Transcript: Advocacy in Action

Episode Transcript:

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00:14 Tiffany Namey: It has been 10,799 days since the ADA was passed, and you are parked in The Access Aisle.

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00:34 TN: My name is Tiffany Namey and I will be your host for today’s episode. We have a guest today, Ms. Lynn Teague, joining us from the League of Women Voters of South Carolina. For those who have not met me yet, I am Able South Carolina’s new advocacy coordinator. That allows me to serve as an advocate for persons with disabilities and help create a community that advocates for disability rights, both here within our organization and outside in the community at large.

01:05 TN: We are going to start out for the first half of this podcast and talk about the basics of advocacy, what it is, why you do it, and very lightly touch on tips of how you do it. In the second half of the podcast, we are going to talk about how to find out about issues you may wanna advocate for in the disability community and getting involved in social justice organizations. So Lynn, can you tell us briefly, what is the League of Women Voters and what is your role?

01:34 Lynn Teague: The League of Women Voters is an organization of women and men, 100 years old. We came out of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and once women had the right to vote, it was felt that it was important that women help others register and vote and also be educated voters, informed voters.

01:56 LT: So also, we have an advocacy arm. So we are basically involved in both voter services, which is not my department of the league, and advocacy, which is my area in the league. I’m the vice president for issues and action for the South Carolina League and that translates among other things, to being lobbyists at the State House for the league.

02:20 TN: Wonderful. So let’s get started on today’s topic, “Advocacy.” Advocacy is central to the Center for Independent Living’s mission and that’s what Able South Carolina is. There are a couple of kinds of advocacy. Today we are talking about systems advocacy, which is a fancy way of saying “advocacy in social or political change.”

02:45 TN: And specifically today, we are talking about advocacy for disability rights, which is done when we work to create positive and meaningful change to bring awareness to barriers for persons with disabilities. So those are barriers that people with disabilities face in the community and we work to remove those barriers, but you can be an advocate for any kind of injustice you see. So just because you’re a person with a disability, it doesn’t mean you have to advocate for disability rights issues. Lynn, how do you define being an advocate?

03:26 LT: For me, an advocate is any citizen who wants to make their voice heard on their own behalf or on behalf of an organization that they’re part of. You can either speak simply for yourself or you can become involved in an organization addressing a particular area. The League of Women Voters for example, has a very broad area of interest, but we focus very much on the government accountability and transparency issues and what we fondly refer to as “Making democracy work.” So, an advocate is someone who speaks up especially to public officials about what they… The needs they see and the kind of solutions they envision.

04:11 TN: That is something that I grew up being told. My parents always taught me that if I see something that needs to be fixed in the world, you can’t rely on anyone else to say or do anything about it but you. And I think a lot of people, especially people who come from minorities like the disability population, wonder if what they do really makes a difference or if their voice really counts. So if I were to ask you, “Why should I be involved in the political process?” What would you say?

04:49 LT: I think any time you don’t speak for yourself, you’re letting others speak for you, and they may not have your full perspective on the issues that concern you. I’m very glad that you mentioned “systems advocacy”, because very often people will look at a problem for the disability community, I would imagine something like, “That sidewalk’s inaccessible.” But it’s very important to ask, “What is the reason that this city doesn’t have a rule on how these things are done, so that I don’t just get this sidewalk fixed, but I look at how all sidewalks are designed for people with disabilities.”

05:33 LT: So, I think it’s very it’s very important to take that broad view and to make… You are the person who knows what you’ve encountered in life and what your issues have been and what kind of solutions have worked for you. So, I think it’s very important that we realize too that public officials expect to hear from you. You are not out of line somehow by calling your senator. [chuckle]

05:53 TN: Right.

05:53 LT: You are doing what any responsible citizen is entitled to do.

05:58 TN: I looked up some quotes on advocacy and one of our founding fathers in the disability rights movement is a gentleman named Ed Roberts. And he said, “The greatest lesson of the Civil Rights Movement is that the moment you let others speak for you, you lose.” And I think that’s a general… What you were saying.

06:22 LT: Yes, yes.

06:24 TN: And I think another thing to remember is, is that the people who are speaking are the people who are making the rules, and we hear a lot about, “Oh, the system is run by old white men.” Or, “Oh, this system is run by this group or that group.” But there is a serious lack of representation of persons with disabilities out there making laws and making rules, so we really do need people with disabilities to be involved.

06:56 LT: Yes, run for office. Don’t just vote. Don’t just talk to your representatives, run for office.

07:03 TN: Yeah. Or at least get involved. At least make sure you start out by talking to your legislators, vote and then run for office.

07:13 LT: And become involved in organizations whether it’s Able or the League of Women Voters or whatever, that will help you learn how to advocate.

07:20 TN: A problem. I see a lot is people who are new to advocacy go to the wrong legislator for the right reason, can you tell us how to know if an issue is a federal issue, meaning you need to go to a congressman or a senator? Or a state issue, meaning you need to go to a state senator, or a state house representative? Or a municipal issue, so a city issue or a county issue?

07:55 LT: Well, sometimes it can be multiples, but we won’t get into that [chuckle] today, ’cause you just need to have an entry point in the system. And in fact, determining the right entry point is crucial. And I use the example of a dear friend of mine who went to her state senator about a tree that was blocking a right-of-way in the city of Columbia. One thing that… One way to find out is to call somebody in you’ll find… They’ll tell you, “I don’t handle that, so-and-so does.” But for one thing, if you wanna find out who your representatives are and who your public officials are, if you can go online, scstatehouse.gov, if you put in your address, it will tell you who your senator, your congressman, your state senator, or your state house of representatives member.

08:43 TN: So that was S-C…

08:44 LT: Statehouse.gov.

08:46 TN: Scstatehouse.gov.

08:48 LT: Right. And county and city governments also have websites that will provide information. My experience has been that most of the people who handle public contact for state government, for example, are extremely accommodating and helpful. They will tell you if you’re in the right place, [chuckle] but you need to figure out not only is it federal, state, city, or county, but is it executive, legislative or judicial?

09:17 TN: So executive means…

09:19 LT: Executive means the people who actually carry out the daily work of government. So if you have a tree that’s fallen on a utility line, probably your city right-of-way people can contact the utility company and help do all of that and get it straightened out. If you, however, want to change how utility lines are managed in your city, then you probably wanna talk to your city council in your legislative branch. Congress is a legislative branch, the state house and senator, legislative, but county and city council are also legislative. They make the rules. Are you concerned about something that’s how the rules are implemented? Or are you concerned about something that is how the rules are written? And so there you have that distinction. Judicial of course, that’s when you come to a situation in which it has to be resolved by that third party, the judicial branch.

10:13 TN: That’s if the rules that are written are wrong?

10:17 LT: Right.

10:17 TN: Yeah.

10:18 LT: And you can’t get it fixed otherwise.

10:19 TN: Exactly.

10:20 LT: But very often you’ll find that it’s oversight. Years ago, my husband counseled me when I was upset about something to remember that usually ignorance is a better explanation than somebody actually having evil intentions.

10:36 TN: Right.

10:37 LT: So consider that they just haven’t heard your voice yet and need to.

10:40 TN: Which is why we need more representation, we need more people being advocates.

10:45 LT: Right.

10:46 TN: So we talked about how to find out how to contact our elected officials, so we know what our issues are, we know how to contact our elected officials, we know who to go to, what do we do now?

11:03 LT: There are many ways to make your voice heard. There are public hearings that are organized for many issues, and I will say that these are indispensable, and at the same time, they’re not enough, because they tend to be fairly superficial ways to get input. When you write to your elected officials, or for that matter, to a regulatory body like the Public Service Commission that might be handling how a utility issue is resolved, when you write to them, that’s another way to get your voice heard. I do not encourage email as a usual way of communicating with legislators. It may work for some kinds of government offices, but legislators tend to be, these days, overwhelmed by bulk emails for their public email addresses. So you may not be heard if you just email, but phone calls tend to be effective. Often you’ll speak to a staff member not to the actual public official, that’s fine. Staff members do a lot of the work. They assemble a lot of the information, they do a lot of the research. Sometimes, they’re closer to an issue than the actual elected official is. But if you call your elected official, you can discuss either with the official or with a staff member what your concerns are, and what you want.

12:22 TN: But an email is better than nothing for people who aren’t able to physically write a postcard or a letter.

12:30 LT: And so if you do that, one little technical hint I would make is put in somewhere in the subject line that you’re a constituent, concerned constituent on disability issue something like that, so they know it’s not just one of thousands of emails from some made national organization.

12:34 TN: And if you can’t go to the public forum, you can usually still make public comment on a public forum.

12:34 LT: Yes.

12:57 TN: If there’s a county commission meeting or there’s a listening session that’s somebody’s having, you can usually make a public comment even if you can’t go. Most of the time, those people have public comment, is that correct?

13:11 LT: That’s correct. And online official comment mechanisms are different from just bulk email. They are effective, they are effective to do that. Now, another thing though that I think people should be aware of is, usually online petitions are not tremendously effective and they’re usually done not so much to affect the official, as for people who are interested and the organizations that are interested in the issue, to get your contact information. Who is it that’s our audience? And that’s fine if you want to be identified to that organization.

13:43 TN: Well, and joining social organizations is another good way that you can find out more about different ways to represent your values.

13:50 LT: Absolutely, because the league for instance, has 100 years of experience in how we advocate and we’re very careful about how we analyze our issues, study our issues. I’m sure Able also is very careful about positions it takes and has established ways of communicating. And so when you’re starting, it’s especially useful to be part of an organization that will help you find your feet on how to handle it.

14:23 TN: So if you would like to feel confident and empowered to speak with your representatives, I’m gonna give a little advertisement here. We will be holding a training on the finer points of self-advocacy and talking points, how to develop an elevator pitch, making an ask, and all the things in between. This is a great way to get ready to participate in Advocacy Day for Access into Independence at the South Carolina State House, which will be happening on April 1st at the South Carolina state capital. So if you are interested in learning more about how to be an advocate, you have a great personality and you care about access and disability rights, you can sign up today. You can find out more information on the dates and times on Able’s Facebook, Twitter, shoot us an email or just give us a call.

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15:33 TN: So once again, I am Tiffany Namey, I am advocacy coordinator for Able South Carolina, and I am here with my guest, Lynn Teague, from the League of Women Voters, and you are parked in The Access Aisle.

15:45 TN: We just talked about what advocacy is, why people should advocate for an issue, and how to contact a legislator. But I wanna take a break for just a second and talk about how we ended up here.

15:58 TN: So for me, I grew up in a very politically active family. My father was very involved in Democratic politics, my grandparents were very involved in Republican politics, and my uncle actually still is very involved in judicial races.

16:15 TN: So, I considered myself a fairly educated person when it came to current events, but I was suffering from a pretty bad bout of depression. And as a non-driver, it was really hard to fight at that time because I couldn’t get out of my house.

16:36 TN: And so, my dad decided that he needed to take me to this debate watch party for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. It was their first debate and it was at a local restaurant, and everyone seemed to be laughing at the same things and booing at the same things, and I had a panic attack.

17:00 TN: And so I walked outside and I was leaning against the wall and I was trying to self-soothe, and this man walked up to me and he was carrying campaign signs, he was wearing this Armani suit and he just started talking to me. And I wasn’t… I didn’t think he was a serial killer, he didn’t… And you were raised, if somebody’s talking to you and they’re not dangerous, you speak back, that’s just manners.

17:27 TN: And so before you knew it, I started feeling better. And he looked at me and he said, “You’re too smart to be the princess in the tower.” I’ll never forget that sentence.

[chuckle]

17:40 TN: And I said, “Okay.” And he said, “You’re gonna come and work on my campaign.” And I said, “Well, there are two problems with that. One, I already told you I have epilepsy, I can’t drive. And the other is, I don’t know what a property appraiser does.” That’s what he was running for.

17:58 TN: And so he said, “Well, I’m gonna send you a cab every day. And if you wanna leave, you just call it and it’ll drive you home, I’ll pay for it. And you’ll learn what a property appraiser does, and while you’re learning about it, you’ll learn about my opponent. And if you don’t think I’m the best person for the job, stop coming.” Well, you can’t really say no to that. It kind of sucks up all your arguments, right?

18:22 TN: So I started working for him and before you knew it, other people wanted me to start working for them and started gathering petitions and volunteering on other campaigns. And then I started working in the disability rights movement and now here I am. And so, that’s how I got involved in advocacy.

18:41 TN: I love it, I love what I do and I love the opportunity that I have to be here. I feel like I have a purpose. And through all of it, I actually decided to go back to school, which I never thought I would do, and I actually got a degree in public administration. So, I have a degree in doing this.

[chuckle]

19:08 TN: Which is just amazing. [chuckle] ‘Cause as a person with a disability, we’re told a lot of times all the things that we can’t do, and there were people telling me all the things that I could do. And now, I wanna tell everybody what they can do too. And I think that’s really important that we need to share that with people, we need to be going around telling each other what we can do. And that’s my advocacy mission. So Lynn, how did you get involved in the League of Women Voters?

19:44 LT: Well, the short answer is a friend caught me at a meeting and said, “You belong in the League of Women Voters.”

[laughter]

19:52 LT: The longer answer is that from childhood, there have been issues around South Carolina that I really felt needed addressing and many of them have to do with social justice and how the system works here. And I was gone for many years, my career took me to Arizona as an archaeologist for much of my life.

20:13 TN: That’s a cool career.

20:15 LT: Well, some days it was, some days it’s not so much.

[laughter]

20:20 LT: But when I retired, my husband and I both retired, and we moved back here, ’cause we love South Carolina, we really love its people and the place. And so for a while, we were very occupied with family matters, but when that started to be less compelling, we were looking for other things. My husband got involved in art which many people like to do when they retire, and I got involved with the League of Women Voters, and it turned out to be the perfect home for me, because it’s issue-oriented not partisan, very non-partisan. We are extremely careful about that, and issues are what propelled me. Now, I absolutely respect people who are very engaged with partisan politics, but it’s different from what suits me personally.

21:09 LT: And I would also say for anybody who’s trying to make their own voice heard, do not make assumptions about partisan divides. You will find people in both parties that will listen to you and be helpful. You will find people in both parties who will not. You need to keep an open mind, and you need to always remember that somebody who may be on your side on one thing may not be on your side on everything, but that’s okay. You don’t have to agree with everybody on everything. So that’s… I found the League of Women Voters, and it was the right place for me, because that is an approach that suits me.

21:48 TN: You’re obviously from South Carolina. South Carolina is something that you’re passionate about being a resident here. I just moved here from Florida, can you tell me and our listeners where we can learn more about political advocacy and grassroots involvement, both in the Columbia area and in general. Obviously, they can come to League Women Voters meetings, they can get involved in Able’s Advocacy Day. What are some other resources for them?

22:24 LT: Well, once you get involved with any organization, or even just visit the meetings of any organization, you’ll run into people like myself who work with a wide variety of organizations. For instance, here I am talking to Able.

22:38 TN: Right.

22:38 LT: And so you can go to people who are involved in advocacy and say, “My main passion is this, do you know of an organization that’s focused on what I want to work on?” And those people who are already engaged are gonna be your easiest route, and then can tell you, “Yeah, you know, Able works on what you are concerned about. AARP is very active in the area you care about. Here are the people you need to talk to.” So I would strongly recommend going to meetings for a few likely organizations, talking to people, and starting to refine your idea of what you wanna work on, ’cause you can’t do everything. Nobody can do everything. What is it that you really are passionate enough about that it will carry you through? And by passionate, I mean deep caring. I don’t mean you have to be hyper-emotional.

[laughter]

23:34 LT: And I would just say that when you’re talking to public officials, they get a lot of very emotional appeals. Very often, what will actually motivate them is when you can give them some solid facts, some substance. You say, “I know what I’m talking about.” And if you’re a part of an organization that can help you know what you’re talking about, have the information you need. That gives you a leg up. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel.

24:02 TN: Yeah. And that’s one of the tips we’re gonna give you at our advocacy class is we tell people to make sure you bring a folder, and we try to encourage you to bring two, one for you and one for the legislator. That way if the legislator is looking at it, you have something to reference for yourself. But that folder should have some hard information in it about what you’re talking about. So some statistics and maybe an op-ed which is an opinion piece from a newspaper or a study from a university, something that can back up what you’re saying. Maybe going back to her sidewalk example, if you have an article about where somebody got hit by a car on your street, because they didn’t… You don’t have a sidewalk, a study about how pedestrian fatalities are reduced when you have sidewalks in subdivisions.

25:15 TN: When you have those kinds of information, and then you’re able to put your contact information and leave that with the legislator and then the legislator goes, “Oh, do you have one for my friend?” And you say, “Yes, I do. You can have mine as well.” And so that way, you have that hard information, and you’re not just going, “This is what I want, because I want it,” but you can go, “This is what we need as a community, because we need it.” And so we’re gonna show you in our advocacy class here how to put that together, how to assemble it, what it looks like.

25:58 TN: And if you’re looking for resources to get involved in disability advocacy in particular, I wanna give a few shout-outs. You can go to www.unlockingbarriers-sc.org. You can go to https://www.facebook.com/SCAccessIndependence/. You can go to ablesouthcarolina.org. You can go to AAPD.org, that’s the American Association of People with Disabilities. Go ncil.org, that is the National Center for Independent Living. #CripTheVote on Twitter is a non-partisan social media community of people with disabilities who talk about politics. That’s really great to watch if you’re watching the debates online right now, you can get a cross-disability platform view of what’s happening in politics. It’s absolutely fabulous.

27:09 TN: And I encourage you to check out organizations with your specific disability or disabilities, but make sure that they are run by persons with disabilities in leadership roles with empowerment of persons with disabilities in mind. The Center for Independent Living’s model is a cross-disability model run by people with disabilities for people with disabilities. You wanna make sure you’re not looking at organizations that are run by people without disabilities for people with disabilities, ’cause they’re not always empowerment oriented. And you may wanna also check out intersectional organizations, ones that are specific to other demographic groups that you might be a part of.

28:02 TN: So no matter where your passions are, it is important to get involved. When the voice of the disability community is at the table, there are benefits to accessibility, diversity, and inclusion across the board. The disability community in South Carolina needs you to speak up, and our intersectional rights organizations need you too.

28:22 TN: So I wanna talk a little bit about what it feels like to be involved and be a self-advocate and set some reasonable expectations and goals. So let’s start off talking about some of those reasonable expectations. We don’t always get what we want right off the bat, and that can feel hard. People who feel differently than us aren’t always nice either. I know we talked about how sometimes people with political opinions can be accessible, and they can be easy to talk to, but sometimes they’re not [chuckle] so is that ever hard on you? I know, before we started the podcast, we were talking about people who changed the schedule at the last minute.

29:20 LT: Right.

29:23 TN: So let’s talk a little bit about what it can really be like.

29:26 LT: Okay. Well, first of all, most public officials and especially those who are elected public officials, try to be pretty polite to the public, and you need to distinguish, first of all, between whether somebody’s not being nice to you, and whether somebody’s just disagreeing or saying that they can’t do what you want. In my experience, you are much better off dealing with somebody who’s honest about what they will and can do for you than you are somebody who’s going to just smooze you and tell you everything will be fine, and they forget about it the minute you walk out the door.

30:04 TN: That’s a very good point.

30:06 LT: And so one of my earliest experiences was sitting down with Senator Larry Martin who was then chair of Senate Judiciary in South Carolina, and I told him what I wanted, and he smiled and he said, “I can’t possibly do that for you.”

[chuckle]

30:24 LT: And I quickly learned that Senator Martin was one of those people who would tell you the truth, and I learned that there are other people that you go to and they, “Oh, that sounds really good. Yeah, I’m really interested in that.” And then they’d never follow up. So respect those people who will tell you the truth and that at least let you know where you are [chuckle] and plan accordingly. I have found that it’s not that often that people are genuinely rude or unpleasant when you’re doing advocacy, even the side from the elected officials. It’s really pretty uncommon in South Carolina especially where people value manners. I did a little bit work with the legislature in Arizona, and I will say that there were legislators there who would really stand out like a sore thumb here for their rudeness, but…

31:16 TN: It can get pretty brutal in Florida.

31:18 LT: Yeah.

[laughter]

31:20 LT: But you need to talk, not only with your public officials, but with people who have an interest in your issue that may be opposed to your interest, because if you can work things out with them, if you can find a compromise, then you go to the official with, “Here, we’ve been talking, and we have something we think, it maybe isn’t perfect for either of us, but it works better than what we have.”

31:44 TN: Right.

31:44 LT: That public official is going to really respect and appreciate that you’ve come part of the way to the solution, and those people who disagree with you, again, it’s a disagreement on an issue, it doesn’t mean that they’re bad people.

32:00 TN: No.

32:02 LT: Now and then, it does.

[laughter]

32:05 LT: But mostly the… Mostly, it simply means they have different priorities, or they have a different background, different information. Sometimes sharing information will change that difference, but sometimes it won’t, and then you just go on and find where you can find common ground.

32:19 TN: So what benefits do you see in your life from being involved as an advocate? What is the best feeling that you get at the end of the day?

32:35 LT: I’d say, actually, some of my best moments have been when I found a way forward on something that seemed intractable, that seemed really hard to resolve. And sometimes, if you just poke at a problem from different angles, you’ll find that there is a solution. There’s a wonderful cartoon that I wish I could present, but it shows a cat in a carrier trying to figure out how to get out of the closed door, and the top is off the carrier. If you focus too much on the problem rather than the potential solutions, you can lose sight of things. It’s immensely gratifying to see something actually happened for the public good, because you were able to work with people and find a way forward. It’s something that I value a lot.

33:32 TN: For me, I think the best feeling is when I am able to work with somebody who started out having a difference of opinion and I’m able to get them to look at something from another side, or when I change my mind. I think… I tell people all the time that when I started this journey, I never would have thought that I would be a person who uses first person language, and now I’m the biggest advocate for first person language, and it’s like I didn’t realize that I didn’t have respect for myself. And so it’s funny that sometimes the best feelings are the feelings when we change our own mind, because we’re learning. And I think that’s the point, right? We want all of you out there in podcast land to get those feelings of pride and community and empowerment. I’ve made so many life-long friends and people I consider family from being involved in advocacy.

34:49 TN: And you can have that by by being involved in… We want you to join us at Advocacy Day for Access and Independence on April 1st and meet people and get involved. And join other organizations, join the league, join anything that you think represents you. And if you have never been to Advocacy Day for Access Your Independence, it’s a great chance to listen to the disability community leaders and policy makers rallying together to bring awareness to disability rights issues. And that is on April 1st, it is on the South Carolina Capital steps. And another reminder: If you are interested in meeting with legislators, at Advocacy Day, you can sign up for our advocacy training class, where we will be covering ways to make you feel more confident talking to law makers in more detail at the Abel, South Carolina Columbia offices or by webinar.

35:54 TN: So, for more information on Advocacy Day or training classes, check out Abel, South Carolina’s Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, send us an email, or give us call. So, with that, do you have any closing remarks, thoughts…

36:11 LT: Yeah, I think very often people think, “Well, why are they gonna listen to me?” And when you’re dealing with fairly small governmental units like a house district in South Carolina, there really are not very many people who are very vocal in dealing with their representatives, and they pay attention to the people who are. And even getting input cards or postcards, phone calls, whatever from 15 people will definitely get the attention of a member of the House of Representatives in South Carolina. So don’t assume that your voice is lost.

36:50 TN: I think our stories, our unique experiences, for the sheer fact that we are the people that we are, go just a long way, you know? Just people who come together and have a community, people who are residents of the state of South Carolina bothering to come and talk to our legislators. It’s… Such a small percentage of people vote. I mean, even a smaller percentage of those people actually bother to talk to their law makers, and so just for that they will listen to you. Harness your inner power, be an empowered person, and remember your law maker works for you. You are the voter, you’re the one who gives them their job, right? And don’t be snotty about it, you know, but have that…

37:49 LT: You don’t have to be snotty about it. If there’s anything an elected official thinks about all the time it’s, “These people I’m dealing with either vote for me or won’t.”

[laughter]

38:00 LT: You don’t have to remind them.

38:03 TN: I would like to thank my guest Lynn Teague, Vice President of Issues in Action of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina. And I would like to thank all of you for spending this time with me today. I hope to see all of you who are South Carolina residents at self-advocacy class and Advocacy Day for Access into Independence on April 1st. You have been parked in the Access Isle, a production of Abel, South Carolina.

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