Interview with Barbara Briggs, Attorney with Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, Inc.

May 23, 2012



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We Connect Now (“WCN”) recently sat down with attorney Barbara Briggs. Ms. Briggs is a graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center where she was a Public Interest Law Scholar.  Ms. Briggs presently serves as the Supervising Attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, Inc.’s Educational Advocacy Project.

WCN – What is your general background?

BB – Special education, both undergraduate and graduate work and a law degree. I taught for eight years, high school, junior high and elementary school.

WCN – How did you get involved with special education law?

BB – I was working with a law firm in Washington, DC, Hogan and Hartson.  We were working at that time with the McKenzie Group on certain matters.  The niece of someone with the McKenzie Group had a mental illness and was in school in Maryland. The niece really disliked school and was involved in non-safe activities. We were able to get her placed in a residential school with psychological services and treatment. The folks at The McKenzie Group told me I should be doing this full-time.  I moved to Florida and started practicing in the area of special education law, originally in private practice.

WCN – Where do you work now?

BB – I work for Legal Aid of Palm Beach County, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation.  I have been there for 15 years, since 1997.

WCN – Who are the clients that you work with?

BB – A lot of my clients are from poor families that don’t believe in mental illness. Untreated mental illness can look like aggression.  Sometimes the initial diagnosed act of mental illness can be perceived as a criminal act. I had one client who was a very mentally ill young man who has schizophrenia but his family didn’t believe in mental illness.  They wouldn’t keep him on his medication. He kept getting into trouble.  He is now in adult prison.  Disability is an equal opportunity leveler, but middle class kids can get treatment and don’t end up in the system.  Lower-income kids don’t get the treatment they need. Studies show that people with disabilities such as learning disabilities or mental illness make up 11-16% of the general population but 60-70% of the population in jail. A student with this type of disability has a six times greater chance of ending up in the criminal justice system than does the average student.  My clients are more male than female. Boys tend to manifest disabilities louder while girls are more withdrawn and less likely to be diagnosed.

WCN – What should parents know?

BB – They should educate themselves on the IDEA [the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] and the IEP [Individualized Education Program] and how to effectively use this. With a good IEP, a kid is less likely to end up in the juvenile justice system.  IEP’s need to change over time. If kids aren’t making progress, the goals and objectives need to change.  More, or different, related services need to be provided.  IEP’s are written annually. If kids are not learning then you need to change things around to make it better whether it’s a different setting, or additional assistance. You need to keep amending the IEP until the definition of a FAPE [Free Appropriate Public Education] is reached.

WCN – What is your role in the process?

BB – The parents retain me. The parents generally exercise the IEP rights on behalf of the child until age 18. I review the records and go to the IEP.  Sometimes I am appointed by the Court.

WCN – What is the IEP?

BB- It’s the plan that determines what special education and related services a student with a disability will receive and what goals, objectives, accommodations and modifications are going to be the focus of the child’s schooling that’s written on a yearly basis.

WCN – If you could amend current law to add additional rights or powers, what would you add?

BB – I would want the federal authorities to fully fund special education.

I would also add a provision limiting the ability to use the school police/sheriff’s office to intervene against kids because the acting out is often a manifestation of disability. They use police as a tool to get the kids out of school.

WCN – Do you think that charter schools are adequately serving students with disabilities?

BB – There are many charter schools in Florida. The research at the state and the national level indicate they are not the answer. The quality of charter schools is uneven. They are far less regulated.  Charter schools accept less than 5% of the overall population of students with disabilities, and usually only those with mild disabilities.  There are some charter schools specifically for students with disabilities, but those are the exception, not the rule.  Overall, students with disabilities are being left out of the charter school movement.

WCN – Do many of your clients go to college?

BB – Very few go on to higher education.  They have a hard enough time getting through high school.

WCN – What is the most difficult part of your practice?

BB – Seeing my clients go into the delinquency process or to jail. I’ve also lost a couple of clients.  One young man shot himself. Another young woman went to a dance club, where she was an innocent bystander in a shooting, and died.

WCN – What are your favorite cases?

BB – Winning reimbursement for families.  It’s the kids that keep me motivated. I really like what I am doing. Nothing is static. It’s a roller coaster. Things get better based on good leadership and good economic times but nothing ever stays like that. Now are particularly bad economic times. There have been no raises in a year and teachers are not paid well to begin with, so recently it has been a struggle to get kids what they need to succeed.


We Connect Now’s Recent Guest Blog for the Amy Speech and Language Therapy website.

April 17, 2012

Visit the Amy Speech and Language Therapy website and check out our guest blog “What Makes We Connect Now Unique Among Organizations Serving College Students With Disabilities” which is posted at The website focuses on issues related to speech and language and includes other useful links and blogs.


My Experience With Beep Baseball

March 30, 2012

Drawing of a wooden baseball bat

by John Miller, A Volunteer with We Connect Now

Standing at the plate, I bounce the bat lightly on my right shoulder as I anticipate the coming action. The pitcher asks me to take a couple of practice swings, so that he can get a feel of where in the zone he should try and place the ball. “You’re gripping it too hard!” he says as I squeeze the bat as though the next swing might well send it flying. “Loosen up, or I might accidentally break your fingers”.

In this modified version of baseball, called beep baseball, both the pitcher and catcher are on the same team as the hitter. Their object is to get me to actually make contact with the ball on one of approximately five throws.

Finally, I settle in and prepare for the real thing. The pitcher says “ready?” and I pull the bat back and assume my stance. Then he says “ball!” and releases the fairly large, beeping orb so that it covers the few feet between him and the plate. The aluminum makes contact, sending the ball almost immediately to the ground where it rolls away into the grass.

As I hurtle toward whichever of the two bases has been activated, (I have to listen for a low buzzing sound,) I hear someone in the field shout a number. These numbers range from 1-7, and they represent zones in which defenders for the other team are placed. Callers, as those in the field who give the numbers are known, have several tactics for informing the fielders of what may happen with any given hit. If the ball is in the middle of a zone and rolling on the ground, that zone’s number is simply stated. If it is hit short, the zone number is called twice in rapid succession: “five! Five!” If the ball is rolling along the line between two zones, both numbers are stated quickly: “six! Seven!” Finally, if, and this is incredibly rare given the size of most standard beep balls, the pitch has been launched into the air, the caller extends the length of the number as it is stated: “seevveenn!”

Basically, I am aiming to reach the base before someone in that field manages to grab the ball and display it to the umpire. If I get to the base, it’s a run. If they get the ball first, it’s an out. The real fun usually happens in the field, where arms are likely to get stepped on, heads can make contact with turf, and one must often sacrifice his or her body in order to stop that ball in time. It’s almost a combination of baseball and football, because of the high amount of contact that is involved. And, as in any other sport, persons playing beep ball have experienced their fair share of injuries.

My explanation of how the game works was accurate in the league in which I played, covering an area in North and South Carolina. I was on a team called the Charlotte Hornets, the original Charlotte Hornets as they so often point out. I played until my level of hearing reached a point that doing so was no longer feasible. I think that other beep baseball leagues have their players run to and deactivate cones, but I’m not really sure how this works as I never played in such a league. Also, if any individual has usable vision, then he or she will be made to wear a blindfold in order to play.

The social aspect of it, the bonding that occurred after an unlikely win, the disappointment I experienced following a bungled play, all those elements made the entire experience worth it. It’s one of the best ways I know of for blind and visually impaired persons to truly experience the dynamics of playing a team sport, and I highly recommend that especially younger individuals try it out.

For a more in-depth discussion of beep baseball, listen to Serotalk’s Tech Chat 96 which was dedicated to the subject at this link:

Is Adult ADHD a Disability? by LuAnn Pierce

February 20, 2012

There is much confusion about ADHD – many are unsure it even exists, and some consider it an excuse for bad behavior, procrastination, disorganization and missing deadlines. Until recently, the diagnostic criteria for the disorder did not include older adolescents and adults. The American Academy of Pediatrics changed the ages for diagnosis of ADHD from ages   6 – 12 to ages 4 – 18 (and above) in late 2011.

College students and adults in the workforce who were not diagnosed when younger often find themselves struggling in adulthood. Many who were previously treated have stopped taking ADHD medication, hoping to outgrow the symptoms after puberty, as doctors once believed. They are often surprised when they begin to have similar problems as adults. Frequently these adults need to be officially diagnosed (again) and treated for adult ADHD to keep their jobs or save their grades.

Russell Barkley and others have reported 65-80% of kids with ADHD continue to have symptoms as adults. Sadly, only 10% or so receive treatment; gratefully, that seems to be changing. More recent research on adult ADHD supports the diagnosis, hence the change in diagnostic criteria. Without treatment the outcome is bleak for many adolescents and adults.

ADHD and Employment

The ADHD Awareness Coalition, spearheaded by CHADD, ADHD Coaches Organization (ACO), ADDitude magazine and Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA), conducted a non-scientific survey last year and found disheartening results. Over 2,000 adults participated in the survey. 60 percent said they had lost a job due to ADHD symptoms. “More than 36 percent reported having 4 or more jobs in the past 10 years, and 6.5 percent responded they have had 10 or more jobs within the past 10 years.”

Clearly, finding the right job and career path to fit your specific needs is critical to success. Ask for accommodations; sometimes even minor changes can make the difference between success and failure in college or the workplace. As one who was too ashamed to ask for ‘special treatment’ (allegedly, because I didn’t want anyone else to ‘think’ I had problems), I can tell you it’s best to address your denial and come to terms with reality sooner, rather than later.

Coming to Terms with Invisible Conditions

Coming to terms with any kind of disability or difference is an adjustment. It requires honesty, courage and letting go of who you thought you were. Counseling may be helpful to work through the grief and other issues related to the adjustment period. It took over 50 years for me to accept that my ADHD is truly disabling without the right support and accommodations.

I have chronicled the ‘most’ major event that triggered my coming to terms with ADHD in a free ebook if you are interested in more details. There are also links to information about the legal protection, accommodations, advocacy and other relevant information in the article Adult ADHD and Self Advocacy:10 Tips for Facing Giants.

How Do I know if I have ADHD?

Not everyone who is easily distracted, disorganized or disruptive has ADHD. Likewise, many adults who have ADHD are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. I was treated for anxiety for two years before my therapist realized that I had ADHD in the early 90s. Numerous confounding variables make it difficult to diagnose this disorder, ie., over half of adults with ADHD also have anxiety, depression and sleep disorders.

Here are some red flags and nuances to look for:

  • ADHD is genetic. There is up to an 80% chance that children will have the disorder if a parent has ADHD. Many adults don’t realize they have ADHD until a child in the family is diagnosed.
  • ADHD begins in childhood unless the symptoms are caused by a head injury or other environmental factor. In most cases, you are born with ADHD or not. Some believe that many babies who are oxygen deprived at birth and/or born with forceps may develop learning disabilities, ADHD or other mental health problems. The same is true for many babies who are exposed to alcohol or other drugs (including tobacco) before birth, and toxins such as lead paint after birth. Head injuries can result from abuse, accidents such as falling and other seemingly minor insults to the brain. All of these and other environmental factors are believed to cause brain damage, which often shows up as problems with learning, attention or mental health, though it may go undetected until a child enters school.
  • ADHD is a misnomer. People assume that an attention deficit means that people are unable to focus at all. Most people with ADHD can be very focused or ‘hyper-focused’ on things they find stimulating, ie., video games, movies, music, reading, typing, etc. When someone is hyper-focused, he or she appears to block out almost everything around them and have difficulty transitioning from one task to another.

When not stimulated externally, the pre-frontal cortex of the ADHD brain is seeking stimulation. It is believed that the neurons are not firing fast enough, hence the need for external stimulation. I heard two different doctors describe ADHD as caused by a ‘sleepy brain’ that literally causes people to shift and move around to stay awake. The brain can be stimulated by medication, exercise, mindfulness or other meditation, fidgeting, chewing gum, knitting or crocheting, playing an instrument (particularly drums) or other stimulating activity. Different things work for different people.

  • There are three types of ADHD – Hyperactive (the more obvious kind), Inattentive (dreamy, disorganized, procrastination, seemingly unmotivated and often mistaken for laziness by outsiders) and Combined, a combination of hyperactivity and inattention. Since these manifest very differently, identifying the less obvious Inattentive Type can be difficult. Those who have symptoms of both (me!) seem to bounce from one to the other. Hyperactivity is more easily recognized in children. In adults, it appears more as restlessness, impatience, fidgeting or wiggling.
  • Keep in mind, ADHD symptoms may be mild, moderate or severe. The severely hyperactive person, who is always late, harried and in a hurry every day looks very different from a mildly or moderately hyperactive person, who bounces his/her foot or taps her fingers all day. An mildly inattentive person who can’t seem to start on projects or find her address book, presents differently from the severely inattentive one who can’t see over the piles on her desk, forgets to pick up the kids from school and sends email to the wrong person at work.
  • A diagnosis of ADHD doesn’t mean you have all of the symptoms. It is also important to realize that many of the symptoms are present in everyone to some degree. The determining factors for diagnosis have to do with age of onset, level of impairment in daily life (work/school, relationships, etc.) and the cluster of symptoms that are not related to another medical or mental health condition. There is a lot of overlap between symptoms of ADHD and anxiety, Bi-Polar Disorder, so finding the right diagnosis is critical to finding the right treatment.

If you aren’t sure, but some of these challenges resonate with you, ask your medical provider or see a mental health practitioner for an assessment (preferably the latter). College counseling centers deal with these issues a lot. Don’t wait until your papers are late and grades are dropping to ask for help. Transitions, like going away to college, add stress to an already difficult situation. The change in structure and support may exacerbate ADHD.

LuAnn Pierce is a licensed clinical social worker and writer/blogger. She previously served as Teen Editor for LuAnn has published online articles for multiple publications. Additionally, she has published materials for non-profits such as the National MS Society, including several books (Growing up Sane: In Uncertain Times – 1997) and curricula (The Rest of the Story: Psychosocial Skills for Youth Develop – out of print). She works with (1-800-THERAPIST) as a contributing expert and writes two blogsites. LuAnn has a small private therapy practice in Denver.   

Guest Blog by Liz Donohue (CoRDS)

February 18, 2012

Last week I went back to high school.

My friend and co-worker, Paola Vermeer, a scientist studying head and neck cancer at Sanford Research, was presenting to junior high and high school students during their school assembly. But this was not just any presentation.

Paola, or Pay was talking about a rare disease, called Multiple System Atrophy.

Pay’s mother recently passed away from Multiple System Atrophy, a progressive, neurodegenerative disease commonly referred to as MSA that she had been battling for 9 years. This was a very painful experience for their family as Pay’s mother was healthy at age sixty. Her health went into significant decline in the last 2 years. Pay created a YouTube video ( outlined this decline and the challenges they faced so she could share the experience with others who may be struggling to support a loved one with MSA.

Pay is brilliant. With a PhD in developmental neurobiology, she is an expert in her area of research. But what was absolutely amazing is how she intrigued and mobilized over 400 junior high and high school kids at 8:00 am last Thursday morning by talking about a complex neurological disease that affects only 50,000 people in the country.

Pay would say it was the candy or treats she handed to students that incentivized students to come down from their perches in the bleachers to participate in an activity but I have to disagree. It was a series of well thought out events that made it a successful learning experience for these students.

Pay started by asking students to come down and form a circle if they knew anyone with Breast Cancer. She moved down the list from more prevalent diseases like Diabetes, Colon Cancer, Parkinsons Disease to rare diseases Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and Cockayne Syndrome. She explained how unrelated diseases such as cancer and Parkinsons Disease actually have more in common than we think and by studying one, we learn about the other.

Next was the amazing video created by Jeans for Genes (, of a darling 6 year old girl named Ellie who explains Cockayne Syndrome, a rare genetic disease affecting her younger brother, Tom. In a cute British accent, Ellie explains that Cockayne Syndrome is an autosomal recessive genetic disorder that Tom has, which makes his life harder. If you haven’t seen it already, it is truly a must-see.

Then came Tim’s shoe, a globe-trotting Nike Sneaker made famous by a group of teenage kids who played a prank on their friend Tim. Like Paola’s presentation, there is more to Tim’s shoe than what meets the eye. Tim’s shoe raises awareness for MSA everywhere it goes as it is covered with personal mementos from everyone who sees it.  Anywhere Tim’s shoe goes, it is photographed and posted to the Tim’s Shoe Facebook page ( Since arriving in Sioux Falls it has not been further than 50 ft from Pay since she requested it be sent from her friend Rita in Belgium. Pay has taken Tim’s Shoe to schools, research centers, support groups, and medical centers. The goal is to raise awareness that MSA may be under-diagnosed or mis-diagnosed, that there are no treatments, and that although the disease may be rare, that doesn’t make it any less important than a disease that is common – three elements that are shared by people with rare diseases/three comments that I hear so often when contacted by patients and families of rare diseases about the CoRDS Registry.

Pay’s message to the students was simple and clear:  It is not RARE when you are affected by a rare disease. Once you are affected by a rare disease, it is no longer rare to you.  Rare is only a matter of perspective. What Tim’s friends have done with his shoe for MSA is an example to all of us.  You don’t need to do something expensive or flashy to be extraordinary and impact people the world over. It is a message to set aside complacency and become active in and around your community. Ignore that voice inside that says “what can I do?  I’m only one person?” because Tim’s friends prove that you can impact people, you don’t need the support of an institution, organization or foundation. YOU as an individual can make a difference, no matter your age or the resources you have.

Tim’s shoe was not fancy, expensive, or time-intensive but has been incredibly effective at reaching many people thanks to our digital age of camera phones and social media.  Currently Tim’s Shoe has 2000 Facebook followers, numerous YouTube videos (, and thousands of images and has reached thousands of people. It is awareness campaigns like Tim’s shoe that open up communication lines to talk about rare diseases, empower patients to share their story, mobilize individuals to raise money to fund much-needed biomedical research that will help us understand the etiology of these rare diseases so we can develop better treatments and ultimately cures for these devastating conditions.

Last Thursday afternoon, we heard from the principal of the school.  Apparently several fruitful discussions took place in the classroom and not surprisingly it was not only about the delicious candy. Rather, it was discussion about rare diseases: teachers and students sharing stories about knowing someone affected by a rare disease and even students expressing interested in future careers in biomedical research.

Pay is just one person and limited time. Tim’s friends did not have many resources, either. However, they all saw how devastating MSA is to an individual and their families and wanted to increase awareness of this devastating condition to help those who are affected by MSA. They used a simple idea, took action and changed the world…. and so can you.  With Rare Disease Day coming up, there are many things you can do to raise awareness for any or all of the 7000 rare diseases that affect  nearly 1 in 10 Americans that are affected by a rare disease. 

My list of TOP 5 easy ways to raise awareness for Rare Diseases:

  1. Watch the video narrated by Ellie provided by Jeans for Genes (  in your / your child’s classroom
  2. Take a photo of your denim jeans and post to Global Genes Project  on Facebook ( Learn more about Global Genes Project here (
  3. 3.     Use classroom lessons or activities on genetics developed by our friends at SanfordPROMISE and Sanford CoRDS (, the Office of Rare Disease Research (
  4. Visit NORD ( and print off a Handprints Across America sign. Take pictures wherever you go and post them to your Facebook wall. We started doing this at Sanford Research and posted to Sanford CoRDS Facebook page ( it has been a huge hit!
  5. Join the conversation on Twitter ( Learn more about rare diseases and organizations and efforts dedicated to rare diseases. Tweet, Tweet and Retweet! To get you started, here are a few to follow: Sanford CoRDS (@SanfordCoRDS)!/sanfordcords, Office of Rare Diseases Research (@ORDR)!/ORDR, RARE Project (@RAREProject)!/rareproject, RareDiseaseDay (@Rarediseaseday)!/rarediseaseday, Inspire (@TeamInspire)!/teaminspire, Marble Road (@MarbleRoad)!/marbleroad. Don’t forget your hashtags: #raredisease, #1mil4Rare, #RDD2012

A list of Rare Disease activities at Sanford Research this month

February 6 – Executive Proclamation of 2/29/2012 as Rare Disease Day City Hall in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

February 11 – Radio Show on KSOO’s A Better You

February  13 – Radio Show on KSOO’s Viewpoint University

February 252nd Annual Sanford Rare Disease Symposium & Life Science Discovery Program (LSDP) at the Sanford PROMISE lab

February 29 – Global and National Rare Disease Day. Join @SanfordCoRDS for a Tweet Chat at Noon CST.

We want to hear your ideas for Rare Disease Day!

Post your ideas on our Facebook Wall (Sanford_CoRDS) or Tweet to @SanfordCoRDS!/sanfordcords.

February 15, 2012

Read about a different viewpoint for people with disabilities when they think college.

IndependenceChick's Nest

I’ve heard some people tell rising college students, “College will be the best time of your life.” Well, I don’t know about best time of one’s whole life, but college certainly is a great experience and, I think, should rank right up there. But too often, for students with disabilities, that doesn’t happen. Sometimes, it’s because parents and teachers mistakenly think students with disabilities, intellectual disabilities especially, cannot benefit from college, or can’t handle it. This, however, just perpetuates the view of people with disabilities as permanent children whose purpose is to be cared for more than contribute.

But what about the parents and teachers who do believe students with disabilities can attend college? They’re right, and those students should have a college experience, just as their peers without disabilities do. The sad reality, however, is that even though many universities now admit students with significant disabilities, they don’t allow…

View original post 1,961 more words

Explaining Autism to Young Children: ASD and Me

January 2, 2012

By Teresa DeMars

ASD and Me Book drawn cover image with young boy leaning against a tree

There comes a time when virtually every parent contemplates the questions of when and how they should explain autism to their child on the spectrum.  I found myself thinking about this a couple of years ago when my then five year old son, Donnie, who has high functioning autism spectrum disorder (ASD), asked me when his little sister would go to the autism therapy center he attended.  This simple question got me thinking about how I would explain to him why he is different from other children.  What would I tell him when we have our first talk about his autism?

On the internet, I started looking for a book that I could use to help explain autism to him and his younger sister.  I quickly realized that the books on the market basically fell into two categories.  They either dealt with low functioning autism or the story was told from a sibling or friend’s point of view.  These books just didn’t fit my son.  Even though he has ASD, he is able to talk and express his thoughts and ideas.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized that most of the school aged children I know with high functioning ASD can talk and express themselves, especially after early interventions.  Why couldn’t a book’s character reflect this?  I thought that my son and other children like him deserved a character that could share his own thoughts….a character that they could relate to and even look up to.  Inspired by this realization, I wrote ASD and ME.

ASD and Me is written from the point of view of Eli, a seven year-old boy that has high functioning autism spectrum disorder. Through the story, Eli explains how he was diagnosed and how ASD affects the way he thinks and interprets the world around him.  He also talks about some of the social and life skills he has learned that help him fit in with others.  The story concludes with some of the interests and activities that Eli shares with other children.  A “Letter to Parents” section at the end of the book offers detailed information about the symptoms of high functioning ASD, which would be helpful in explaining the disorder to extended family and friends.

It took two years to write and illustrate ASD and Me.  I worked on it after I put the kids to bed and here and there, when I managed to carve out some free time.  The first time I read ASD and Me to Donnie and his little sister was a very special day.  I had poured many long hours into illustrating the book and I hoped they would understand its message.  The most important message from the book is that “every kid in the world is different”.  The book explains that some differences you can see, like hair or skin color, while other differences, like autism, are hidden on the inside of the body.  It is these differences that make each of us special in our own way.

When we came to the page that illustrates Eli’s special school, I explained to Donnie that he went to a “special school” too.  He immediately remembered and assigned the names of his old classmates to the children in the illustration.  He easily related to the different situations Eli was in throughout the book and the feelings that Eli experienced.  Most importantly, learning that he has autism did not scare him, or make him feel sad, or anxious.  I came away with the feeling that it just seemed to all make sense to him and wasn’t a big deal.  As we finished our discussion about the book Donnie turned to me and said “Every kid in the whole world is different, mom.”

“You are exactly right!” I replied.

About the book:

ASD and Me:  Learning About High Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder

Written and Illustrated by Teresa DeMars.

Special Illustration by Donnie DeMars.

Published by Charity Press Books

Softcover/Perfect Bound

ISBN 978-0-9836388-0-3

Pages:  30  Price:  $12.99


ISBN 978-0-9836388-1-0

Smashwords Edition       Price:  $3.99

Connect with Teresa DeMars online:

Youtube video book trailer:

ASD and Me on Facebook:

ASD and Me on Google+:


Links to Purchase: