Why I Became a Special Education Teacher After Struggling in School

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My world has always been more complicated than my sisters. We had the same opportunities, love and care from our parents, and each other. But I struggled. I struggled for as long as I can remember. Things that were easy for my sisters, took me hours to understand and complete. I felt I couldn’t catch a break. Hours spent sitting at the kitchen table with my mom reviewing and completing homework as my sisters were allowed to go about their lives… mine stood still as I completed work I just didn’t understand. I cried often and felt “stupid.”

It wasn’t until I was in ninth grade that my needs were examined more closely. It was determined that I have a learning disability involving automatic recall, memorization, and mathematical practices. I began receiving special educational services, like resource room, remedial math and English. These additions to my schedule leveled the playing field enough for me that I didn’t feel like as big of a failure. But the damage to my self-worth and confidence was done.

With this information my body calmed and things started to make more sense for me. I wasn’t “stupid,” I struggled because something in my brain wasn’t firing properly. Unfortunately my self-confidence was in the basement, and still as an adult I am struggling to build that confidence. I share this story because as an adult with a learning disability I have made decisions that have formed my life today. I went to college knowing I wanted no other child to feel as badly about themselves as I did. I knew with more supports from teachers I would have not felt so awful through most of my educational career.

I earned my Master’s in special education and have worked daily to build my students up to be the best they can be. No one should ever feel the way I did the first 18 years of my life. Like me, my students are not worthless, they are not “stupid,” they are not troublemakers. They deserve the best and that’s what I try to give them. I encourage them to discover what works for them and try things that push their comfort zones. Every day when they leave school with smiles on their faces, I know I have made a difference.

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They don’t cry because the work we don’t rush through is to hard. We work until we understand it. They don’t cry because they are being left in the dust, because we work until we understand it. They don’t cry because they are different from their peers, because we work to accept and love each other! My goal as a teacher is to build children to feel successful and worthy.

My students are the mighty and deserve every opportunity in the world to be their best. As an adult with a learning disability, teaching children with disabilities, I can relate to their struggles and advocate for their successes.

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Nonverbal Learning Disability Affects Me, but Does Not Define Me

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I grew up in a relatively large suburb just north of Boston, Massachusetts. I grew up in a typical middle class family. My father was a truck sales manager and my mother stayed home with my siblings and I.

My sister is two and a half years older than me. People would always describe her as exceptional. She was extremely intelligent and hit all of her developmental milestones early or right on time. By the time I was a toddler, my parents were very concerned that I had not hit those milestones the way she had. I did not walk until I was almost 18 months old. When I was in preschool, the teachers expressed further concern about issues such as my lack of concentration, being overly sensitive, and sometimes shying away from my peers. My parents were also concerned with how clumsy I was. I was constantly tripping over things and dropping things.

My preschool recommended occupational therapy to help combat some of these issues. It did help, and my parents thought we had turned a corner. The feeling was temporary, however, when it was thought I had begun to regress.

My parents were determined to get me help, despite the challenges they were going through at the time. My mother had just had my younger brother, so they were also dealing with a new baby at home. My parents had three children under the age of 5 that all needed the same amount of attention and care. Despite that, my parents had begun contacting doctors and specialists to figure out what was happening with me.

When it comes to testing, I’ve pretty much done it all. My parents had me tested for ADHD, autism, and OCD, among a myriad of other things. However, after all of that testing, my parents still did not receive an answer. By the time I began kindergarten, I was in OT three times a week and speech therapy twice a week. Although these services helped, the school system was reluctant to provide them to me because at the time I still did not have a concrete diagnosis.

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When I was almost 6 years old, my father took me to see yet another specialist in Boston. Although not much is known about NLD now, when I was tested for it  back in 1999, it was virtually unheard of. When the doctor presented this diagnosis to my parents, there was an overwhelming sense of relief. My dad described it as my “quirkiness.” My parents didn’t use the term nonverbal learning disability, as they felt I was too young at the time. The doctor did tell my parents it was not a “firm diagnosis” but it was the inclination she had.

The doctor recommended I continue the OT and speech therapy as well as other supports. I had received these “pull out” services throughout my entire time in grammar school. I received other supports such as a special seat cushion to help me stay alert during class, and was offered an Alphasmart device due to my very poor handwriting. Finally, I was in peer friendship groups to help with my social skills.

Growing up with these supports, I knew I was different; I just could not put my finger on what was “wrong with me.” My mother described it as extra help with math, or my father described it as quirkiness. I never knew I was living with a nonverbal learning disability.

The last week of sixth grade, in June 2005, I was in my speech and language session. The speech pathologist decided to describe NLD to me. I believe her heart was in the right place and she was just trying to educate me. I was in shock; I had no idea NLD existed, nor that I had it. It was a lot for a 12-year-old to take in. I was upset with my parents that it was kept a secret from me for so long. My mother was more upset than I was, I think. She wanted to tell me herself, because she knew how she wanted to explain it to me.

The rest of middle school was hard. I was bullied severely, and my social awkwardness and quirkiness did not help. In October 2005, I told my parents I felt suicidal. I was unable to grasp my NLD or some of the hurtful things the kids were saying to me. My peers were telling me that I should kill myself, and that no one would miss me.

My parents felt the public school environment was no longer right for me. They knew I needed a place where I could thrive and be the best I could be. My parents wanted to send me to a school for kids with learning disabilities like my own. However, my parents first wanted to get a “firm diagnosis.” In November of that same year, I was “officially” diagnosed with a nonverbal learning disability, as well as depression and anxiety disorders.

After what seemed to be a long and never-ending battle with the public school system, in May of 2006, at the end of my seventh grade year, my parents pulled me out of our public school system. Our school system had finally agreed to help pay to send me to a school for children with learning disabilities.

When I first started at the new school, I found it hard to fit in, and I thought my parents had wasted all their time, efforts, and money. I felt as though I couldn’t fit in anywhere. It wasn’t long before I started to make new friends and flourish.

It was hard for me to believe that when I graduated from high school, I was on the honor roll and I was able to give a speech in front of my peers. I talked about my journey, how it has affected me so far, and how I believed it would affect me in the future.

I have been going to college on and off since I graduated from high school. It is a big adjustment, and I think I may have bitten off more than I can chew. I am now 24 years old. I am working full time and pursuing my passion of writing. I am very blessed. I have a loving family, supportive friends, and a strong faith that keeps me going every day.

One of my future goals is to write for children with NLD and their families to know they are not alone, and that there is someone out there who is wants to help them. I know that I can do anything I set my mind to. NLD affects me, but does not define me.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

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How I Succeeded in College With ADHD and Learning Disabilities

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If you had told me when I was in second grade that I was going to work in the field of education, I would have laughed. My reaction would not result from any belief that education is humorous, but because at that time I was struggling in various areas of school. Furthermore, my struggles were not strictly academic; I was being bullied, told I was “stupid” and I was beginning to believe it. As the “space cadet” in my classes, I was thinking about what sport I was playing after school or how I was going to make it through the day without getting beaten up or mercilessly teased.

The bullying stopped in middle school, but the damage had been done. I believed the spiteful commentary that I was “stupid.” Luckily, I did have one blessing: friends on which I could rely and a solid set of social skills. Overall I was well-liked, and my friends didn’t judge me for any perceived lack of academic prowess.

As I moved through middle school and high school, I was in lower-level classes for kids with learning differences and ADHD. Additionally, I had a resource period every day where I would be expected to do my homework. I learned I was quite talented at asking my resource teachers for help and subsequently having them complete my assignments, while I sat back and thought I was “winning.”

As I was pushed through high school, I had a below average ACT score and GPA. My college counselor at school told me that if I wanted to go to college, I would need to go to a two-year school. She said I couldn’t get into a “real” college. This assertion further reinforced my continued low perceptions of my academic ability.

I ended up going to Curry College, a four year school outside of Boston with great learning support. I continued to thrive socially and stumble academically. I could not comprehend why I was struggling so much. It seemed that while I understood the content, my organization was non-existent. After being at Curry for three and a half semesters, I stopped going to class, avoided my tutor, was lying to my family about my grades and felt terrible about myself. I didn’t know what my friends were doing in college that I wasn’t doing. Before I knew it, I was told my sister was coming to pick me up.

The following semester, I enrolled at Chicago’s Roosevelt University. I started strong, but as the semester continued I became discouraged with my ability to sustain success. I isolated myself. Before long, I had withdrawn again.

At this point, I became completely lost and without direction. I had a couple mediocre jobs I didn’t remain at for long for various reasons. Eventually I found myself playing video games in my basement for days on end, avoiding friends and family because I didn’t know what was “wrong” with me. I felt like a failure.

As a 21-year-old, I was finally, properly diagnosed with ADHD in addition to my other learning issues. Some people might be bothered or upset with such a diagnosis, but for me that wasn’t the case. I was relieved at the possibility that I might be able to find the resources that I needed.

My mother, who has a Master’s degree in special education and is an independent educational consultant, was not surprised with this news. She had been asking since I was in elementary school about the possibility I could have ADHD. All the educational professionals, including a well-respected neuropsychologist, said no. After she heard the news, we started talking about next steps. Luckily for me, my mom was the perfect person to help me; she makes her living helping students with learning differences find the correct college or post-secondary placement.

I still remember when my mom asked me, “Do you want to go to college?” I was sitting in the basement with my arms crossed, head looking to the ground. I was miserable. With my eyes red and teary, I told her that I absolutely did. At that moment, I wasn’t sure about anything except that I could do college work and succeed.

By the winter of 2006, I was enrolled at Landmark College in their Bridge Program for students who have struggled at their previous college. Landmark College is in a tiny town in Vermont and only serves students with learning differences and/or ADHD. I felt this was my last chance; if I didn’t succeed here, I wouldn’t be graduating from college.

After three semesters, I found myself confident, successful, and utilizing new strategies I was taught. I was even telling friends I couldn’t hang out because I was going to the library. The library? I was allergic to the library my entire life and I was going there to work almost every day. I had never loved school until then. I was truly excited about learning and continuing to thrive.

In 2008 I transferred back to Roosevelt University. My hunger to learn continued. Not only was I doing well, but I helped Roosevelt University develop a peer mentoring program for incoming freshman who were at risk. Finally I had found success in school and could appreciate the skills I had gained. I still get chills thinking about the day I was sitting in the historic Auditorium Theater at Roosevelt University, listening to Chris Matthews give his commencement speech. I was reflecting on the journey I had taken to get to that point. Then I heard “Jordan Burstein.” I walked onto that stage with a huge smile on my face as I shook the hand of the president of the University and received my diploma. I looked into the crowd to see my mom shedding tears of joy or possibly relief. Her baby boy had done it! I was a college graduate.

It was the summer of 2010, and I was a new college graduate entering a brutal job market. I began working as a Mental Health Specialist at a psychiatric unit on the north side of Chicago. With the exception of working 12-hour shifts and starting on the night shift, I loved that job. I was good at it, too. I was great with patients and really enjoyed talking to them and helping them through road bumps in their lives. Working with mentally ill people provided me with invaluable experience.

After working there for three years, I had learned so much but I was ready to move on. I talked with my mom about where to go from there. She asked me to join her practice. My particular academic journey would allow me to bring a true understanding of the importance of a positive academic experience.

Now, like my mother has for the last 15 years, I work with high school students applying for college. However, I also work with younger students who are struggling in their current academic placement. Occasionally I find myself slipping back into the same timid kid who lacked confidence, but I am always able to remind myself of how hard I have worked to get to where I am today. I am a thriving partner in a business, and am working with students who are in the same place I was 13 short years ago. My experience and insight into the students with whom we work allows me not only to help students find good matches, but also to help them understand how much college differs from high school.

I can’t believe I was the kid in the basement, lost in life, directionless, and now I am helping students find their way. My journey was not completely enjoyable, but I gained invaluable knowledge because of it. I wouldn’t exchange my life for an easier, more conventional path.

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The Question I Hate Most as a Person With Nonverbal Learning Disability

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We live in a society that believes in personal responsibility. Many people feel that amount of effort and result are always completely and directly correlated. If something you do doesn’t meet an accepted standard of “good enough,” then you have “failed” and it’s all your fault.

In most cases, I agree. It’s the philosophy I was raised with, and I can see that it’s generally true. However, when it comes to disabilities, this idea can fall short.

I have nonverbal learning disability. It’s a condition similar to autism.  It includes some autism symptoms, and also comes with executive function and visual spatial difficulties, learning disabilities, and motor skill and balance problems.

Nonverbal learning disability means the effort I put into things is almost never reflected in my result. Whether it’s a grade, a test score, or a task, my best efforts always seem to equal “failure.”  Considering that I grew up undiagnosed, being blamed for my constant “failures” means my self-esteem has taken a major beating. I’ve lost count of the number of times that a frustrated authority figure has asked me “Well, how hard did you really try?” I have serious problems with this “question.” Not only is the phrasing incredibly rude, but it’s not really a question, and there is no right answer.

My amount of effort, like my disability, is invisible, but that doesn’t mean either is nonexistent. If anything, I try harder than everyone else because I have to work that hard just to get by. I’m doing the best I can, but it feels like I can’t make anyone believe that.

Often people aren’t asking how hard I tried, just stating outright that I didn’t. They accuse me of choosing to fail, and saying if I had only tried harder, I would’ve done better. As much as I wish this were the case, it’s not always. Since this is a statement rather than a question, there isn’t a right answer. If I lie about how long or hard I actually worked, then I failed because it obviously wasn’t enough. If I tell the truth, they say the work should never take that much time or effort, so I’m obviously exaggerating. Even though there is no right answer, I’ve come up with a few:

Sarcastic answer: Harder than I’m trying not to slap you for asking.
Real answer: Harder than you’ll ever understand.
Truth: It doesn’t matter, because it will never be enough.

I believe the answer people want is for me to agree that they’re right. I’m supposed to admit that I
didn’t really try, take full responsibility for my failure, and never let it happen again.  Unfortunately, the answer they want isn’t one I can give. I did the best I could, I did try, and I refuse to agree that I didn’t.

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What I Wish Others Understood About Nonverbal Learning Disability

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When I was diagnosed with nonverbal learning disabilities, I was living in a youth psychiatric ward due to suicidal ideation. Everything was confusing me; I felt drowned by life itself. For my first 18 years, I had taken in all aspects of the world with alternative comprehension. This was not comprehended.

Nonverbal learning disabilities are still widely unknown, but it it is a disability that can alter your entire perception and experienced reality of the world. It is not outwardly apparent, and those with it are often overlooked and can easily feel lost without proper help.

I never knew there were reasons that could explain why I struggle. But even before my diagnosis, I identified what I thought might be a difference. Without access to help, research or a wide enough recognition of NVLD’s existence, I had no hope of finding an answer of any kind.

NVLD can create communication barriers — with others, and most frustratingly, within yourself. Because I lived for so long with social and emotional differences I couldn’t understand, and wasn’t physically able to communicate, I’ve always had anxiety, and I developed depression at a very young age.

At 17, I wrote the following about my confusion. I wrote it few months before being admitted into a psychiatric ward, and a few months before being diagnosed with NVLD.

Symptoms of depression often list a poignant tendency toward slow melancholy. I can make sense of that as a truth I’ve encountered, but I find what adds the heaviest struggle to my days is compressed and fluttering fear. A general fear for life is just part of this condition of being me. It is very hard to want to live when anything containing excitement and life causes a flooding overflow of incapability. I find the levels rise in response to more and more. How can I be “too” excited? How can I feel oncoming combustion from what should make me happy?

And what confuses me most is — I’m not even happy, not even excited, and not currently living a lively life. And yet I instantly back away from anything of interest to me. Stories I know I’ll like, activities I know appeal to me — everything within me tells me that by approaching any closer, I’ll spoil it all. I often notice it with subjects built upon skill. I feel I’ll never know enough to succeed in the way I’d wish to, and can’t bring myself to practice or study. I feel there is too much I don’t know, and a constantly growing amount that I can never know. It all rushes around in a painful, shocking kind of electric excitement, and instantly I want out of it all. My general intake overflows and it all seems too far away, too unattainable, too painful to attempt to grasp and comprehend.

Why? Why does life promote such fear? I thought I valued learning and joy and embraced the open possibilities life brings. But these are the very things that drown me. I heard about an analogy used to visualize anxiety; it was to think of a cup holding water as a level of anxiety. Everyone has a cup, but everyone’s water level is different. Some people’s levels start higher up due to a chemical imbalance — an anxiety disorder. These individuals also find their levels increase faster than others. Some anxiety-inducing situations leave a lasting effect; this could alter anyone’s resting level and make them more susceptible to overflow.

I feel like what I’m experiencing is a constant state of “filled to the brim.” Filled to the brim with anxiety, with stimuli, with life. My cup is ready to pour over at the appearance of anything “extra” — good or bad. Too much is too much. I often hear the advice “listen to your heart.” But I think what my heart wants is some silence. When I listen to my heart it says everything is too loud, it says it is too tired and it says it would be nice to be able to stop.

I was so confused by my confusion. Now, after rigorous testing, I know there’s a name and reason behind the alternative process my brain undertakes when attempting to understand, analyze or merely passively experience. It’s easy to see now that my whole written reflection and confusion about confusion was my way of depicting the maze my unidentified learning disability had created for me.

A nonverbal learning disability is primarily characterized by a large discrepancy between verbal and nonverbal skills. This combination creates comprehension challenges because the brain can’t communicate with itself in a timely manner; it’s processing information at two different speeds. For me, it’s two very different speeds. My verbal skills listed in the 99th percentile, my non verbal ones in the 12th. Those numbers were the concrete proof I had to indicate a reason why I always struggle to interpret myself and my surroundings. The verbal part of my brain that depicts truth through language is unable to work collaboratively with nonverbal spatial and visual intake.

Because the discrepancy is such a drastic one, it affects my working memory. Learning this information was a really important part of finding an answer. Working memory was described to me as a shelf your brain uses to place current information it is processing and comparing. Because my brain goes at two very different speeds, this shelf is extremely small. It has, say, 3 spaces instead of 15. It means my verbal skills can’t work to their potential and get very tired and frustrated attempting to cross-analyze with what they expect should be there, but isn’t because the nonverbal equivalent isn’t there to hold up its end. It is the ultimate recipe for instant overflow.

I live in constant fear of overflow. It’s not comparable to the definition of “overwhelm;” it feels like a bursting flame of frustration and hopelessness. It arises whenever I need to handle more items than I can hold on my shelf — emotional, constructional, analytical, social. All at once I identify more circuits of understanding than my shelf can hold, and at the same time, I know I can’t even hope to untangle them into an order. The overflow is a drowning breathlessness from the prospect of connecting it all, but running out of energy and air before being able to start laying it out. It is wanting to die because of life; it is suffocation because of breathing.

In the past year, I’ve seen how crucial communication can be. When mixed with mental illness, a lack of communication skills can be life-threatening. Because of NVLD, I sat in complete silence with every counselor I ever had. I experienced that same overflow of information I was unable to process. Now that I know I have NVLD, it makes sense that the process of interpreting nonverbal emotions into a verbal structure is one of the hardest things for me.

NVLD deserves research and wider awareness. NVLD no matter what support is available to you, if you can’t communicate, you have no choice but to live trapped in solitary isolation. NVLD research matters because it’s a disability that can cause a fear of living while simultaneously creating an inability to communicate. NVLD matters because it is a disability that can affect the entire outlook and world experience of those who have it. With more knowledge, I’m sure this experience could be made into a better one, rather than a harsher one.

My hope is that one day, this disability will be more widely recognized, and kids who see things as I did will be given help and an explanation.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.

This story was originally written for The NVLD Project.

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When a Professor Said My Accommodations Were 'Unfair' to Students Without Disabilities

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Being an aerospace engineering major has been expectantly difficult, in unexpected ways. I knew this would be a hard career path for me to follow. As a woman, I have experienced sexist behavior in my flight training before and predicted its presence in this male dominated degree as well. I have a type of dyslexia, called dyscalculia, that effects the way I see and work with numbers. So, I anticipated my disability would cause me to struggle while studying rocket science as well. However, I never would have thought simply having a disability would cause such an issue.

Because of my disability, I get certain accommodations from my university. I am allowed a calculator on every exam, I get extended time on exams and take them in a reduced distraction room that is separate from the rest of my class. These accommodations are meant to aid in “leveling the playing field,” so to speak, and every professor is legally required to provide them. Even though they must provide them, not all my professors have been happy about it.

A little over a year ago, I was discussing my accommodations before an upcoming exam with a professor of mine. Even though he signed the agreement to the accommodations from the university, he was still confused about the whole thing. He then proceeded to express his feelings of how my accommodations were “unfair to the other students.” I knew then that the semester was going to be an uphill battle.

It seemed as though at every opportunity, my professor made taking the class more difficult for me. I tried to avoid setting up my accommodations with him and sought out help from the graduate teaching assistant (GTA) instead. Before the next exam, I was discussing the accommodations with the GTA when my professor interrupted us just as I was reminding him that my extended time is double the class time. My professor informed me that he wasn’t required to give me the double time for my exam and he would consider the extension.

A wave of anger washed over me. I reminded him of the contract he signed and that he legally must provide the accommodations. I panicked and tried to calculate my exam time with my start and stop times. I struggled with it as mental math is something my disability greatly affects but I had to make sure I was being provided for since my professor wasn’t. Luckily, he allowed for the correct amount of time, out of the kindness of his heart, I’m sure.

Eventually, the final came. Throughout the semester, I would typically start my exams at the same time as the rest of the students and go longer. For the final, I was worried this would cause a problem for me. I had another final for a different class shortly afterwards and felt as though that did not give me enough time to prepare for the next exam. So I proposed to my professor that we start my final exam 30 minutes earlier.

He dragged his feet over this trivial matter of just 30 minutes. First, he couldn’t do that because he arrives on campus at 8:00 and not 7:30. He told me starting that early was a lot of effort and he just didn’t see how it would be worth it. So, I suggested the GTA proctor it instead. That wasn’t acceptable either. I then recommended that the department secretary provide it. That also wouldn’t work because the department office opens at 8:00 and not 7:30. He eventually told me he would think about coming in at 7:30 and he would let me know.

I did end up taking my exam 30 minutes earlier, but my professor never let me know of his decision. I was left guessing at which time my exam was until that morning. I showed up at 7:30 just to be safe and caught him right outside his office.

My professor’s actions left me feeling isolated and as though my aptitude was not up to the standardss of someone who truly belongs in engineering. This experience further increased my depression and anxiety as well. My university had failed me by failing to train their faculty. I have since learned that faculty members are not required to take any kind of training from the university regarding students with disabilities.

After this experience, I have since advocated my own concerns and ideas for improvement to several campus officials. Despite some positive reactions, I feel as though not much has changed. Even in this current semester I have experienced discrimination. When explaining to a professor that I am training a service dog that will start coming to class, he inquired if I have asked the rest of the students if they were OK with me bringing a dog. He suggested that the class vote on the matter, as he thought it might be distracting to everyone else.

What will it take for my university to start listening to my concerns and train their professors? When will I be provided what I need to be successful without it being a question of fairness to those without disabilities?

After the comment about my service dog, I went to the office that provides the accommodations for students with disabilities. They were shocked about what had happened and informed me of my options. They also notified my department chair and he finally agreed to mandatory training at the next faculty meeting, something I had previously suggested with no results.

After the mandatory training, I have been able to bring my service dog to aid with my depression and anxiety symptoms, and receive my accommodations for dyscalculia without much struggle. There is always room for improvement, however, and I will continue fighting for it.

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