in part-time jobs. Others spend considerable time taking courses, carrying out independent study activities, or participating in specially developed learning experiences like elderhostel (Kinney, 1989; Knowlton, 1977).

An increasing number of educators spend a considerable amount of time working with the elderly in some type of instructional capacity. In addition, an increasing number of educational organizations are discovering the potential of the older adult as a learner and consumer of education in various ways. In fact, educational opportunities for the older learner

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have increased significantly in the past two decades (Fisher, 1986; Knowlton, 1977; Peterson, 1983; Sheppard, 1979).

Coinciding with this growth in numbers of elderly participating in learning activities has been an explosion of research on older adults as learners or participants in programs like the elderhostel. Such research has been of various types. It has often focused on some of the physiological problems adults face as they age, such as various visual or hearing losses. The research has ranged over a number of other areas, too, including how information is processed, an examination of short and long-term memory, intelligence measures, and life stages. Other areas of interest included cognitive or learning style development, the learning needs and activities of older learners, and life satisfaction.

It is clear that individual differences among older people do exist. The elderly simply cannot be treated or viewed as a single group; they should be viewed as heterogeneous, multi-dimensional in characteristics, and varied in terms of needs and abilities. Although some still stereotype the elderly in terms of learning ability or lump them all together as one group (Hauwiller & Jennings, 1981; Hiemstra, Goodman, Middlemiss, Vosko, & Ziegler, 1983; Kasworm, 1978), Arenberg and Robertson-Tchabo (1977) believe that some seventy year old adults will do as well or better than younger people as learners if various obstacles can be overcome.

There are various obstacles facing many older learners. Although there will be some problems specific to a location or economic group, some of the common obstacles include lack of transportation, lack of time, prohibitive costs, lack of confidence, negative stereotypes regarding education, and lack of knowledge about specific educational opportunities. A variety of health-related factors and a person's overall health status also can affect learning ability and activity. Fatigue, personal perceptions about declining health as a barrier, and declining hearing or visual abilities are some of these (Hiemstra, 1975). The resources section later in the book contains material that outlines several research findings and related instructional application suggestions for guiding older learners.

4. This growth in numbers of elderly and corresponding research on older adults and their learning abilities has resulted in various ideas about instructional needs.


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increased attention to providing education has obvious implications for teaching the older learner. For example, there are several instructional requirements just in recognizing the various visual and auditory changes that occur with age. Table 4 describes some of these.

Table 4. Visual and Auditory Changes with Age: Implications for Instruction

Visual or Auditory Condition

Normal Change Patterns

Instructional Requirements

Color intensity: Strength or Sharpness of a color Losses begin to occur from about Age 45 on. Don't depend on color coding and use sharply contrasting colors.
Depth perception: Ability to judge distances Declines begin as early as the late 30's. Be alert for adults who need to sit near the front of the class.
Presbyopia: Regression of eye's ability to focus on near objects Declines can begin as early as the 40's. Assure that learners can focus on and see all visual aids.
Sclerosis: Yellowing of lens Slow decline after age 50; causes light to become scattered. Ensure proper illumination, don't rely on color coding, and reduce glare.
Visual acuity: Visual ability and distinctness Sharp decline probably beginning the in 50's Be sensitive to visual needs, especially to whether a learner needs to be closer to learning materials.
Presbycusis: Impairment in sensori-neural hearing for both volume and high pitch Losses can become noticeable in the 40-55 age range. Be alert to hearing problems and to learners who need to be nearer the instructor; need may exist for sound enhancement or slower pace of speech.

We believe that individualizing the instructional efforts is often the best way to meet such physiological changes or other needs of the elderly in terms of any learning requirements. However, we are quick to point out that most of our experiences have been with the healthy older adult who has been quite capable of, and generally very interested in learning. If you work as an instructor of the frail,

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institutionalized, or home bound older learners, you will need to make some adjustments beyond what we describe in this chapter.

Fortunately, because a fair amont of attention has been given to teaching older adult learners (Hiemstra, 1980c), information and resources are available to assist you in making adjustments to your teaching approaches. Siebles (1988), for example, presents a directory of resources for older learners. Peterson (1983) has written an award winning book that provides considerable information on facilitating the learning of older adults.

Brockett (1985b) suggests that adult educators who work with the older learner can promote self-directed learning opportunities as a strategy for increasing their independence and life satisfaction. Hiemstra (1975, 1976b) also has determined that older adult learners prefer to take personal responsibility for their learning whenever possible.

On the other hand, not all learners are able to be self-directed at all times. For example, self-concept and self-confidence can decline when a person begins to experience various kinds of losses. Arenberg and Robertson-Tchabo (1977), Carpenter (1967), and Kuhlen (1970) all have found that a lack of self-confidence is a problem. In many instances, women have been found to be more anxious or to have lower self-concepts than men (Symposium, 1973). Jones (1979) noted that a learner's attitudes and self-concept perceptions may have as much effect as age on learning abilities. Other researchers who have examined self-concept of the elderly include Brockett (1984), Bolton (1978), and Goulet (1970).

Thus, it is important for facilitators to find ways of enhancing self-concept, self-confidence, and an ability to become self-directed. As Ripple and Laquish (1981) note, "Self-esteem appears to be a key variable in implementing educational interventions with older adults, and success of such interventions depends on supporting it, capitalizing on it, and building on it" (p. 9). Such advice has applicability to many of the learners with whom you may work.

Some lack of self-confidence may also have something to do with hesitancy, cautiousness, and reluctance to risk making errors for some older learners. Okun (1977) and Okun and DiVesta (1976) suggest that cautiousness tendencies in older adults can be motivation inhibitors.

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Lack of risk taking and a concern for accuracy also are thought to be learning obstacles (Botwinick, 1973; Canestrari, 1963, 1968). Obviously, the facilitator interested in the individualizing process needs to use various methods or approaches that minimize the possibility of making errors or of entering perceived high risk situations. It has been our experience that the individualizing approach often permits changing the level of risk from person to person depending on an assessment of each person's level of cautiousness.

Speed of recall and corresponding fears about making errors also can affect the instructional process. Several steps can be taken in relation to speed problems. For example, the time allowed for assessment instruments or for responses to queries can be made flexible and attention can be paid to how various learning activities are paced (Arenberg & Robertson-Tchabo, 1977; Labouvie-Vief, 1976). We also believe that facilitating self-paced learning whenever possible is important.

The facilitator's role is important, too, in terms of the speed of presenting information or expectations for a learner's response speed (Witte & Freund, 1976). Thus, if a facilitator allows for adequate response time, older learners normally will perform about as well as younger people (Eisdorfer, 1965).

Several researchers have cautioned against the use of traditional testing procedures for older learners (Guttman, 1984). For example, complicated experimental instructions have resulted in misconceptions that can create problems (Arenberg & Robertson-Tchabo, 1977). Similarly, complicated assignments, unclear task instructions from the teacher, and test anxiety (Kooken & Hayslip, 1984) may create the same problem in the classroom. The ways in which information is presented also appear related to cognitive performance (Arenberg, 1976).

Recognition rather than recall techniques, frequent feedback on learner progress, and self or peer-evaluation techniques are some of the suggestions that can be made regarding evaluation procedures (Eysenck, 1975; Knowles, 1980; Mullan & Gorman, 1972; Witte & Freund, 1976). Hulicka and Grossman (1967) suggest using review strategies as a regular part of a learning activity.

Techniques that employ concrete stimuli but that reduce stimulus discriminability and that avoid competition or too much complexity also have been recommended (Arenberg & Robertson-Tchabo, 1977). By interpreting research by Witte and Freund (1976) and

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discussion by Winn, Elias, and Marshall (1976), a corresponding suggestion can be made to use concrete learning stimuli and techniques which facilitate matching or associating related ideas and concepts.

Hultsch (1971) indicated that meaningfulness helped in remembering and recalling activities. Alpaugh, Renner, & Birren (1976) found a preference for clarity among older subjects. Speed of recognition also was tied to this concept by Eysenck (1975), as was cognitive performance (Gonda, Quayhagen, & Schaie, 1981). Norman (1973) urged that older learners be involved in organizing the content or material during the learning process to promote meaningfulness. Others working in this area included Calhoun and Gounard (1979) and Taub (1977).

Generally, many experts recommend that a variety of advanced organizing or cueing techniques are essential for efficient learning. Reviewing or visual analogies, instructor assistance in helping learners to integrate new information with old, and encouraging practice techniques also are important organizing means. The use of outlines, abstracts, summaries, prequestioning techniques, instructional objectives, and pictures or other visuals also is recommended. Hiemstra (1980c) provides two examples:

Remember, too, to consider the best ways of having learners interact with one another. For example, White and Hansen (1976) suggest that five to twenty people is the optimal size for small group work, with seven to ten the best number for good interaction and communication. They also suggest students should face each other and recommend the use of discussion groups for optimal interaction. Finally, it is important to limit the factors

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that may interfere with the ability of older learners to undertake effective learning, such as any number of distractions that may cause debilitating anxiety (Schaie & Strother, 1968).

Applications for Various Audiences

Obviously, it is up to you to determine what are the special limitations and strengths of your learners. This may require specific assessments on your part or there may be various organizations, resource guides, and clearinghouses that provide some helpful information. Once you have a better understanding of the people you will be instructing, you can begin to alter or adapt the individualizing process to your instructional situation as required.For example, this may involve your not using certain nicknames associated with your audience. You may need to remove any offensive words, terms, or gender-specific pronouns from your teaching materials. You should also look for prohibitive barriers your learners face, examine your views about pacing or grading, and learn to use such aids as mnemonic devices when they can be helpful.

Following are several questions regarding special areas of knowledge you may wish to examine to enable you to determine appropriate changes. You will be able to add more questions as you work on adapting the individualizing process to your instructional requirements.

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We believe the individualizing process can be used successfully with most audiences. However, it takes answers to some questions like those presented above. It also will require some adjustments based on your specific knowledge of the learners, your philosophy, and your trying out various aspects of the process to see which ones work best. Remember our urging in earlier chapters to try any part of the process at least three times to discover those aspects that work, which ones need to be changed, and which ones will need to be discarded or replaced.


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