Special Education Vs General Education – Understanding The Key Differences

The post explores the distinctions between special education and general education, shedding light on the unique features of each. In this insightful post, we delve into the fundamental contrasts in teaching approaches, curriculum adaptations, and support systems. By analyzing these differences, readers will gain a comprehensive understanding of the two educational models, empowering them to make informed decisions for themselves or their children with special learning needs.

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This article provides a comprehensive overview of two pivotal educational frameworks: special education and general education. Special education is a tailored instructional approach designed to meet the unique needs of students with disabilities.

It encompasses a range of services and supports, ensuring that these students receive equitable access to education.

Special Education

General education, on the other hand, refers to the standard curriculum and teaching methods used in schools for the wider student body.

It aims to deliver a broad-based education that meets the general learning requirements of most students. The purpose of this article is to delve into and contrast the fundamental distinctions between special and general education.

By examining their respective methodologies, objectives, and student experiences, we aim to clearly understand how each system operates and their crucial role in the educational landscape.

What Is Special Education?

Special education is a branch of education designed for students with diverse learning needs due to physical, mental, emotional, or developmental disabilities.

Its primary goal is to provide these students with personalized instruction and resources. This ensures they receive an equitable education tailored to their specific challenges and strengths.

Special education encompasses a range of services, from modified classroom settings to specialized teaching methods and materials.

It also includes individualized education programs (IEPs), which are custom plans created to address each student’s unique needs.

These programs are often developed by a team of educators, parents, and specialists, focusing on creating an optimal learning environment for the student.

Special education is not a one-size-fits-all approach; it varies greatly to suit the individual requirements of each student, aiming to help them achieve their full academic potential and foster their overall development.

Purpose And Goals

The purpose and goals of special education are multifaceted, primarily focusing on addressing the unique learning needs of students with disabilities. The key objectives include

Personalized Learning

To tailor educational strategies and materials to each student’s needs, ensuring they can learn effectively despite their disabilities.

Equitable Access to Education

To guarantee that students with disabilities have equal opportunities to education as their peers in general education.

Skill Development

To help students develop academic skills as well as life skills, enhancing their ability to live independently and contribute to society.

Fostering Inclusivity

To promote an inclusive environment where students with disabilities are integrated as much as possible into the general education setting, encouraging social interaction and understanding.

Supporting Individual Strengths

To identify and nurture the individual strengths and talents of each student, fostering a sense of achievement and confidence.

Preparing for Future Success

To equip students with the necessary skills and knowledge for further education, employment, and adult life.

Collaborative Approach

To involve a team of educators, specialists, and families in developing and implementing Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) that cater to each student’s needs.

Target Student Population

The target student population for special education primarily includes individuals with various disabilities that impact their ability to learn in a traditional classroom setting. This population typically encompasses students with the following:

  • Learning Disabilities: Such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia, which affect reading, math, and writing skills.
  • Intellectual Disabilities: Including Down syndrome and other conditions that impact intellectual development and cognitive functioning.
  • Emotional and Behavioral Disorders: Like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety disorders, or conduct disorders, which can affect a student’s behavior and emotional regulation.
  • Physical Disabilities: Including mobility impairments, cerebral palsy, or other conditions affecting physical capabilities.
  • Communication Disorders: Such as speech and language impairments, which impact the ability to communicate effectively.
  • Sensory Impairments: These include visual and hearing impairments, which require special accommodations for learning.
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): A developmental disorder affecting communication, behavior, and social interaction.
  • Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI): Injuries affect brain function, learning, and behavior.
  • Multiple Disabilities: Students with more than one of the above conditions require a more complex approach to education.

What Is General Education?

General education refers to the standard curriculum and teaching methods offered in schools, designed to serve the broad educational needs of the majority of students.

This educational approach focuses on delivering a comprehensive education that encompasses a range of subjects, including mathematics, science, language arts, social studies, and often physical education and the arts.

Key aspects of general education include:

  • Standard Curriculum: A set curriculum that aligns with educational standards and guidelines set by educational authorities. It aims to provide a well-rounded education to all students.
  • Diverse Student Body: General education classrooms typically consist of students with a wide range of abilities and backgrounds but without significant disabilities that require specialized educational approaches.
  • Teaching Methods: Teachers use a variety of instructional strategies suitable for a diverse group of students. These methods are designed to address the learning needs of most students in the class.
  • Assessment and Evaluation: Standardized testing and other assessment forms commonly measure student progress against the set curriculum and learning objectives.
  • Preparation for the Future: General education aims to equip students with foundational knowledge and skills necessary for higher education, employment, and responsible citizenship.
  • Social Development: It provides opportunities for social interaction, teamwork, and developing interpersonal skills in a diverse environment.

Broad Objectives

The broad objectives of general education revolve around providing a foundational educational experience that prepares students for a well-rounded life. These objectives include:

  • Developing Core Skills: Focusing on essential academic skills in areas like reading, writing, mathematics, science, and social studies to build a solid educational foundation.
  • Encouraging Critical Thinking: Cultivating the ability to think critically and solve problems, enabling students to analyze and approach various situations effectively.
  • Promoting Cultural Literacy: Exposing students to diverse cultures and perspectives, fostering understanding and respect for different backgrounds and views.
  • Preparing for Higher Education and Career: Equipping students with the knowledge and skills necessary for success in higher education and future careers.
  • Fostering Social Skills: Encouraging social interaction, teamwork, and collaboration, which are vital for personal and professional relationships.
  • Supporting Personal Development: Aiding in developing personal values, ethics, and responsibility, contributing to well-rounded character development.
  • Encouraging Lifelong Learning: Instilling a love for learning and understanding its ongoing importance throughout life.
  • Technological Proficiency: Ensuring students are adept with current technologies, preparing them for the modern, digitally connected world.

Target Student Population

The target student population for general education encompasses a wide range of students, typically without the need for specialized educational interventions. This group includes:

  • Diverse Academic Abilities: Students with a broad spectrum of academic skills and levels, from high achievers to those who may need occasional support.
  • All Ages and Grades: Students from early childhood through secondary education, encompassing all age groups and grades in the standard school system.
  • Cultural and Socioeconomic Diversity: A mix of students from various cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds, reflecting the diversity of the broader community.
  • Typically Developing Students: Those who do not have significant disabilities that would require specialized educational services like those offered in special education.
  • Students with Minor Learning Challenges: Includes those who might occasionally need extra help or tutoring but do not qualify for special education services.

Special Education Teaching Methods

Special education utilizes a variety of teaching methods tailored to meet the unique needs of each student. Key approaches include:

  • Differentiated Instruction: Adapting teaching methods and materials to suit different learning styles and abilities.
  • One-on-One Instruction: Providing individual attention to address specific learning challenges.
  • Use of Assistive Technology: Employing devices and software to support learning, such as speech-to-text programs or audiobooks.
  • Behavioral Interventions: Implementing strategies to manage and improve challenging behaviors.
  • Multi-sensory Teaching: Engaging multiple senses to enhance learning, especially beneficial for students with learning disabilities.
  • Collaborative Teaching: Involving special education and general education teachers to support students in inclusive classrooms.
  • Life Skills Education: Teaching practical life skills alongside academic subjects essential for students with significant disabilities.

Individualized Education Programs (IEPs)

IEPs are central to special education. They involve:

  • Customized Learning Goals: Setting specific, measurable objectives based on the student’s needs.
  • Team Collaboration: Involving teachers, parents, and specialists in creating and reviewing the IEP.
  • Regular Assessments: Continuously assess the student’s progress and adjust the IEP as needed.
  • Specialized Services: This includes speech therapy, occupational therapy, or counseling in the IEP.
  • Transition Planning: Preparing older students for post-school life, including higher education or employment.
  • Legal Framework: Ensuring compliance with educational laws and regulations that protect students with disabilities.

Specialized Teaching Techniques And Tools

Special education employs specific techniques and tools, such as:

  • Visual Aids: Using charts, graphs, and pictures to aid understanding.
  • Structured Learning: Creating a predictable and organized learning environment.
  • Augmentative Communication: Supporting non-verbal students with tools like picture boards or electronic devices.
  • Task Analysis: Breaking down tasks into smaller, manageable steps.
  • Positive Reinforcement: Encouraging desirable behaviors through rewards and praise.
  • Adapted Materials: Modifying textbooks and other materials to suit individual learning needs.
  • Sensory Integration: Incorporating activities that help regulate sensory input.

General Education Teaching Methods

General education methods are diverse and include:

  • Lecture-Based Instruction: Delivering information through teacher-led lectures.
  • Group Work: Encouraging collaboration and teamwork among students.
  • Hands-On Learning: Using practical activities to enhance understanding.
  • Technology Integration: Incorporating digital tools like tablets and educational software.
  • Differentiation: Modifying instruction to meet diverse learning needs within the classroom.
  • Critical Thinking Exercises: Encouraging analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of information.
  • Project-Based Learning: Engaging students in projects that require extended investigation.

Standardized Curriculums

Standardized curriculums in general education feature:

  • Uniform Learning Objectives: Setting consistent educational goals across schools.
  • Benchmarks and Standards: Aligning curriculum with state or national educational standards.
  • Scope and Sequence: Providing a structured outline of what is taught and when.
  • Assessment Alignment: Using standardized tests to evaluate student learning against the set curriculum.
  • Curricular Materials: Utilizing textbooks and resources that are consistent across schools.
  • Continuous Updates: Regularly revising the curriculum to reflect educational trends and societal needs.

Typical Classroom Strategies

Typical strategies in general education classrooms include:

  • Direct Instruction: Delivering content in a straightforward, teacher-centered manner.
  • Interactive Learning: Engaging students through discussions, questions, and interactive activities.
  • Formative Assessments: Using quizzes and other assessments to gauge learning and guide instruction.
  • Classroom Management Techniques: Implementing strategies to maintain an effective learning environment.
  • Incorporating Diverse Perspectives: Ensuring the curriculum reflects diverse cultural and historical viewpoints.
  • Homework and Practice: Assigning work outside of class to reinforce learning.
  • Feedback and Revision: Providing constructive feedback and opportunities for students to improve their work.

Special Education Classroom Environment

Special Education

Special education classrooms are tailored to create a supportive and effective learning environment. Features include:

  • Customized Layout: Rooms are arranged to accommodate mobility aids and minimize distractions.
  • Sensory-Friendly Design: Incorporating elements like soft lighting or quiet areas to cater to sensory sensitivities.
  • Accessible Facilities: Ensuring that classrooms are accessible for students with physical disabilities.
  • Positive and Encouraging Atmosphere: Fostering an environment that is nurturing and supportive.
  • Clear Routines and Structures: Establishing predictable routines to provide a sense of security and stability.
  • Collaborative Spaces: Areas for one-on-one instruction or small group activities.
  • Safety Considerations: Prioritizing safety with features suited to students’ physical and behavioral needs.

Smaller Class Sizes

Smaller class sizes in special education have several advantages:

  • Individualized Attention: Each student receives more personalized guidance and support.
  • Enhanced Participation: Students feel more comfortable participating in smaller, less intimidating settings.
  • Customized Instruction: Teachers can tailor lessons more effectively to individual needs.
  • Improved Behavior Management: Easier to manage and respond to behavioral issues.
  • Stronger Relationships: Fostering closer bonds between teachers and students.
  • Flexible Pacing: Ability to adjust the pace of teaching based on student needs.

Specialized Equipment And Resources

Special education classrooms often feature specialized equipment:

  • Assistive Technology: Devices like speech-generating tools or Braille readers.
  • Adaptive Furniture: Wheelchair-accessible desks, ergonomic seating.
  • Therapeutic Equipment: Items for occupational or physical therapy.
  • Visual Aids: High-contrast materials, large print texts for visually impaired students.
  • Sensory Tools: Objects to help with sensory regulation, like fidget toys or sound-proof headphones.
  • Teaching Materials: Customized or modified educational resources.

General Education Classroom Environment

General education classrooms are structured to accommodate a more extensive and more diverse student body:

  • Standardized Setup: Traditional classroom arrangement with desks and a central teaching area.
  • Interactive Technology: Use of smartboards, projectors, and computers.
  • Diverse Learning Materials: Textbooks and resources that cover a wide range of topics.
  • Group Work Areas: Spaces designated for collaborative projects and group learning.
  • Decorations and Displays: Walls are often adorned with educational posters, student work, and instructional materials.
  • Safety and Accessibility: Basic safety features and access for students with minor disabilities.

Larger Class Sizes

In general education, larger class sizes have several characteristics:

Diverse Interactions

Opportunities for students to interact with a wide range of peers.

Standardized Teaching

More reliance on uniform teaching methods to address the group.

Classroom Management Strategies

Teachers employ techniques to manage larger groups effectively.

Peer Learning

Students often learn from each other through group activities and discussions.

Variability in Engagement

Challenges in ensuring all students are equally engaged and supported.

Diverse Student Needs Within A Standard Framework

General education classrooms cater to a range of student needs:

  • Inclusive Education: While following a standard curriculum, efforts are made to include students of different abilities and backgrounds.
  • Differentiation: Teachers modify instruction to address various learning styles within the classroom.
  • Cultural Responsiveness: Acknowledging and incorporating diverse cultural backgrounds in teaching.
  • Balancing Individual and Group Needs: Striving to meet individual student needs while teaching to the group.
  • Assessment Variety: Using a range of assessment methods to evaluate student learning across different abilities and styles.

Special Education Curriculum

The curriculum in special education is tailored to meet the unique needs of each student:

  • Individualized Goals: Based on the student’s abilities, challenges, and IEP objectives.
  • Functional Curriculum: Often includes life skills alongside academic subjects.
  • Adaptive Learning Materials: Customized resources to facilitate learning.
  • Multi-disciplinary Approach: Collaboration with therapists and specialists.
  • Inclusive of Sensory and Motor Needs: Incorporating sensory integration and motor skills development.
  • Flexibility: Continuously adjusted based on student progress and needs.

Adaptations And Modifications

Adaptations in special education include:

  • Content Modifications: Simplifying or altering the curriculum content.
  • Alternative Communication: Using sign language, symbols, or technology for non-verbal students.
  • Flexible Assessment Methods: Tailoring evaluations to suit individual abilities.
  • Pacing Adjustments: Allowing students to learn at their own pace.
  • Environment Alterations: Modifying the classroom setting for accessibility and comfort.
  • Instructional Strategies: Employing specialized teaching techniques.

Focus On Individual Progress

Special education emphasizes:

  • Personal Achievement: Celebrating individual milestones and improvements.
  • Continuous Monitoring: Regular assessments to track progress.
  • Adaptive Learning Goals: Goals evolve with the student’s development.
  • Parent and Caregiver Involvement: Regular communication with families.
  • Emphasis on Strengths: Building on each student’s abilities.

General Education Curriculum

General education curriculum features:

  • Standardized Content: Following a uniform set of subjects and topics.
  • Grade-Level Expectations: Curriculum aligned with specific age and grade levels.
  • Diverse Subjects: Covering a broad range of academic disciplines.
  • Cultural Literacy: Including cultural and historical education.
  • Technology Integration: Incorporating digital literacy.
  • Preparation for Standardized Tests: Teaching towards common assessment standards.

Standardized Benchmarks

Standardized benchmarks in general education include:

  • Common Core Standards: Nationwide academic standards in math and language arts.
  • State-Specific Guidelines: Curricula based on state education standards.
  • Progress Tracking: Regular assessments to ensure alignment with benchmarks.
  • Preparation for Higher Education: Aligning with requirements for college readiness.
  • Skill Competency Levels: Defining specific skill mastery levels for each grade.

Broad Academic Scope

The scope of general education is characterized by:

  • Wide Range of Subjects: From sciences to arts, covering all major academic areas.
  • Holistic Education: Fostering overall intellectual, social, and emotional development.
  • Exposure to Different Perspectives: Teaching a variety of viewpoints and ideas.
  • Extracurricular Activities: Including sports, arts, and clubs.
  • Global Awareness: Educating about world events and cultures.

Comparison Of Assessment Techniques

General Education

Comparing assessment techniques in special and general education:

  • Individualized vs. Standardized: Special education focuses on personalized assessments, while general education often uses standardized tests.
  • Qualitative vs. Quantitative: Special education assessments may be more qualitative, focusing on individual progress, whereas general education relies more on quantitative measures.
  • Adaptive Testing: In special education, tests are often adapted to meet student needs, unlike the one-size-fits-all approach in general education.
  • Frequency and Feedback: Special education involves more frequent and detailed feedback tailored to individual learning plans.
  • Goal-Oriented vs. Benchmark-Oriented: Assessments in special education are aligned with IEP goals, whereas general education assessments are aligned with grade-level benchmarks.

Requirements For Special Education Teachers

Special education teachers need specific training and qualifications:

  • Specialized Degree: A degree in special education or a related field.
  • Certification: State certification in special education, often with specific endorsements for types of disabilities.
  • Practical Experience: Internships or hands-on experience working with students with disabilities.
  • Continued Education: Ongoing training to stay current with educational practices and disability research.
  • Skills in Differentiated Instruction: Ability to design and implement individualized learning plans.
  • Behavior Management: Proficiency in managing a range of behaviors and implementing behavioral interventions.
  • Communication Skills: Effective communication with students, parents, and other educators, often including knowledge of alternative communication methods like sign language.

Specialized Training And Certifications

Special education teachers require:

  • Knowledge of Disabilities: Understanding various types of disabilities and their impact on learning.
  • Assistive Technology Proficiency: Training in technology used to support students with disabilities.
  • Legal Knowledge: Understanding of laws and regulations related to special education, like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Skills In Handling Diverse And Unique Needs

Key skills include

  • Empathy and Patience: Understanding and patience to work with students facing challenges.
  • Creative Problem-Solving: Innovating to overcome unique learning barriers.
  • Collaborative Skills: Working with a team of professionals, including therapists and healthcare providers.

Requirements For General Education Teachers

General education teachers must have:

  • Bachelor’s Degree: Typically in education or a specific subject area.
  • Teaching Certification: State certification for the grade level they intend to teach.
  • Student Teaching Experience: Hands-on teaching experience gained during their degree program.
  • Broad Educational Knowledge: Understanding of a wide range of subjects taught in schools.
  • Classroom Management Skills: Ability to manage and engage a large group of students.

Understanding Of Standard Teaching Practices

This includes:

  • Curriculum Design: Knowledge of how to plan and implement standard curriculums.
  • Assessment Techniques: Skills in evaluating student progress using various methods.
  • Differentiation: Ability to modify instruction to meet the diverse needs of students within the classroom.

Challenges In Special Education

  • Individualized Instruction: Tailoring lessons to each student’s unique needs can be time-consuming and complex.
  • Behavioral Issues: Managing a range of behaviors and emotional needs requires patience and specialized strategies.
  • Resource Limitations: Often, there’s a lack of adequate resources or support staff.
  • Parental Involvement: Navigating varied levels of parental involvement and expectations can be challenging.
  • Emotional Toll: The emotional demands of working closely with students facing significant challenges.

Rewards In Special Education

  • Impactful Relationships: Forming deep, meaningful connections with students.
  • Student Progress: Witnessing and contributing to significant personal and academic growth.
  • Advocacy: Playing a key role in advocating for students’ needs and rights.
  • Professional Fulfillment: The satisfaction of making a tangible difference in students’ lives.

Challenges In General Education

  • Diverse Learning Styles: Addressing the needs of a diverse student population within a standard curriculum.
  • Classroom Management: Effectively managing larger classes with varied abilities and behaviors.
  • Standardized Testing Pressure: Balancing the requirement for test preparation with broader educational goals.
  • Keeping Engagement High: Maintaining student interest and motivation in a standardized learning environment.
  • Resource Constraints: Often working with limited resources or large class sizes.

Rewards In General Education

  • Broad Impact: Influencing a large number of students and shaping future generations.
  • Diversity of Experience: Engaging with a wide range of student backgrounds and perspectives.
  • Creative Teaching: The opportunity to implement diverse teaching strategies and curriculums.
  • Community Building: Fostering a sense of community and teamwork within a classroom.

Case Study In Special Education: “Emma’s Journey”

Emma, a 10-year-old with autism spectrum disorder, struggled in a traditional classroom due to sensory overload and communication challenges. She transitioned to a unique education setting.

Her Individualized Education Program (IEP) included speech therapy, occupational therapy, and tailored academic instruction.

Key Interventions

  • Sensory-Friendly Classroom: Dimmed lights, quiet corners, and sensory toys helped Emma cope with sensory sensitivities.
  • Communication Aids: Emma used picture exchange communication systems (PECS) to express herself.
  • Personalized Curriculum: Lessons were adapted to Emma’s learning pace, focusing on her strengths in visual-spatial skills.


  • Improved Communication: Emma began to communicate her needs more effectively.
  • Academic Progress: She showed remarkable improvement in math and reading, subjects she had struggled with previously.
  • Social Skills: Participation in small group activities enhanced Emma’s social interactions.

Case Study In General Education: “The Diverse Classroom Of Mr. Lee”

Mr. Lee’s 5th-grade class comprised students from various backgrounds and abilities. His challenge was to address their diverse educational needs within the standard curriculum framework.

Key Strategies

  • Differentiated Instruction: Mr. Lee used varied teaching methods, including group work, multimedia presentations, and hands-on activities.
  • Inclusive Practices: He ensured all cultural backgrounds were represented in lesson materials.
  • Regular Assessment: Frequent quizzes and feedback sessions helped identify areas where students needed more support.


  • Engagement: Students were more engaged due to teaching methods that catered to different learning styles.
  • Academic Improvement: Regular assessments helped improve overall academic performance.
  • Cultural Awareness: Students showed increased respect and understanding for different cultures.

The Intersection Of Special And General Education

Special Education and General Education

Inclusive education represents the intersection of special and general education. It’s a philosophy and practice where students with disabilities are educated alongside their non-disabled peers in general education classrooms.

This approach emphasizes the importance of a diverse, inclusive learning environment for all students.

Key Aspects Of Inclusive Education

  • Collaboration Between Special and General Educators: Teachers from both backgrounds work together to meet the needs of all students.
  • Adapted Curriculum and Instruction: General education curriculum is modified as needed to accommodate students with disabilities.
  • Use of Assistive Technologies: Integration of technologies that assist students with disabilities in a general education setting.
  • Professional Development: Ongoing training for general educators in special education strategies.
  • Peer Learning and Support: Encouraging students to learn from and support each other, enhancing social and academic growth.

Complementing Each Other

Special and general education complement each other in the following ways:

  • Resource Sharing: Special education resources and strategies can be utilized in the general education classroom to support all students.
  • Holistic Perspective: Combining the strengths of both approaches leads to a more well-rounded educational experience.
  • Diversity and Tolerance: Inclusive settings teach all students the values of diversity, empathy, and tolerance.
  • Tailored Learning Opportunities: General education teachers can adopt individualized teaching strategies from special education, benefiting students who may struggle but do not qualify for special education.
  • Enhanced Social Skills: Students with disabilities have more opportunities for social interaction and development in a general education setting.

Final Thoughts

This blog highlighted the key differences between special and general education. Special education is tailored for students with disabilities, focusing on individualized strategies. In contrast, general education offers a broad curriculum designed for a diverse student population.

Understanding and respecting both approaches is crucial. Each plays a vital role in our educational system, addressing different needs and fostering a more inclusive society.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is The Main Difference Between Special Education And General Education?

Special education is specifically designed to meet the unique needs of students with disabilities, providing personalized instruction and support.

General education, on the other hand, follows a standardized curriculum intended for the broader student population, focusing on a wide range of academic subjects.

Can A Student Be Part Of Both Special And General Education?

Yes, many students with disabilities participate in both special and general education settings.

This is part of inclusive education, where students with special needs are included in general education classrooms as much as possible, with additional support as needed.

How Are Teachers In Special Education Different From Those In General Education?

Special education teachers have specialized training in working with students with disabilities, including tailored teaching strategies, behavioral management, and the use of assistive technology.

General education teachers have a broad knowledge of standard educational practices and curricula for a diverse student body.

What Is An Individualized Education Program (IEP)?

An IEP is a customized educational plan developed for students in special education. It outlines specific learning goals, services, and accommodations tailored to the student’s unique needs. IEPs are created by a team, including educators, parents, and specialists.

Why Is Inclusive Education Important?

Inclusive education is important because it promotes equality and diversity in learning. It allows students with disabilities to learn alongside their peers, fostering a sense of community and belonging.

This approach benefits all students by teaching empathy, respect, and collaboration, preparing them for a diverse world.








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