What is an accommodation?

At a blindness workshop I attended almost 20 years ago, a presenter said something that has always stayed with me. The presenter, who is blind, stated that “a lightbulb is an accommodation for sighted people.”

This may sound ridiculous, but indeed, artificial lighting meets the definition of an accommodation. According to Dictionary.com, one meaning of an accommodation is “anything that fulfills a want, need, etc.” Another is “adjustment, as of differences or to new circumstances.”

Artificial lighting is an environmental modification that meets the needs of seeing people. In popular culture, we don’t think of lighting as an accommodation simply because it is needed and used by the vast majority of the population.

In the disability world, “reasonable accommodations” are usually discussed in the context of institutions, like education, employment, or standardized testing. Typically, people in power within those institutions (teachers, principals, supervisors, human resources, business leaders, testing boards) control what accommodations disabled people can get. Individuals with disabilities have the burden of requesting specific accommodations, often proving why they are needed, and then they are subject to the control of those in power to determine what accommodations to provide. All too often, the accommodations process is onerous and accommodations are denied.

Sometimes, accommodations are denied because they are not feasible to provide, cost-prohibitive, etc. But more often, harmful attitudes about disability accommodations reinforce the burden on disabled people to secure them, the delays in approval, and the prevalence of denials. Some people mistakenly think a job done with accommodations is somehow inferior to a job done without them. Conversely, others believe accommodations are “special treatment” and that people who get accommodations have an unfair advantage over those who do not get them.

There are lots of societal notions about disability-related accommodations. What happens if we take disability out of the equation entirely, though, and consider how people accommodate each other routinely in our relationships?

Here are a few examples of accommodations in my daily life that have nothing to do with disability:

  • My husband doesn’t like green peppers. I don’t like olives. Our friend likes both, but she doesn’t eat meat. When we order pizza, we get a vegetarian pizza with olives on one side and green peppers on the other. Then all three of us can enjoy the toppings we like and skip the ones we dislike.
  • I had a dental checkup yesterday. My mouth is unusually small for an adult’s mouth, so getting good X-rays is challenging. The dentist remembered my small mouth and ordered a different type of X-ray that doesn’t involve inserting bitewings into the back of my mouth. I also had a traumatic experience years ago with a water pick, so the dentist accommodates me by hand-cleaning my teeth instead. This time she forgot, but she always gets my consent before she does anything, so when she asked if it was OK to use the water pick, I reminded her to use the hand scaler and she happily accommodated me.
  • My friend likes to talk on the phone. I prefer texting. We agreed to a weekly phone call. She texts first to ask when it’s a good time. I can end the phone call when I get tired. If she needs to talk about something specific in between the weekly calls, she asks and I honor her need if I can.
  • When my husband and I were first dating, we watched a movie with two of my blind friends at my small apartment. Of the four of us, he was the only one who needed to see the screen. It took some work and we had to move a few chairs around, but we were able to provide him the accommodation of preferential seating so he could see the movie. (OK, this last one does relate to disabilities, but in reverse).

People in close relationships accommodate each other constantly without thinking about it. Babies and toddlers are some of the world’s most fierce self-advocates. If a baby needs an accommodation from their caregiver, whether it’s removing a dirty diaper, repositioning, rocking or feeding, baby will cry and cry until that accommodation is provided. Caregivers learn quickly to respond and accommodate. Over time, they learn what baby likes and doesn’t like, and there’s less guessing involved in determining accommodations. Similarly, family members, spouses, friends, and housemates all accommodate each other’s preferences, needs, and wants whenever sharing time and space. Meeting each other’s needs and wants in relationships isn’t special treatment or unfair advantage, as long as everyone’s needs are included.

I do want to address one argument that’s been made for not over-accommodating children and teenagers with disabilities. Some say we shouldn’t provide all accommodations because youth need to learn how to function when those accommodations are unavailable. While I heartily disagree with this view, I will first point out a couple of caveats. If a young person is doing an educational activity meant to build a specific skill, accommodations should be crafted so they don’t bypass all use of that skill, or else the educational goals should be amended so that skill is not involved. For example, letting someone dictate their answers would be an inappropriate accommodation for a spelling test, and if they are unable to write, spelling should perhaps not be one of their goals. Secondly, if we have always used an accommodation throughout life, we may never discover whether or not the accommodation is needed. Sometimes, people (of all ages) might voluntarily choose to try doing something without their usual accommodation, or with a different one, to learn what their true needs are. My husband originally believed he disliked all onions and peppers. Recently, entirely on his own direction, he has experimented and discovered he does like red and yellow peppers and can tolerate onion in some cases. Our friend cooks with a lot of onions, so she checks in with him each time to ask whether he wants the onions omitted from each recipe, and puts onions in only if he says it’s OK for that particular recipe.

Consent is paramount. Removing a child’s accommodations without their consent “so they can learn to function in the real world” is harmful and it is also pointless. Imagine if the power company turned off the power grid for ten minutes each day to help sighted people learn to function in the dark, because someday there might be a power outage? No power company (run by sighted people) would ever do that. Instead, sighted people plan ahead by buying portable flashlights or candles and using those to get by when there’s a power outage. In other words, they identify alternate accommodations that they can personally control in case something happens out of their control (an outage).

I think disabled children and teens should absolutely be helped to identify backup strategies and alternate accommodations to utilize, including self-accommodations, if their preferred accommodations are denied. They should also become aware of the accommodations that help them most and the language for requesting and advocating for their needs. That will benefit them far more as adults than arbitrarily withholding accommodations in a power move.

Consent is absolutely crucial, in both directions. Forcing someone to accept an accommodation is just as harmful as withholding a needed one. If someone has not explicitly asked for an accommodation but they appear to be having difficulty without one, it can be tricky to know what to do. You truly can never go wrong with a conversation. You can ask if there is a need, or offer a specific accommodation and ask if it is wanted, and then, it is important to respect the answer given. Every time we ask “is this OK?” in our close relationships, we are doing this.

If we think of accommodation as a universal part of all human relationships, accommodating disabled people needn’t carry the stigma that it so often does. It can truly be as routine as turning on the lights.

3 thoughts on “What is an accommodation?

  1. Arielle,
    This is an excellent column with quite relevant points especially helpful in dealing with “decision makers, and “influencers” or other organizations. Thanks.

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