Selective Discrimination: Why Service Dog handlers Should Denounce Mississippi’s Religious Freedom Bill

Service dog users get a lot of grief. They are barred from restaurants, ejected from cabs, rejected by ridesharing services like Uber, and kicked out of public businesses. Each time this happens, (assuming the handler goes public with the news), there is as much scorn as support. Other blind people tend to rally around these victims of discrimination. Newspapers get involved. The businesses or individuals in question are reminded of relevant laws requiring them to allow service dogs anywhere their handlers go, and in the best-case scenario compensation, or at least an apology, is provided. The best-case scenario doesn’t always happen, though, and if you were to take a stroll through a few comment sections pertaining to any of these stories, you’d find shocking bigotry, hatred, and ignorance.

It is unreasonable to support discrimination against service dog handlers. Besides, anyone with experience knows that most service dogs are well-trained and astoundingly well-behaved. I know a guide dog so focused that she can keep calm while someone literally screams with hysterical fear as she walks by. She’s so quiet that I often forget she’s there (when she’s in harness that is—the rest of the time she is an energizer bunny). I know full well how absurd service dog discrimination is, whether it’s based on fear of dogs, a belief that dogs are destructive and untrustworthy, or a religious objection. The law is the law, after all.

Christians everywhere are celebrating the brand new bill passed in Mississippi. This bill essentially removes all discrimination protection from the LGBTQ community. Under this new bill, it is legal to refuse service to any member of the LGBTQ community as long as you have “sincerely-held religious beliefs.” So, A Christian who objects to gay or trans people could bar them from restaurants, eject them from cabs, reject them while working for a ridesharing service, and kick them out of public businesses. Sound familiar?

So, I ask every service dog handler this: why is it reprehensible for a Muslim, whose religious beliefs are probably sincerely-held, to kick you out of their car or refuse entry to their restaurant, but perfectly reasonable for a Christian to do the same to a gay or trans person? What makes a service dog handler worthy of discrimination protection above a gay or trans person? Why are a Muslim’s sincere religious beliefs met with scorn and censure while a Christian’s are met with support? Why is it acceptable for someone to object to the “choice” to be gay (assuming you still follow that line of reasoning) but unacceptable to disapprove of the choice to own a service dog? Except in a very few and very special cases, having a service dog is a choice, not a necessity. And why, oh why, aren’t you speaking out against this bill?

You face a huge volume of scrutiny and criticism just for wanting your dog to accompany you wherever you go. There are projects in the works to secure identification for all dogs, so that you could be badgered for an ID card at every turn. The vitriolic comments on social media should tell you just how precarious your position is.

A bill like this is so easily passed…and next time, it could be targeting you.

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Pleasing The Unpleasable: Say Goodbye To The Middle Ground

If you’ve spent a lot of time on social media—particularly Twitter and Facebook—you might have noticed a diversity spectrum. At one end, (let’s call it right, for giggles) we have people who are passionately opposed to diversity. At the far left, we have people who are equally passionate about encouraging diversity. There’s a whole lot of middle ground, but the opposite ends are usually warring with each other, and those in the centre are subjected to the excesses of both sides.

I’m not sure where exactly I’d place myself on this spectrum—though certainly more left than right—but I think it’s difficult to self-assess these things. It’s nearly impossible to examine my own behavior with an objective lens and decide where I belong. Even diverse and oppressed populations find ourselves unsure of where we stand, especially when we get caught in the intense crossfire. Objectivity itself is disturbingly scarce, in an age when we put less and less stock in fairytales, harmful superstitions (adopt the black cats, guys, pretty please!) and even extremist ideologies. There are a few publications that conduct ethical, verifiable research intended to challenge our cherished, long-held beliefs about the world. They are too few, though, and in a world of black-and-white thinking and instinctive loyalty to one’s beliefs, their voices are not nearly loud enough.

Now, the righthand side of the spectrum is a very real threat. These are the people—usually powerful majorities, but not always—dismissing diverse authors because they’re not “good” writers. They look down on women in comedy because, I kid you not,women aren’t funny. They despise disabled people because we are a drain on the system, robbing them of hard-earned pennies and indirectly taking food from their children’s mouths. (They conveniently refuse to educate themselves; many of us aren’t on benefits at all.) They’re usually the ones promising same-sex couples they’re bound for hell, calling black people thugs, and branding indigenous populations lazy drunks. Their claims sometimes stem from personal, unfortunate experience; even so, their attitudes are obviously detrimental to society. I think many of us can agree with that, at the very least. But …

It would be a mistake to consider the far left pure, just, and incorruptible. The Social Justice Warriors (as the right so affectionately calls them) are genuinely trying to fight the good fight as they see it. Overtaken by their intense fervor, though, they seem to neglect those in the centre of things. They are fighting for what they perceive as justice, but many of them are unwilling to entertain the idea of grey areas, full stop. They don’t appear to acknowledge (or care) that the tactics they so despise from the far right are often the ones they adopt themselves. Take it from someone who is left but not all the way left: more often than not, it’s safer to avoid getting involved, because you’ll feel ineffectual and exhausted in short order. It’s gotten so bad that more than once, I’ve taken a “mental health break” from social media, or at least from controversy. While I have been guilty of this overenthusiastic dog piling, (and may be again), I recognize that it’s largely ineffective and stressful for everyone involved.

If you examine the far left’s strategies more closely, you’ll begin to spot the multitude of contradictions:
• They hate to see diverse populations silenced by the right, but are constantly telling everyone to #SitTheFuckDown, including fellow diverse individuals.
• They occasionally consider evangelism deplorable, yet they preach every bit as loudly and proudly as the religious right. (I personally have no issue with preaching on either side, but it’s still glaring hypocrisy.)
• They accuse the right of being too exclusive, yet will ignore anyone who doesn’t toe the party line. (Try entering a conversation about race or disability if you’re white and/or able-bodied, even when you support the cause and honestly want to know how you can help.)
• They are forever telling majorities, (especially straight, able-bodied white men) to shut up, then accusing them of failing to do enough for the cause. (Either you want them involved or you don’t. Pick one.)
• They criticize majority artists for failing to include diverse characters in their books and movies (which they should, really), but then turn around and berate them for cultural appropriation. This is a very real and very important concept, but it is ill-defined and confusing. (This can be a powerful source of anxiety for writers who want to do the right thing but feel as though they can’t win either way.)

There are numerous voices for marginalized groups who either encourage majorities to get involved, (This book is an excellent example) or at the very least encourage them to boost the voices of diverse populations. These instructions are relatively easy to follow, and they allow white, straight, able-bodied, Cis-gendered males to take part without routinely saying the wrong thing or supporting the wrong people. Others, however, are simply unpleasable: they want you as an ally, but only if you say what they tell you to, when they tell you to. They want you to help, but then dismiss all your efforts because they’re insufficient. They refuse to guide your attempts, then spit on you for making a mistake.

This is not to say that all allies are perfect little angels just waiting to be told what to do, of course not. Many people who want to be allies have suspect motives, condescending perspectives, and narrow minds. Take, for example, the plethora of articles about how “inspirational” people with disabilities are. The gooey rhetoric of the able-bodied can be dangerous as well as irritating, trust me. In my experience at least, you’ll attract more flies with honey than with vinegar: if you calmly and kindly explain why this inspiration porn is not okay, people are generally willing to listen and take note. There will always be those who think they know best, but quite a few people out there are all too willing to learn, so long as we can tell them how best to do so. We can’t blame everybody for stumbling a bit along the way; none of us is immune to a stumble here and there. We need to be more compassionate, we really do.

Sadder still, the unpleasable, comparatively rare though they are, often drive people away from the message they’re trying to send. The medium is the message, so if you convey important ideas via abusive rants on Facebook or angry tweet storms on Twitter, your words will be lost in the mayhem. If you barge into a stranger’s Twitter mentions or Facebook posts specifically to deliver personal attacks and invective, don’t expect them to absorb your message with delight and say “Yes! I shall change immediately.” I recognize the need for anger, and passion, and even temporary preference for justice over mercy. There are many on the far right who do grievous social and even physical harm, and that’s something worth fighting against. So, yes: be angry. Be passionate and stand up for those who cannot do so for themselves. Be unafraid to express what you think is right; after all, I’ve been doing that here for over a year now. Be dedicated in the wish to educate and advocate. I’ll be right behind you.

Take care, though, that you do not push away the very people whom you claim to represent. If I, a disabled person, am bombarded by a barrage of social justice warriors because I dare to have a slightly more moderate opinion than they do, I’ll be tempted to abandon their cause altogether. The quickest way to divide people is to pit them against each other, and forming a “diversity club” is one effective way to do it. Silencing fellow diverse people because they don’t follow your exact specifications is going to damage your credibility and distort your message.

Those who silence others do not represent me. Those who gang up on vulnerable people are not my peers. Those who refuse to accept and guide allies do not help my cause. Those who shame, degrade, and dismiss other diverse populations for the sake of their own agendas are not my friends. The unpleasable are not my allies. If your only goal is to shut everyone up so your own voice is the only one that matters, then go your way. Don’t expect me to follow you.

No, I Don’t See With My Heart

I’ve come across a persistent myth concerning blind people and their near-angelic status. The sighted world is so shallow. The sighted world is so intolerant of diversity. The sighted world is so afraid of difference; so obsessed with outward appearance; so incapable of appreciating the “inside”. Blind people, on the other hand, “see” with our hearts. We possess heightened compassion and tolerance. Further, because we don’t have access to vision, we could not possibly criticize others for being shallow. After all, what do we know? We have never seen. How can we condemn what we don’t understand?

This perspective is so persuasive that at least one study has been conducted to find out whether blind people are capable of being, say, racist, reasoning that our inability to see colour must make us immune to racial prejudice. Yes, of course we are capable of prejudice. This is not news, or at least it shouldn’t be.

Think about it: race is so much more than pigmentation. It’s a socially constructed system in which we choose to group people into racial categories, then attach specific traits to those groups. This is how society decides that “Mexicans are lazy” and “black people are thugs” and “white people are respectable”. These labels transcend colour. People are not offended by or prejudicial towards a black person because they don’t like their skin. Racism is so embedded in our culture that nobody, not even a blind person, could escape it. I suppose you could argue that we may not judge as readily if we don’t yet know a stranger’s race, but all I have to do is hear a particular accent to commence judging immediately. I try not to, of course, but even I know it’s a mistake to pretend I don’t.

It is also somewhat unreasonable to assume there are few, if any, blind people who are shallower than cookie sheets. So much of society is busy branding the underweight as skeletal; the overweight as lazy; the attractive, desirable; the unattractive, undesirable. Blind people must be incapable of and therefore unable to appreciate or reject someone for their outward appearance, right? Nuh uh.

The thing is, fat (or lack of it) is not a purely visual concept. All it takes is a hug for me to know a fair bit about what you look like. I could take a guess at your weight, and judge the clothing you are wearing (to a certain extent anyway) and assess the attractiveness or unattractiveness of your general shape. Don’t be fooled into thinking blind people don’t fat shame. We understand what fat is, and we are almost as susceptible to instinctive judgements as anyone else. I recall reading a story about Tommy Sullivan, a blind pianist, who pretended to drop something so he could scrabble around on the floor for it. He very conveniently managed to grab the nearest woman’s leg in the process. I believe it was Ray Charles who, upon gripping a woman’s arm, allegedly grimaced with disgust when he realized how plump she was. Anecdotes like these, whether true or false, suggest that blind people can be just as shallow as the average sighted person. If a blind person tries to claim they are above reproach and incapable of shallow discrimination, please do set them straight.

Consider voices: no two voices are identical (mostly because accents and various linguistic quirks make them more distinct) and while most of them are neutral to me, I find some very attractive and some…well, not. Try as I might, I can’t escape the tendency to judge based on vocal qualities. A grating voice might put me off. If a person uses an excess of vocal fry, says “like” a little too often, or has an otherwise unusual or irritating voice, I’m going to have a harder time interacting with them until I get to know them a bit better. It’s equally easy to be drawn to a lovely voice, as well. Some people become distracted when they see a gorgeous person. If you have a gorgeous voice, I’m going to get distracted, too. (If I ever meet Morgan Freeman, I’ll be in trouble.) It’s a perfectly natural aspect of human life and, while sighted people focus less on this because their vision is more demanding, blind people are especially vulnerable to this bias.

Scent and touch matter, too: perfume and cashmere aren’t marketed exclusively to blind people, after all. I think sighted people frequently underestimate qualities outside of visual beauty. There are probably a lot of traits you find attractive in others, but you’re not conscious of them because you’re busy appreciating what they look like. If you concentrate, you might discover a few new attributes.

Then, we come to the idea of automatic compassion: it’s true that, in my personal case, blindness has allowed me to step outside myself and consider the difficulties of others. This sensitivity may just be a component of my personality, and not a direct result of my blindness, though. I certainly think it helps–empathy goes a long way–but after years of interacting with the rest of the community, I know just how intolerant, bigoted, and “shortsighted” we can be. I’ve scrolled through numerous discussion forums, watching scores of blind people displaying alarming amounts of homophobia, racism, sexism, and even ableism towards other disabilities. Hell, I’ve even seen them turn on each other, accusing people of handling their blindness badly, or giving us a bad name, or simply doing life wrong. Where is all this inherent compassion we’re supposed to be born with? Where is this innate avoidance of judgment? I’ve witnessed just as much judgment and intolerance in the blind community as anywhere else, maybe more.

Sure, there are many of us who try to see past the surface, understand multiple perspectives, and acknowledge that since we have never known sight, there may be a lot of things we’re missing altogether. But to tell me I don’t “get it” because I’ve never seen someone? To tell me I will never understand fat shaming or racism or ableism because I can’t see? To tell me I can’t criticize it because I don’t know what it’s like? That’s a very dangerous (and condescending) viewpoint. This assumes that being unable to see makes me into an angel of compassion. I’m nice enough (I hope), but not angelic. So please: don’t deceive yourself by imagining that we are too busy seeing with our charitable little hearts to find fault. Our humanity is neither diminished nor enhanced by disability, remember that.

The Woman Who Chose To Go Blind (And Why We Shouldn’t Hate Her)

Jewel Shuping’s story went viral when it was revealed that she convinced a psychologist to pour drain cleaner in her eyes and blind her. Naturally, people freaked out.

Wow. Jewel Shupingis a idiot

— #FlyEaglesFly(@One_Liner_Tyler) October 2, 2015

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Quite understandably, many people thought it was a hoax, but Jewel herself told her story, in an attempt to help others with what is called Body Identity Integrity Disorder. The disorder is similar to gender dysphoria in that the patient feels his/her body is not as it should be. In this case, Jewel, and others like her, genuinely feel that a part of their bodies—often a limb but in this case an organ—does not belong and they will feel incomplete until they get rid of it. For many, this results in amputations, but in Jewel’s case, she just needed to damage her eyes enough to feel blind. Jewel has never been happier.

This is unthinkable to just about everyone—indeed, the disorder is very rare—and this story has inspired shock and outrage from sighted and blind alike. Sighted people cannot imagine going blind anyway (as I’ve previously discussed, it is one of their worst fears) and even blind people think she’s a bit nuts. After all, most of us would not necessarily choose this life, even though we may not welcome a cure. Entertaining the idea of deliberately disabling myself makes me shudder, and my first reaction to this story was anger. Being blind is hard enough without sighted people actively choosing the “lifestyle”. Further, what will sighted people think of us? The blind community suffers from ambassadorship syndrome, even if we try to combat that instinct, and I wondered what implications Jewel’s actions might mean for the rest of us? It’s very difficult to give people the right idea about what blindness is like, and viral anomalies like this one further distort the picture.

Of course, sensational news can lead one down many paths, some of them a bit ridiculous. I began imagining what would happen if more and more people did this sort of thing. Would people lose respect and compassion for disabled people in general? Would everyone I meet become suspicious, wondering whether I was a “real” blind person or just someone who poured drain cleaner in her eyes on purpose? Would we need to undergo rigorous testing to make sure we’re not voluntarily disabled during screening for benefits, accommodations, and other special services? I eventually managed to derail the hysteria in my head, which left me with the hefty question: how should I feel about Jewel?

Unsurprisingly, Jewel and her actions have sparked much controversy for two reasons. One is that she claims to suffer from Body Identity Integrity Disorder—as mentioned above—so the question is whether or not she is mentally ill or simply different. Disorders are not generally viewed positively, but trans people are steadily gaining social acceptance around the world. They can be said to have a disorder as well, yet most forward-thinking liberals would not tolerate bigotry directed at them, nor would they support the dismissal of the disorder as “mental illness” that needs to be “cured”. So, does Jewel need “treatment”? Is she “ill”? Or, like trans individuals, is she merely feeling an all-consuming desire to modify her body in a way that has felt right for her since she was a child? One might argue (and indeed I have) that trans people are different because they do not seek to disable themselves. Changing your gender, while involving much mutilation and modification of body parts that are in perfect working order, does not have the same result as someone wishing to invite disability. Disability makes life much, much harder. It’s harder to get a job. It’s harder to gain social acceptance. It’s harder to support yourself and others, particularly if disability accommodations require costly technology and services. Being a trans man or woman is difficult whether they transition successfully or not, so they may as well go ahead and transition, hoping that they will one day “pass”. Blinding yourself, however, is a whole other matter. Still, the temptation to make the comparison is strong. Jewel even decompressed in the same ways trans people do. Using a cane and reading braille were ways of decompressing so that she could feel “normal”, at least some of the time. So, is BIID similar enough to Gender Dysphoria that we should treat the two equally? Is Jewel no crazier than Caitlyn Jenner?

The other bit of controversy deals with objections and fears from the blind community itself. While some of Jewel’s blind friends have been incredibly supportive—one even calling her “brave”—there has been a lot of hatred directed toward her as well. What if she makes the rest of us struggle more than we already do? We don’t exactly need more negativity associated with us, right? Then there is the very thorny (and legitimate) issue of accommodation: should someone who has deliberately disabled themselves be entitled to benefits, workplace accommodations, assistive technology grants and so on? Should someone who has purposefully blinded herself receive help for a disability she actually chose and embraced? Certainly, Jewel has access to at least some of this at the moment, and despite her contentment with her new lot, she still occasionally complains about some of the things blind people have been grumbling about for decades. Thanks to the paratransit, I will miss my first class. They are going to arrive until 1030. My first class is at 10. I am very angry.z

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Does she have any right to complain about Paratransit when she chose a life that would force her to rely on it? Does she have any right to seek help that the rest of us need whether we want to or not? While I may not feel as angry as I did, I can certainly see why this angle, in particular, infuriates other blind people. We work so hard to be on a level with everyone else, even when we are perfectly content with ourselves, and it seems almost insulting to think that someone would handicap themselves and then have the gall to complain about it. It’s easy to get good and mad about that. But …

Is there any point in being angry? Is there any reason to hate her? Is there any good that can come from dismissing her as crazy? She doesn’t feel crazy. She feels very happy, and psychologists and neurologists have acknowledged that what she is feeling is also felt by others. Even if we choose to frame her condition as mental illness, we still have to respect the fact that she has cautioned others with BIID, asking them to seek treatment before resorting to drastic measures as she did. She went so far as to admit that it really is a disorder, and that while she is happy with her choice, it is worth seeking alternative treatment and, if people still decide to go through with it, they should do so using much safer channels. Wanting to modify your body in drastic ways may not be objectively crazy, but getting a psychologist to put drops of drain cleaner in your eyes might be a little crazy.

My post raises far more questions than answers, I know. I worry: I worry that Jewel will continue to be the target of intense bigotry, hate, and derision. I worry that other people suffering from BIID will be dismissed, or shunned, or silenced. I worry that people will begin to see Gender Dysphoria as crazy again, and direct even more bigotry, ignorance, and hatred towards trans people. In short, I worry about more hate, more anger, and more myopia. Will people want to view this issue from multiple angles, or will they simply refuse to think about the matter long enough to see a grey area? I can just imagine all the sighted people taking one look at this headline and picturing men in white coats hauling Jewel away. I can also see blind people taking one look at this and feeling powerful anger and contempt.

I hope good can come of this. Jewel is happy, and other people with BIID have the potential to be happy—or at least happier. Jewel’s message of caution and alternative treatment is just as important as her own choice. She’s not trying to lead a movement here. We’re not likely to see a huge wave of BIID sufferers coming out of the woodwork, dismantling the whole disability accommodations system as we know it. However, it is very dangerous to treat this like a happily-ever-after scenario. This has so many complicated facets, and I know there will be a huge outcry from the trans community if they feel delegitimized by BIID. We need clear heads, and open minds, and rigorous research. We need objectivity. This is not a good time for black-and-white thinking. Do me a favour, and spend five minutes looking at this from every angle. Then, tell me what you see.

“I’m Not Prejudiced! Some of My Best Friends are Blind!”

“I’m not racist! Some of my best friends are black!”
“I’m not bigoted! Some of my best friends are LGBT!”

This century-old defence is generally dismissed, especially on the internet. People try to claim that, due to the presence of minorities in their circle of friends, they are above reproach. They can’t possibly be prejudiced. Would a racist have black friends? Would a bigot have gay friends? The general consensus is yes! a thousand times yes! Your best friends don’t shield you from your biases, even if they are willing to ignore or even embrace them.

Several months ago, someone I respect very much (let’s call her Alison) made a stereotypical blind joke: “Shouldn’t ads for blind people be on the radio instead of TV?” or something to that effect. I took no issue with the joke’s complete lack of comedic value; your mileage may vary, perhaps? What I did take issue with was the inherent (and silly) stereotyping in the joke. A lot of people think we don’t enjoy TV or movies simply because we can’t see. Apparently, the dialogue is some trivial, peripheral aspect of the whole experience. As helpful as described video can be, it is still very possible for us to enjoy TV shows (and cringe at the ads). Her joke played on that ridiculous stereotype, and she made it very publicly, reaching a large number of people all over the internet.

I, in my infinite foolishness, wrote to her:
“You do realize that blind people can still watch TV, yeah?”
“Um, hello? Of course. Ever heard of a joke?”
“Well, yes…it’s just that this one plays on some very pervasive stereotypes that we spend much of our time fighting against. Please please try not to perpetuate it.”

After this exchange, some friend of hers chimed in: “Wow, chill, bitch! Some of Alison’s best friends are blind!”

Ah, here we go…the ultimate trap: if my blind friend says it’s okay, then it is. No question. This is immutable, right?

Noooooo! Not even close. Not for one second.

I found this whole conversation distinctly odd. Alison is a well-known and very vocal feminist who supports the rights of minorities. She despises stereotypical jokes about women, LGBT people, and ethnic minorities. She devotes much of her time to dispelling the myths and encouraging truth and inclusiveness. All wonderful stuff, and I like her a great deal.

Why, then, does all this stop applying when dealing with blind people? Suddenly, all the ethics and inclusiveness and open-mindedness disappear. Suddenly, for no discernible reason, it is acceptable to make ridiculous, condescending jokes about us that, if made about a gay or black or transgender person, would be reviled for the bigotry that they are.

Jokes among your friends are different from jokes made in public. I play along with blind jokes made at my personal expense with enthusiasm. Blind people, in fact, are very good at laughing at ourselves. I’ve always written my blog with my sense of humour at the forefront, so it’s not the jokes I have a problem with, not really. Alison’s joke is pretty harmless, at least on the surface.

What I have a problem with is the defence itself. It’s such an empty, futile argument. It appears to lay a steel trap, but is really just so much shrinking from all responsibility. Maybe you have a blind friend who thinks stereotypical jokes are hilarious, and that’s okay. Feel free to make them whenever you’d like … around and about them, that is. Just because your blind friend is okay with something, does not mean that the rest of us are okay with it. Furthermore, it doesn’t mean that it’s okay, period.

There will be a lot of people who assume, judging by this post, that I’m an exceptionally uptight person. I’m not. I am almost too tolerant at times—something my friends never tire of telling me. My issue isn’t with the individuals, like Alison, who tell these jokes and/or excuse behaviour that would be bigotry if directed at any other group. My issue is with the people who allow that argument to stand unchallenged. I could have six hundred gay friends, and they could all actively encourage me to tell prejudicial jokes or otherwise behave in a bigoted manner towards them. That doesn’t change the facts, though: most people, LGBT or otherwise, would find that behaviour generally offensive.

Maybe your blind friend is okay with bad TV jokes. Maybe she thinks it’s funny when you pet her service dog while its in harness. Maybe he erupts into side-splitting mirth when you steal his cane and hide it. (God, I hope I never meet your friend.) None of that matters in the grand scheme. If you tried any of that in the wider world, people would denounce it, and rightly so.

If your best friends are allowing you to go out there and act like a bigot without at least warning you … get some new friends.