Dismantling Ableism in Schools & Shifting Toward Universal Design for Learning
One of the biggest challenges for neurodivergent learners continues to be ableism in schools, so this episode explores what ableism looks like and how can combat it. To talk about this with us is Heather Clarke, a neurodivergent, Black Afro-Caribbean learning advocate who consults with parents and guardians to help them with the process of educational evaluations and the creation and implementation of IEPs and 504 Plans.
During our conversation, we talked about Heather’s definition for ableism and how it creates barriers for our children’s individuality, how “adultification bias” affects black children, and how Universal Design for Learning can allow students with different skills to achieve mastery of the curriculum. Heather also gave suggestions for parents who want to be part of dismantling ableism by advocating in their children’s schools.
About Heather Clarke
Heather Clarke is a Black Afro-Caribbean mother of 2 small children. She is also neurodivergent, with an invisible disability. She has over 20 years of experience working as a teacher, and in the field of educational justice and policy. She has spent more than 20 years working with children and families of children with disabilities both in the United States and in other countries. Through Heather’s Learning Advocacy business, she consults with parents and guardians to help them with the process of educational evaluations and the creation and implementation of IFSPs, IEPS, and 504 Plans. She also consults with businesses, organizations, and educators about topics related to Diversity Equity and Inclusion, with a focus on the Disability community.Heather is an Early Childhood and Special Education adjunct professor at Queen’s College, CUNY, and Field Mentor to student teachers at NYU.Additionally, Heather helps administer several local advocacy groups, some focused on addressing Anti-Black racism and dismantling white supremacy, and others on educational needs in the community.
Things you’ll learn from this episode
- What adultification bias is and how it affects black children
- How ableism is defined and the ways in which it creates barriers for our children’s individuality
- How Heather works to combat ableism in schools
- How Universal Design for Learning can allow students with different skills to achieve and demonstrate mastery of the curriculum
- The challenges Heather faces when she advocates for accommodations for students
- How parents can push back on school’s tactics for compliance so that more inclusive and progressive approaches can be implemented
- Suggestions for parents who want to help dismantle ableism by advocating in the classroom
Resources mentioned for dismantling ableism in schools
Special message from our sponsor
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Debbie Reber 00:00
Today’s episode is brought to you by Lindamood-Bell Learning Centers. Lindamood-Bell Learning Centers help students catch up and stay on track one to one instruction for reading comprehension and math in person or virtual. Learn more at Lindamoodbell.com/tilt.
Heather Clarke 00:20
When I’m teaching my student teachers, I always say to them, we have to remember that children are humans and they have rights. And we have to allow them to show up in their full humanity, whatever that means. And so we want to, we want to use this framework so that they can show up in their full humanity.
Debbie Reber 00:45
Welcome to Tilt Parenting, a podcast featuring interviews and conversations aimed at inspiring, informing and supporting parents raising differently wired kids. I’m your host Debbie Reber. My guest today is Heather Clarke, a neurodivergent black Afro Caribbean learning advocate. Through Heather’s learning advocacy business, she consults with parents and guardians to help them with the process of educational evaluations and the creation and implementation of IEP s and 504 plans. She has over 20 years of experience working as a teacher in the field of educational justice and policy and working with children and families of children with disabilities. She is also an early childhood and special education adjunct professor at Queens College CUNY, and field mentor to students teachers at NYU. Heather also helps administer several New York City area advocacy groups focusing on addressing anti-black racism, dismantling white supremacy and educational needs in the community. During our conversation, we talked about Heather’s definition for ableism and how it creates barriers for our children’s individuality. How adult suffocation bias affects black children, and how universal design for learning can allow students with different skills to achieve mastery of the curriculum. Heather also shared suggestions for parents who want to be part of dismantling ableism by advocating for not only their children, but all children.
Debbie Reber 02:17
If you want to dive deeper into my conversation with Heather please check out the show notes page on Tilt Parenting. You’ll find a bullet-pointed list of key takeaways, a transcript for the whole episode, links to all the resources mentioned in a podcast player with the episode broken down into chapters so you can easily find the information you’re looking to re-listen to. This week’s episode can be found at tiltparenting.com/session276. Or just go to Tilt Parenting, click on the Podcast tab on the top menu and find this episode.
Debbie Reber 02:51
Lastly, if you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed with changing schedules, a family and in-law dynamics, or big expectations and tricky kid energy that can happen this time of year and you’d love a giant reset button so you can wipe the slate clean and start fresh, check out my new mini course The Emergency Reset. I created this to help you get out of a negative parent child cycle and prevent you from getting dragged back into that cycle moving forward. It’s all about creating new energy and new dynamic and new resolve to show up for ourselves and our kids in a way that feels so much better. If you could use some extra support right now and help setting yourself up for a smoother holiday season. Check out the emergency reset. To learn more just go to tiltparenting.com/emergencyreset. Thanks so much. And now here is my conversation with Heather.
Debbie Reber 03:50
Hey, Heather, welcome to the podcast.
Heather Clarke 03:53
Thank you so much, Debbie. I’m honored to be here.
Debbie Reber 03:55
And as we were just talking we’re practically neighbors. So in another day and age, we could be doing this in person, but we will stick with virtual for now. So I would love it if you could just start our conversation by telling us a little bit about your personal story. So I’ve read your formal bio and we know about kind of your professional work in the world, but maybe tell us about how you got into doing the work and your why for what you do.
Heather Clarke 04:21
So the why I can I have to say that it’s deeply personal for me. I was that black neurodiverse girl who you know did well academically but suffered terribly with anxiety to the point where I was physically sick every day before I went to school. I dealt with you know adultification bias in my school, anti black racism. I basically white knuckled my way Through most of elementary and middle school, middle school, especially, and masked my differences, so that no one could really tell what was going on. And I don’t want any other child to go through what I went through. I don’t want anyone to deal with that type of lack of cultural competency, that extreme ableism, any kind of ableism, the lack of understanding of how different brains work, different emotions in school, the racism. And so it’s really important for me, to advocate for students to be seen, in their full human selves, whatever that may be learning differences, their full diversity, and how they learn their their culture, their race, their gender, identity, their religion, their languages, they speak, the dialects they speak, it all has to be valued. It all has to be seen as strength, as opposed to as deficits. It’s the exact opposite of what I experienced. And that’s really the place that I’m coming from.
Debbie Reber 06:21
I will say, I’ve never heard the term adultification bias, can you define that?
Heather Clarke 06:27
It’s a phenomenon that’s very particular to black children and black girls or black non-male children, where we are perceived as older because of our race. So if something happens, and this is you know, there’s evidence and data behind this, we’re punished much harsher than our white peers, or non black peers. So for example, if something happened in, like, let’s say, in fifth grade in my fifth grade class, and I remember this very particularly happening in my fifth grade class, something happened between me and a non black child, I was public punished much more severely than the non black child because I was black. And I remember very specifically being told by my teacher, I’m punishing you more harshly because you’re black. I mean, they weren’t even shy about it at school. It’s a phenomenon that is seen over and over again, and it starts as young as preschool, black children in preschool are three to four times more likely to be punished, disciplined and expelled than their white and non black peers for the same behavior. And really, we’re talking about childhood behavior, right? Like, we have four and five year old black children who are walked out of school in handcuffs, I cannot imagine anything that a four or five year old can do that would warrant them being arrested and handcuffed and taken out of school in a police vehicle. And this is a huge problem in our city. A huge problem. This is one one of the biggest things that I do my advocacy on, and how that relates to to ableism, right, like if these kids have disability, so what kind of disabilities do they have, and how black children are more likely to be labeled as emotionally disturbed, as opposed to having autism, or ADHD, whereas their white peers would be labeled as having autism or ADHD for the same behavior.
Debbie Reber 08:34
Thank you for sharing that. And this, I’ll say, just for listeners to be sure that you listen to some of the other episodes from this season, I actually just interviewed Morinike Giwa Onaiwu, And I will, I’m saying her name correctly, and she is an autistic advocate. And we talked a lot about that, specifically, the lay diagnosis of black and brown children with autism and, and we’ve talked about that with ADHD as well. And it’s behavioral as opposed to, it’s pervasive, and very much so I know in New York City and the biggest school district, I think in the United States, it is the biggest Yeah. So you mentioned the word ableism. And this may feel like it’s going back to 101. And certainly, we’ve discussed ableism in many episodes, but I don’t know that we’ve ever actually just defined what exactly it is and how it shows up. Can you give us a definition for that?
Heather Clarke 09:26
I mean, there’s obviously the Webster definition which I will read, and then there’s my definition. And for me, ableism is the perception that there really is only one type of body, one type of mind, one type of being, one type of emotional way of being that is right. It’s generally kind of like you have one type of way of being as a human that’s considered rights. And every other way that differs or differs from that or veers from that and any other way must be fixed. Right? So it’s sort of like the medical way, like your way has to be fixed. And so instead of removing barriers so that someone who has a brain that functions differently, or who has a body that functions differently, can thrive. We live in a society that says your body is different. So it must be fixed, there’s something wrong with your body, your brain functions differently, there’s something wrong with your brain, your brain must be fixed, there’s something inherently wrong with you. So that to me, is ableism. It’s this view that if anything about you is just different from the quote unquote, Norm and who defines the norm, you have to be fixed. That to me really gets to the essence of what ableism is.
Debbie Reber 10:56
Yeah, that’s a great definition. And it feels so huge.
Heather Clarke 11:00
Yeah, it feels so huge. It shows up really in everything and so many ways.
Debbie Reber 11:05
Yeah. Which is why this work that you’re doing, you know, so many of our listeners are doing in different ways, trying to dismantle it. And even if it’s just in our family, or our close knit circle of friends, our schools, it all matters. But it will take all of us really, I think, to ultimately dismantle it. And I’m wondering, I know a lot of your work is focused in the schools. Tell us a little bit more about how you’re actually working to combat ableism in the school community.
Heather Clarke 11:36
One of the key things that I do is that I work with parents. A lot of parents will hire me as an advocate, so that I can help run workshops on how we can dismantle ableism in their schools, and how teachers can create new systems of learning that focus on Universal Design for Learning. So instead of creating a lesson plan, like a Literacy Plan, and then attaching an accommodation or modification to it, we would talk about how we can build a lesson plan that is completely universally designed. So it would have multiple means and ways of accessing the curriculum, and multiple means and ways for children to show that they have mastery of the curriculum. So that’s the key, it has to have multiple ways of showing the curriculum. So the teacher can show the curriculum multiple ways, not just one way of showing the curriculum, not just two, but multiple ways. And then multiple ways for the teacher to actually assess the students’ knowledge. So for example, I work primarily with early childhood. But I also have experienced, you know, in elementary, and I teach undergraduate and graduate classes at CUNY. So for example, I was working with some of my student teachers, and I was saying, like, how can we do a lesson on community helpers for social studies, and you have a student, maybe they only want to work with blocks. So you could have a student model to make the community with blocks, like for example, make one student who perhaps has different fine motor skills so they can draw, and another student can act it out with puppets, but they’re all showing you different ways, community helpers, that’s just like one example.
Debbie Reber 13:25
Yeah, super interesting. And this is … we’ve talked about this, especially when we’ve had conversations about twice exceptional students, because they often have so many strengths that are completely untapped, and don’t get a chance to share their knowledge in the way that they are most comfortable doing. And so I’m really interested in learning more about Universal Design for Learning. So is that a very specific framework? I mean, is that its own curriculum, or is that more of a concept?
Heather Clarke 13:56
It’s not its own curriculum, it is a very specific framework. And we have to really advocate that all schools use it, because it’s really the best form of teaching. We see Universal Design in buildings, right. So in walking the street, we have the cutouts, so the cutouts are for people with mobility differences. So someone with a wheelchair, someone who’s using, they have a broken leg. But if you’re pushing a baby in a stroller, you can also use it or a laundry like I just think of New York. You’re going down with your laundry or your carriage full of groceries, you’re also using that cut out on the street. You know, so it’s universally designed, multiple people are using it, not someone just with mobility issues, but it was designed initially for that, but is universally designed so many people are using it.
Debbie Reber 14:50
I think about this and of course I’m like yes, that makes perfect sense. And then I’m like there are so many barriers, right? I’m sure that there are private schools that have this kind of way that they operate. But tell me what the reception is like as an advocate for getting this into classrooms like, what does it involve? What do the teachers need to be able to do? Yeah, I’d love to just know more about that.
Heather Clarke 15:15
One of the biggest barriers is time, and the amount of students in the classroom. So there’s too many students and public school classrooms, particularly in New York, right? If you’re, you have a second grade class with 29 to 32. Kids, it’s too many students. And then time, we are spending way too much time doing standardized testing, which is not universally designed. Standardized testing is exactly the opposite of Universal Design for Learning. It’s standardized. How is it universally designed for learning? It’s not at all? It’s one type of assessment. And usually, they’re standardized to kids in middle America. So white, upper middle class in Ohio or Idaho or something. You know, they’re asking questions about kids who I remember when I was teaching in Queens, when I was teaching elementary school in Queens in Jackson Heights, they were asking kids about chimneys, and skiing, and galoshes. My kids in Queens couldn’t tell you about that. But they could tell you, you know how to do the laundry in a laundromat and how to go shopping at the bodega. You know how to count money. So these questions are not fair. They’re not culturally competent, and they’re not universally designed. So those are the really big things, things that I know, that I see. The other thing that I do, that’s a big part of my work, is parents hire me as a private advocate for IEP and 504 services. So I go in and when the parents want IEP services, they hire me to come in and sit in as an advocate to fight for the right IEP services and placements for their child to make sure their child is getting their least restrictive environment. And they’re appropriate services.
Debbie Reber 17:09
Yeah, and I imagine then, is part of the accommodations for the IEP or the 504 based on this idea of universal design. Yeah. And so are you able to get those accommodations? Do you get a lot of pushback?
Heather Clarke 17:26
I do get a lot of pushback, because for some teachers, they’ve literally never heard of this, you know, they’ve never, it’s just, they’ve just never heard of it. And some are willing, but their hands are tied. So it’s a constant push and pull, like we will do what we’re able. But you know, when standardized testing comes, we have three weeks of standardized testing. So we have to do standardized testing. And so we can’t make during the ELA tests, we can’t universally design those three weeks of ELA, it’s three weeks of ELA or whatever it is.
Debbie Reber 18:01
It just sound soul sucking,
Heather Clarke 18:02
It is soul sucking, and it’s soul sucking for the teachers too.
Debbie Reber 18:08
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Debbie Reber 19:00
So let’s talk about ages. I’m just wondering, with this universal design for learning, you mentioned that you’re mostly involved in early education in some elementary schools. Is this movement to have this incorporated in classrooms go all the way up through high school? What does it look like at different ages?
Heather Clarke 19:19
Definitely. It’s, I mean, you could have portfolio assessments. I use it in my graduate school and undergraduate courses that I teach. I have students who make me virtual assignments, who make me YouTube channels. I have students who make me Bitmojis. I’m just giving you examples of some of the work that I have for my graduate students that I have. Do you know, because I believe that first of all, I don’t believe that students should have to disclose if they have a disability, right, regardless of what university’s policies, because I think that’s personal information. But also I just think it’s good teaching. And it’s best practices, right? We want to have best practices and I believe that For me, teaching is also, it’s also a part of civil rights, you know. And when I’m teaching my student teachers, I always say to them, we have to remember that children are humans, and they have rights. And we have to allow them to show up and their full humanity, whatever that means. And so we want to, we want to use this framework, so that they can show up in their full humanity. And so it can be used throughout high school, because there’s multiple ways that a high school student can show you that they understand math, besides a standardized test, or understand literacy, besides a standardized test, you know, whether they’re acting out a play, or whether they’re balancing a checkbook, I mean, think about all the real world experiences in their life, where they’re going to have to use math and literacy besides just a standardized test.
Debbie Reber 20:59
Yeah, and I think, you know, I homeschooled my child, for I think it was six years. And essentially, this is what we did. You know, if there was a project, I would give them options, like you could do a video, you could do a PowerPoint, you could do a piece of art, you could you know, it was just wonderful that I had that flexibility and freedom to do that. So I’m wondering, you’ve been doing this work for a while? Are you seeing momentum? Are you seeing a shifting of mindsets? Have you seen this actually starting to happen? Because I imagine that every success, every time you’ve gotten a teacher to embrace this, or you’ve gotten that accommodation, and that it’s continuing to pave the way.
Heather Clarke 21:41
I am, especially among parents, I’m really seeing parents are starting to really say, No, we’re not taking this anymore. I help admin at a local education group in my educational district. And we’ve really been pushing back against homework, because there’s no evidence that homework for elementary school has any benefit. So one of the big things that I I said was, you know, push back on homework, let’s all push back on homework. And let’s advocate for more play, we need to have more play. So one thing that we’ve really pushed back on with homework, more play and behavior charts, those are the three things and I’m really, really pushing forward. The next thing that we’re working on is the IEP compliance. Unfortunately, with a pandemic, which is still going on, we’ve had a lot of non compliant IEP. So when we’re talking about IEP s, we have to remember those are federal documents. And so when a child’s IEP is not met, their civil rights are being violated. So if a child is supposed to get three times 30 minutes of speech, or OT, or counseling, or whatever it is, and they’re not getting it, they’re essentially not getting their civil rights met, because they need those therapies. So this is a big thing that we’re really focusing on, especially for our black and brown students. And the pipeline for evaluations is so backed up. Right now, you have kids who aren’t even getting bused, they’re still not getting bused at all. So we are really trying to focus more on moving away from this behaviorism, toward universal design for learning. But there’s still a lot of pushback from the behaviorists, a lot, I have to admit, I did get into, you know, a bit of a email exchange that got a bit heated, we could have behaviorist in a special needs coalition, and myself, but there were a lot of people who came out on my side and admitted that, you know, agreed with me that, you know, the evidence is there that it does not work. And we need more universal design for learning and behaviorism is particularly hard harmful to black and brown children. Even for children. It was kind of a a perception that this person works in poor neighborhoods with black and brown children, and they’re a BCBA. And they’re helping these children and blah, blah, blah. And I was like, you know, it’s really not about Saviorism here. It’s about understanding that these children have agency, we have to understand that. They bring richness and knowledge, no matter what you perceive that they bring, and no matter what a person’s bodily functions are, or whether they have control of certain functions, it still doesn’t mean that they cannot thrive or show up in their full humanity. We have to get rid of that idea that is completely able to stick. We have to get rid of that idea. levels of high functioning, low functioning, those are all our ideas about how we view they function and are able to stick society, as opposed to whether we’re removing barriers so that they can thrive.
Debbie Reber 25:13
Yeah, obviously, there are so many parents who get new information about their child, or they are just doing the best they can, right? And they’re told by the classroom, and I think about when, when my child was in first grade, it was all sticker charts, stars, Ernie, like that was, it was all about classroom management. It was all about compliance and never felt good. But I at the time was like, Well, I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do, because otherwise this child’s gonna get kicked out of school. And then what do I do? I’m hoping that this conversation is sparking some parents to know that we don’t have to go along with these recommendations, and that they’re problematic. And I’m wondering if the time that we’ve had in COVID, and with remote learning and the way that that has disrupted these systems in some way, has that created opportunities for maybe expanded thinking about this? Or are looking at classroom management in a new way? Or do you think we’re defaulting back to pre-pandemic?
Heather Clarke 26:19
I think for parents, it’s definitely expanded thinking on that. It’s, I think it’s given parents a bird’s eye view of what’s going on. I know, I know, especially for parents of color. And I have to always default to that, because that’s where I’m coming from, as a black mom, you know, we’ve seen things we would have maybe never seen before, right, the little microaggressions, and the comments and things like that, that maybe we’ve never seen before. So I definitely feel like it gave me a bird’s eye view that maybe I would not have gotten before. When I was a classroom teacher, I never used those types of things. I just didn’t use them. And it wasn’t even like I said, I’m not going to use these because I think they’re terrible. I just, I just didn’t see the need. Intrinsically, I just don’t don’t like the idea of assigning worth to a star, there’s something just inherently wrong with that. A child is good because they’re a child. If you want to discuss if someone made a poor choice, that maybe wasn’t the right choice at that moment, that’s a different conversation. There’s too much emotion that is attached to certain actions and behaviors. And I am fearful that there is so much deficit language going on now that kids are back in the classroom, learning loss, gaps, behavior. I am very fearful about that, because I heard it in my own older child’s back to school Zoom meeting last week, and I sent an email today a very strong email today to the social worker. So I’m sure that they’re like, oh, no, I’m always that mom. So I don’t even care. I’m always that mom. I was like, This is unacceptable, so much deficit language. You know, this is just, I am so upset. Because I was really, I was livid. I was just livid. And I encourage parents to not accept that. Because when you hold the line, you’re not doing it just for your child, you’re doing it for all children. Make it general like that to say, our children are not deficits. Our children are not blank slates to be written on. Our children are not empty vessels to be filled. Our children come with a wealth of richness, and they are to be guided teachers or guides, parents or guides. That’s my belief. That is my belief. That is what we are, we are their guides. That’s it. I heard a person say the teacher may be the only good role model that they have. And I was just like, that is the most horrible thing I’ve ever heard. Like, why are you discounting the people that the child may have in the home, in their community in their neighborhood? Why are you making assumptions about these children’s lives? So I do think that we as parents and guardians have to be pushing back on these ideas because school is becoming, has for a long time become way too much like a prison. It is way too much about compliance. Yeah, for sure.
Debbie Reber 29:31
It’s about getting them through getting them to the next thing as opposed. And I often think of that, especially with our neurodivergent kids. I say all the time, like, yeah, this sucks. And part of this is getting through it so that you can get to the good stuff, but our kids deserve to not have to wait to get to the good stuff. And the damage that can happen while they’re waiting can be really hard to overcome.
Heather Clarke 29:54
And also look at what has happened in the meantime in these last 20, 30 years. All of this compliance, compliance, compliance teaching to the test, we have an entire generation of people who don’t know how to look at. They think they can go on YouTube. And now they understand research, and are not critical thinkers, I don’t see that critical thing, those critical thinking skills being taught. And the lack of play is, is also directly tied to that.
Debbie Reber 30:29
I agree 100%. So, I really like the language of use in terms of parents and educators being guides for our kids, and and also the suggestions for how parents can push back and not just for their own child, but for all of us, that our language that that group language, are there any other suggestions you have for parents who are listening and who really want to be a part of dismantling ableism, whether it is in their PTA, or their school or their neighborhood…
Heather Clarke 31:01
I have so many suggestions, but I want to give you like simple, actionable steps, I think it’s really important that we encourage workshops on Universal Design for Learning, when there’s an opportunity for ICT classes, if there’s such a thing as collaborative team teaching classes, or integrated classes, in your school, that you look at those classes with joy, if anybody is disparaging those types of classes, that you nip that right in the bud, because whenever I see that type of discussion on a Facebook group and a WhatsApp group, in a thread on the playground, it just breaks my heart to think that somebody wouldn’t want to be in a class with my kid, or any child with a 504 plan or an IEP. Kids learn best when they’re amongst diversity, all kids. So encourage those types of settings. And I encourage those integrated classes, encourage workshops on Universal Design for Learning at work on getting rid of those behavior charts,
Debbie Reber 32:07
I love that. And is there a specific resource or place for parents listening who want to learn more about Universal Design Learning? Is there like a home online to find out about workshops?
Heather Clarke 32:22
I mean, they can Google it, they could also come to my Instagram, I think you have all the links. There’s a lot of good resources out there, I would say also, the Council on exceptional children, NAYC has some good resources for the younger children. NAYC. I love them. I love that resource as well. Anything that just really, you know, focusing on like, the full humanity of children, encouraging, however, children are. However, they may be their physicality, intellectually, emotionally, whatever differences gender, race, religion, spirituality language, we want them to be able to thrive, we want to dismantle barriers, so that they can thrive. And universal design for learning is all about that, in all of its complexities and intersections. That’s why it’s so powerful.
Debbie Reber 33:17
It sounds amazing. I’m definitely going to be doing more exploration after our conversation and listeners, I will include links that we just talked about, including where you can connect with Heather on the show notes page. But if I am sure I’ll find some really good articles. So I’ll post them on the show notes page too. So check that out if you want to learn more. Any last thoughts before we say goodbye? Something you want to leave parents with?
Heather Clarke 33:41
I want parents to know that your children are wonderfully designed. They’re wonderfully designed, and they’re perfect just the way they are. So meet them where they are and support them so that they can thrive.
Debbie Reber 33:55
Awesome. Well, thank you. Thank you so much for the work that you’re doing. You sound like you’re very busy. And I know you’re a mama, you got a lot going on. So just thank you for being such a powerful advocate for so many children. Amazing.
Heather Clarke 34:08
Thank you so much. That’d be I’m honored to be a part of your podcast. Thank you for all the work you’re doing as well.
Debbie Reber 34:16
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