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Falling through the cracks: rehabilitation services for adults with learning disabilities.

* Data concerning the vocational status of adults with learning disabilities (LD) (Buchanan & Wolf, 1986; Cobb & Crump, 1984; Fafard & Haubrich, 1981; Hoffman et al., 1987; White, 1985) suggest that they might benefit from the provision of vocational rehabilitation (VR) services. However, access to appropriate VR services may be a problem for many adults with learning disabilities. Until 1981, when the Rehabilitation Services Administration accepted specific learning disabilities as a medically recognizable disability, individuals with LD were not eligible for rehabilitation services solely on the basis of a primary diagnosis of learning disability; they were rejected for services unless they also had another disabling condition (Gerber, 1981; Rubin & Roessler, 1983).

Although legally available, VR may not be accessible to adults with LD for a variety of reasons. Varying LD definitions, diagnostic and eligibility procedures from state to state (Biller, 1988; Sheldon & Prout, 1985), and a possible reluctance to serve LD clients Miller, Mulkey, & Kopp, 1984) may make access to the VR system difficult for the LD population. Adults with LD and their families are no longer under the umbrella of Public Law 94-142. They may not be aware that they must seek and initiate services since VR is an eligibility rather than an entitlement program. In other words, adults with LD can only receive services if they meet VR eligibility requirements; they are not automatically entitled to receive free appropriate services based on their individual needs as they leave special education programs (Johnson, Bruininks, & Thurlow, 1987). An issue not addressed by the literature is whether adults with LD, families, and advocates have the information they need to successfully negotiate the VR system.

There are a few things we haven't known about adults with LD that relate directly to their ability to gain successful access to rehabilitation services and that have implications for the transition planning process. How much knowledge do they have of VR and their role in the rehabilitation eligibility process? What are the characteristics of adults with LD who do and don't apply for services? Of those who apply for services, what are the characteristics of individuals who do and don't gain successful access? Are clients with LD satisfied with the services they have received? If not, why not?

There is no information available on rehabilitation services as seen from the perspective of the adult with LD who is the primary stakeholder in the problem. The present study is a starting point for looking at the problem.


A pretested questionnaire was published in the January 1989 ACLD Newsbriefs, the national newsletter of the Association for Children and Adults with Learning Disabilities, now known as the Learning Disability Association of America. Self-identifted adults with LD reported their employment status, income and education levels, and living arrangements, in addition to their knowledge, perceptions, and experiences regarding the rehabilitation application/eligibility process.

Because of the possibility that ACLD respondents would be better informed and more successful than individuals who don't belong to this advocacy organization, questionnaires were also mailed to former public-school students who had received services for LD. Despite several mailings, however, distribution and sample size of the school-identifted group (n = 44) prohibited statistical comparison with the ACLD group (N = 3 53). Therefore, afl statistical information presented here pertains to the ACLD respondents.


ACLD respondents (N = 353) ranged from 16 to 67 years in age (mean age, 30.8; SD, 10.4). There were 197 males and 156 females from 45 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia; the sample was largely urban, with 46.9% living in cities with a population of at least 50,000.

When asked how they found out they had an LD, 46.1% said they were diagnosed in school and received special education services; 19.6% were diagnosed through a private clinic; and 6.7% through vocational rehabilitation, a college or university program, or an adult education program. The remaining 26.6% reported other ways of finding they had an LD; nearly one-third of these individuals said a child or sibling had been diagnosed and they recognized similar Symptoms in themselves.


ACLD respondents presented the following employment profile: employed full-time, 45.2%; employed part-time, 30.1%; and unemployed, 24.6%. This is in sharp contrast to the national unemployment rate of 7.0% reported by the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (Lowenstern, 1989). With regard to income, 44.7% received incomes of less than $7,000 per annum (equivalent to a 40-hour work week at minimum wage). On the other hand, it is notable that 10.9% earned over $35,000. Occupations included professional, technical, or managerial, 32.3%; clerical/sales, 21.2%; service occupations, 21.2%; other occupations including agriculture, machine trades, and bench or structural work, 15.5%. It was not possible to ascertain the occupations of 10.2% of the respondents who were employed.


Very few respondents (6.3%) had not attained a high-school education or its equivalent. In fact, 41.1% indicated their highest educational attainment included obtaining a high-school diploma, certificate of completion, or G.E.D., followed by 27% who also had received trade or technical training or an associate degree, 15.2% received bachelor's degrees, and 10.3% received advanced degrees. One fourth of the sample (24.6%) was currently enrolled in college or a trade school. There were significant differences in respondents' employment status according to whether or not they were enrolled in school ([X.sup.2] = 13.859, p = .001) with more full-time employment (51.0%) among persons not enrolled in school than among persons who were enrolled in school (27.9%) and higher unemployment (32.5%) and part-time employment (39.5%) among persons not in school than among persons enrolled in school (22.0% and 27.03%).

Living Arrangements

Living arrangements included living with parents or relatives, 40.4%; followed by living with a spouse, 30.4%; alone, 17.5%; other, 6.0%; and with a friend, 5.7%. This is in contrast to findings of the High School and Beyond study of more than 10,000 former public-school students (CA 19-26) where only 19.9% lived at home with siblings or with grandparents or other relatives (Sebring, Campbell, Glusberg, Spencer, & Singleton, 1987).

Access to VR

ACLD respondents were divided into three access groups: (a) those who did not seek rehabilitation services (n = 154); (b) an "unsuccessful access" group comprised of those who sought services and either were determined ineligible to receive services or were eligible but reported dissatisfaction with VR services received (n = 90); and (c) a "successful" group comprised of respondents who received services and did not state that they were dissatisfied (n = 97).


The primary limitation connected with this study pertains to the sampling method. Because there is no sampling frame of adults with LD from which a random sample could be drawn, there was no alternative but to use a nonrandom sample. In addition, respondents were self-reported to have an LD. However, the fact that individuals who belong to ACLD may be better informed than most adults with LD leads the author to conclude that perceptions/experiences with VR from this sample may be a conservative estimate of problems experienced by the actual LD population. Furthermore, theoretical or purposive samples are frequently used to generate theory when there is a need to identify the experiences and concerns of various audiences (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). According to Jacob (1989), sampling is driven by the need to gather the information required to develop theory. In this case, ACLD members are likely to be opinion leaders among individuals concerned about rehabilitation services for adults with LD and, therefore, constitute a valid sample.


Awareness of Availability of VR Services At least one third of the respondents who never applied for rehabilitation services were not aware of how to seek or initiate services; 49.1% of persons who didn't apply had never thought about applying; 34.5% didn't know how to apply; and 23% didn't know where VR offices were located. As one respondent stated: "I don't really know what it does for people, or the kind of people it serves, but I'd like to find out."

Relationships of Respondent Characteristics to Access to Rehabilitation Services

In order to determine if there were any significant differences between the three access groups with regard to the other independent variables, chi-square analyses were performed for the groups according to sex, employment status, enrollment in school, age (grouped), living arrangements, income, educational attainment, and hometown population. Information discussed in the three following sections is summarized in Table 1.

Respondents Who Never Applied for Services. Respondents who never applied for VR were older than the other two groups. More were employed full-time or part-time. This group had higher incomes (almost one fourth earned more than $35,000), as well as the largest number of professional, technical, and managerial jobs, and more bachelor's and advanced degrees. Nearly one half of this group lived with a spouse, and fewer lived alone than respondents in the other two groups. Based on this information, it would seem logical to conclude that people who never applied for VR services did not need them. This conclusion may not be warranted, however; although only 18% were unemployed, more than a third of the people in this group earned less than minimum wage, and 31% still lived with parents or relatives.

Respondents Who Were Ineligible or Dissatisfied. Compared to the other two groups, more persons in this group were unemployed (40%), had lower incomes (57% below minimum wage), depended on parents or lived alone (73%), and never went beyond high school (51%). Reasons for dissatisfaction appeared to relate to the client/counselor relationship. Several individuals felt counselors didn't understand LD and were not adequately trained to deal with clients with LD. Others complained of counselor attitudes/expectations; they felt counselors talked down to them and belittled their problems.

Another concern was related to vocational evaluation and assessment. Several persons in this group did not believe they were accurately evaluated. A third, closely related area of concern was an apparent mismatch between training and job placement and the client's interests and perceptions of his or her strengths and weaknesses. Dissatisfied respondents frequently reported placement in menial jobs. Several were not given funding for postsecondary education or other training. Others were placed in training programs without support for or regard to their needs.

One other concern may relate directly either to the availability of resources or to service priorities. Several clients were not given help in finding a job; four mentioned the need for job coaches. Others mentioned limited follow-up once they were placed into a job setting, or reported that VR did not deliver the services/training they promised.

Renpondents Who Received Services and Did Not Report Dissatisfaction. Persons who received VR services and did not report they were dissatisfied had two notable characteristics: They had more full-time and part-time employment (see Table 1) and more education beyond high school (59%) than persons who were dissatisfied (43%). However, there were several contradictions for this group. Although nearly one third were in the $10,000-20,000 income bracket and only 19% were unemployed, 52% still earned less than minimum wage. Although more people in this group lived with a spouse and fewer lived alone than respondents in the poor access group, nearly one half still lived with parents. The question at this point may be whether or not rehabilitation services were really helpful for these respondents in terms of successful outcomes.

Nevertheless, this group reported two reasons for their satisfaction. The first pertains to counselor attitudes; several reported their counselor had positive expectations for them. Among those who received satisfactory services, it also appeared that availability of adequate resources was a factor in their satisfaction. coaches. Others mentioned limited follow-up once they were placed into a job setting, or reported that VR did not deliver the services/training they promised.

Renpondents Who Received Services and Did Not Report Dissatisfaction. Persons who received VR services and did not report they were dissatisfied had two notable characteristics: They had more full-time and part-time employment (see Table 1) and more education beyond high school (59%) than persons who were dissatisfied (43%). However, there were several contradictions for this group. Although nearly one third were in the $10,000-20,000 income bracket and only 19% were unemployed, 52% still earned less than minimum wage. Although more people in this group lived with a spouse and fewer lived alone than respondents in the poor access group, nearly one half still lived with parents. The question at this point may be whether or not rehabilitation services were really helpful for these respondents in terms of successful outcomes.

Nevertheless, this group reported two reasons for their satisfaction. The first pertains to counselor attitudes; several reported their counselor had positive expectations for them. Among those who received satisfactory services, it also appeared that availability of adequate resources was a factor in their satisfaction.

Knowledge of the Rehabilitation Process

Respondents' knowledge of their role and rights in the rehabilitation process was measured by 14 items on the questionnaire based on regulations published in the Federal Register, Title 34 Part 361, State Vocational Rehabilitation Services. Reliability of this section, using the coefficient alpha method, was .858. Item analysis revealed that all items had at least a .30 point biserial correlation with the total score. Scores on this section of the survey were generally low across all groups of respondents (Mean score = 6.048, SD = 3.9). Table 2 presents respondents' performance on individual items. Scores on individual items revealed that 87.2% of respondents were not aware that state residency is not an eligibility requirement and three fourths did not know that there are no upper age limitations on rehabilitation services. Similarly, 69.3% erroneously believed that VR would pay all training costs for eligible clients, while 57.4% believed that VR would train them for whatever type of job they wanted to do. Only 41.5% knew they could refer themselves for services; 69.6% did not realize that they could appeal decisions at an eligibility hearing; and 53.1% erroneously believed that counselors could make an eligibility determination without talking to the client first.

Because of the possibility that demographic variables might be related to respondents' knowledge of the rehabilitation process, a number of hypotheses were tested to examine these relationships. Insufficient cell sizes limited the number of analyses performed to examine interactive effects of access groups and other independent variables on knowledge of the VR process to two three-factor ANOVAs. Effects of the remaining independent variables were analyzed through one-way ANOVAs. To control overall comparison error rate, significance levels for Bonferroni comparisons were set at .05/the number of comparisons. Comparisons of access groups indicated that, regardless of employment status, sex, and enrollment in school, there were significant differences between those who never applied for rehabilitation services and both groups of respondents who applied for services (p< .001), but no significant differences between the two groups who had applied for services. Persons who had never applied for VR knew significantly less about the rehabilitation process than did either group of individuals who had applied for services (p < .001). Similarly, respondents currently enrolled in school had significantly higher scores on knowledge of rehabilitation than persons who were not enrolled in school (p < .001), although there were no interactions between access group and enrollment in school. Significant differences were also found between respondents grouped by income and educational attainment levels. However, these differences were not interpretable because of apparent interactions between income, educational levels, and access groups which could not be tested because of insufficient cell sizes.


Awareness of Availability of VR Services Many persons who had never applied for VR services were not aware of the availability of VR; this subgroup also knew significantly less about the VR process than the other two access groups. There are several possible factors contributing to this phenomenon. First, respondents who had not applied for services were significantly older than the other two groups. In most states, adults with LD were not officially eligible for VR services until 1981. Therefore, VR services would not have been available to many adults with LD at the initial career phase of their lives.

Second, as indicated by several open-ended comments, respondents may not have received information about rehabilitation services while they were enrolled in high school. This may be due in part to poor interagency linkages and limited contact with rehabilitation while the student was enrolled in school (Hasazi, Gordon, & Roe, 1985; Kortering & Edgar, 1988). This explanation is supported by studies reporting limited emphasis in secondary education programs on vocational goals or transition to postschool settings (Cobb & Phelps, 1983; Okolo & Sitlington, 1986). A third factor may relate to research indicating that VR counselors do not actively seek LD clients (Miller et al., 1984), possibly because of limited success in rehabilitating clients with LD and discomfort with their own expertise in providing services to them.

Other respondents indicated that awareness of services is not the only issue. Even among individuals who were aware of rehabilitation services for people with learning disabilities, many did not wish to apply for services because of the stigma attached.

Finally, several respondents did not apply for services because they believed VR did not meet their needs. Some had already met their career goals and were successful. However, there were others who commented on the limited resources available for clients with learning disabilities.

Characteristics of the Unsuccessful Access Group

It is impossible to determine if the problems connected with this group are the cause of their poor success at obtaining appropriate rehabilitation services or a direct result of the poor services they received. Nevertheless, there are several hypothetical explanations.

Poor Employment Status. The first possible explanation is that individuals with more severe disabilities or those with limited social skills experience less success than more capable LD clients. There are no data to substantiate this view. Another explanation, lack of client/job match, may be more tenable. According to respondents' comments, many jobs obtained through VR were not geared toward the individual's strengths and weaknesses. This could be due to inadequate assessment of the client's learning disability or simply a lack of understanding of the disability on the part of the counselor. In the words of one individual, "I live with my parents because-since I started working at 18 (I'm now 24), I have had 15 jobs all which required the use of math, knowledge of right and left, and good eye-hand skills which I don't possess."

Several respondents reported a third factor that may contribute to high unemployment: limited help to VR clients in finding a job, and poor follow-up on the part of VR once a job has been obtained. A fourth explanation for poor vocational outcomes relates to the lack of transition services on the secondary level, limited vocational goals for secondary students with LD, and poor interagency cooperation between the public school and VR. This is confirmed by several respondents in this study. Finally, poor employment outcomes may be partially due to poor employer attitudes toward individuals with LD. While this study does not provide evidence to support or refute this contention, it certainly could contribute to low employment.

Low Income. One factor contributing to the low income of this group is that they were younger than the persons who never applied for rehabilitation services and, thus, had not had the opportunity to experience a significant work history. However respondents in this group are comparable in age to individuals who were able to successfully obtain VR services, so age alone is not an adequate explanation for low income. A more likely explanation is that persons who were dissatisfied with VR services were placed in unskilled entry-level jobs; these would naturally result in lower pay than they would receive in professional, managerial, clerical, or sales occupations. In fact, this group had the lowest percentage of persons in professional, technical, and managerial occupations (19.2%) and the highest in service occupations (31.9%). These data are substantiated by comments of the individuals who participated in this study.

Another possible explanation for placement in what clients considered demeaning or menial job training could be unrealistic expectations on the part of the client with regard to his or her capabilities. However, it appears that many of the respondents to this survey were aware of their limitations.

Education Levels. Persons who did not receive appropriate rehabilitation services may have had low education levels for one of two reasons. First, comments of several respondents indicate that VR is not likely to encourage higher education for clients with learning disabilities. The other reason for limited educational attainment may be related to putting students in college programs without providing appropriate support. For example, one person reported, "The rehabilitation staff did not understand or try to understand the disability. They enrolled me in a college-level program without providing any support. I failed, coming close to a breakdown."

This type of unsuccessful outcome may be due to the same reasons clients with LD may be placed in inappropriate jobs, that is, lack of understanding of the individual's learning disability on the part of the rehabilitation counselor, or poor assessment of the individual's strengths and limitations. A related problem may be the funding requirement that VR clients be enrolled as full-time students, thus carrying more courses than they are capable of handling.

Living Arrangements. Persons with unsuccessful rehabilitation experiences were more likely to live with parents or alone. This may be due in part to the other findings for this group: high unemployment, low income, and low education levels. On the other hand, it may also be partially explained by limited independent living skills, an area that was not explored in this study. A final explanation for the high number of individuals living at home pertains to eligibility. Several respondents reported they were ineligible because their parents' or spouse's incomes were too high.

Respondents Who Obtained Successful Access to Rehabilitation Services

More persons with successful VR services were employed than persons in the poor access group. This could be directly attributable to the VR services they received. In addition, more persons in this group received education after high school, which may be because VR funding was provided, at least for undergraduate degrees. hi several instances, respondents received postsecondary education or training with funding assistance from vocational rehabilitation. In at least one circumstance, a rehabilitation agency funded a client with LD for more than 4 years of postsecondary education. However, reports of this type of financial support were limited. With regard to living arrangements, very little information was available from this group to explain why more people lived with a spouse and fewer lived alone. Nevertheless, because more of these individuals are employed and have higher income levels, this finding is not surprising. The previous explanation about daily living skills is also tenable.

Knowledge of the VR Process by Access Groups

Although there were no significant differences in knowledge of VR between individuals who were satisfied and those who were dissatisfied or ineligible, even successful applicants were not especially knowledgeable, with a mean score of 7.7 out of 14 items. Comments by persons in the unsuccessful access group indicate that some respondents would have benefited from knowing more about how the eligibility process works. For example, the individualized written rehabilitation plan must contain the views of the individual with a disability concerning his or her goals and objectives and the vocational rehabilitation services provided, as well as an assurance that the individual has been informed of the means to express and seek remedy for any dissatisfaction.

Several people were denied services such as counseling, a job coach, or higher education. Had they been aware of their legal rights, these individuals could have legally objected to their VR program or perhaps could have negotiated more satisfactory services. On the other hand, knowledge that VR is not legally obligated either to pay all of an individual's training costs or to train clients for whatever job they desire might have eliminated some unrealistic expectations and subsequent dissatisfaction.


This study was conducted in order to generate data to build a theoretical base for the study of rehabilitation services for adults with LD. For this reason, and because of sampling limitations, recommendations are accompanied by suggestions for further research, with the data collected in this study serving as "theory" for future research.

Awareness of Rehabilitation Services

Although there were many respondents in this sample who did not need rehabilitation services, there was also a large number who wished to know more about vocational rehabilitation. Some information on rehabilitation is available for postsecondary students with disabilities through the HEATH Resource Center (HEATH, 1987). However, it appears that a concerted effort must be made to reach a wider audience. In addition, individuals with LD who apply for VR services need to be informed of their tights in the rehabilitation process. Research is needed to determine whether knowledge of the regulations guiding the VR process increases client satisfaction or improves client outcomes. We also need to examine the nature and adequacy of the information about VR services that students with LD receive while they are still enrolled in high school.

Secondary Programs for LD Adolescents

Secondary curricula should include information about postsecondary options. Interagency linkages between educators and service providers must be explored so that students exiting the schools are not left without services if they are needed. The student and family must be involved in vocational goal setting. An important role for educators is to help to establish present levels with regard to readiness for adult settings. At least by ninth grade, the student with LD should be an active participant in individualized education program (IEP) meetings. Preparation for postsecondary settings should be considered in the goals and objectives included in the IEP. Educators need to be aware of VR eligibility requirements for students still enrolled in school, as well as VR policies regarding funding and providing support services for post-secondary education of students with LD.

Information is needed regarding appropriate vocational/independent living components of secondary programs for students with LD and roles of VR counselors, teachers, and other professionals in the transition planning process. In addition, we need to identify the state of the art regarding: interagency cooperation between schools and vocational rehabilitation agencies, particularly with regard to implementation and monitoring of formal agreements between VR and the schools; types of cooperative programming in existence between schools and other agencies; and whether interagency cooperation leads to increased postschool services or improved employment/independent living outcomes.

Rehabilitation Programs

There appears to be an urgent need for properly informed and trained rehabilitation counselors. Preservice and inservice training should include characteristics of individuals with LD, appropriate assessment techniques, and intervention suggestions. This may be best achieved through the consultative services of special educators, school psychologists, and adults with LD. Rehabilitation staff need to recognize the contribution the client with LD can make toward his or her own rehabilitation. The individual adult with LD should be recognized as a source of information about his or her strengths, limitations, interests, and successful compensatory strategies.

Just as the question of eligibility for services is problematic in the public schools, it is also an issue in state rehabilitation agencies. Definitional issues and varying funding priorities have resulted in varying eligibility criteria and diagnostic procedures among state rehabilitation agencies. Rehabilitation professionals need to examine their assessment procedures and strive for more uniformity across geographical regions. Components of diagnosis should include the client's perceptions of his or her problems and how they interfere with employment. Technical merit of standardized tests used on adults must be scrupulously examined.

The empirical knowledge base concerning VR and individuals with LD is extremely limited. Research is needed regarding factors contributing to successful rehabilitation for clients with LD, as well as characteristics of programs with a high success rate for this population. For example, we need to determine whether client participation in choosing a training program increases success rate/satisfaction. Little information is available regarding the contribution of clients' perceptions of their own strengths/weaknesses in the assessment/training/placement process and subsequent outcomes. Similarly, information is needed on the effect of counselor training on successful VR outcomes.

Another area of concern pertains to the adequacy/appropriateness of services for clients with LD. We need to determine whether VR counselors provide adequate assistance to clients with LD in finding a job, sufficient follow-up once a job has been obtained, and whether, as suggested by respondents to this study, VR clients with LD are placed primarily, and perhaps inappropriately, in unskilled, entry-level jobs.


This study examined the knowledge and perceptions of adults with LD regarding vocational rehabilitation, as well as control variables which may have a bearing on their access to VR services. Knowledge of vocational rehabilitation was limited and many respondents expressed a desire for more information. Although persons who had never applied for VR services were older, had higher income and employment rates, and the largest number of professional, technical, and managerial jobs, more than a third of the people in this group earned less than the minimum wage, and 31% still lived with parents or relatives.

There was a large group of respondents who were either found ineligible for services or who received services and were dissatisfied. Dissatisfaction was reported in regard to counselor knowledge and training in the area of LD as well as attitudes and expectations toward clients with LD. Respondents also frequently expressed concern over inadequate vocational evaluation and assessment, and a mismatch between training and job placement and their interests, strengths, and limitations, with frequent placement in menial jobs. Respondents who received VR services and did not report dissatisfaction had more education beyond high school and higher employment, but they still had low income levels, and nearly one half still lived with their parents.

Research is needed to determine the state of the art regarding vocational rehabilitation and its relationship to secondary education for students with LD and to identify factors contributing to successful rehabilitation of clients with learning disabilities.


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Rubin, S. E., & Roessler, R. T. (1983). Foundations of the vocational rehabilitation process. Austin, TX: Pro-ed.

Sebring, P., Campbell, B., Glusberg, M., Spencer, B., & Singleton, M. (1987). High school and beyond: 1980 senior cohort, third follow-up. Washington, DC: Center for Education Statistics, U. S. Department of Education.

Sheldon, K. L., & Prout, H. T. (1985). Vocational rehabilitation and learning disabilities: An analysis of state policies. Journal of Rehabilitation, 5](1), 59-61.

White, W. J. (1985). Perspectives on the education and training of learning disabled adults. Learning Disability Quarterly, 8, 231-236.


JUDITH OSGOOD SMITH (CEC #305) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Education at Purdue University Calumet, Hammond, Indiana.

Manuscript received March 1990; revision accepted December 1990.

This research was supported by Grant #H023B8006 from the U.S. Department of Education.

Exceptional Children, Vol. 58, No. 5, pp. 451460. [C] 1992 The Council for Exceptional Children.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Council for Exceptional Children
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Date:Mar 1, 1992
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