Accommodations and Accessibility: What’s the Difference?

5 min read

Accommodations and accessibility are two different models for including neurodivergent and other disabled people in our society—but they are not the same thing.

In fact, they couldn’t be more different. In the context of neurodivergences, the differences can be especially stark when the neurodivergences are “invisible.”

What is the difference between accessibility and accommodations? As I’ve said before, “Accommodations are not accessibility. Accommodations are special exceptions made for one disabled person who has to jump through lots of hoops to get them.”

On the other hand, “Accessibility is the creation of a space that is hospitable to and usable by disabled people, no hoops required.”

But what does this distinction look like in real life?

Source: merlinlightpainting/Pixabay

Source: merlinlightpainting/Pixabay

How do accommodations work (or not)?

Have you ever been in an open-plan workspace? It is an architectural layout of an office space where all workers share the same floor and the same open space. They grew popular in the 2000s as a way to build community and generate creativity and are still in use today. But they have their drawbacks. For example, they’re noisy, with no walls to break up sound.

For a neurodivergent person working in an open-plan office, the workspace might be too loud and distracting, harming their ability to work. Say a neurodivergent worker knows that wearing headphones could help them concentrate. But when the worker puts on headphones, a supervisor tells them that headphones are against office policy because they inhibit community-building. The supervisor tells the worker that, to use headphones, the worker must submit an accommodations request to human resources (HR).

The HR request requires the neurodivergent worker to jump through many hoops. They must disclose their neurodivergence, which can feel like an invasion of privacy if the worker has not disclosed their neurodivergence at work (and there are many reasons not to).

They must submit psychological records, another invasion of privacy. They must attend multiple meetings, fill out lots of paperwork, and go through other onerous procedures—all for a pair of headphones.

Law professor Kat Macfarlane calls the intense labor that disabled people must undertake “accommodation discrimination.” She writes, “Reasonable accommodations should be tools of equality yet can feel more like punishment than remedy.”

If the request to wear headphones is granted, the challenges have not ended for the neurodivergent worker.

When the worker wears headphones at their desk, all of their coworkers will see that they have received “special treatment.” Then they will wonder why—another way that accommodations force disclosure on neurodivergent people.

Coworkers might feel resentful of the neurodivergent worker because they wish they could wear headphones, too.

As this one small example shows, the accommodations model makes life difficult for neurodivergent people.

Accessibility is the better way.

Accessibility would not require a neurodivergent worker to ask for a special exception to wear headphones.

I’m not sure if you have ever walked around an open-plan workspace, but research shows that they are, objectively, loud and distracting. Some people thrive in that sort of environment. Some thrive for part of the day but need a break. Some people do not, and not all of those people are neurodivergent.

Furthermore, not all neurodivergent people know that they are. I wasn’t diagnosed with autism until I was in my 40s. Many women receive late diagnoses of neurodivergences because of gender bias in the diagnostic process. Other neurodivergent people don’t want to go through the burdensome process HR requires.

If an open-plan office bans headphones, you end up with a large portion of a workforce who needs help but can’t access it.

An accessible workplace policy recognizes that the open-plan workspace is not a good fit for everyone all of the time, neurodivergent and neurotypical alike.

It would allow workers to wear headphones when they need them, without seeking accommodations. It would not require neurodivergent workers to disclose their private medical information or file extra paperwork to have what they need to be successful.

Open the door, and scrap the gatekeepers.

The accommodations model uses gatekeepers to prevent neurodivergent (or otherwise disabled) people from getting the things they need to be successful or even to survive.

Taking a big step back, we can see that accommodations are only necessary because a workplace, a school, or a society creates spaces that are inaccessible to neurodivergent people. When a neurodivergent person encounters an inaccessible space, they inevitably need accommodations.

But if a space is accessible, a neurodivergent person does not need accommodations. That space is always, 100 percent of the time, welcoming to neurodivergent people. Accessibility presumes that disabled people are part of a community, and, therefore, every resource that community has to offer is available to them.

In an accessible space, neurodivergent or other disabled people do not need to prove they deserve what they need.

The door is open.

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