Accommodation is Not “Special Treatment”

“Treat us like you would anyone else.”

It’s a common catchphrase you hear in some spheres of disability rights activism when an able bodied person asks about how to behave around people with disabilities. Pretty simple, right? Treat us like you would anyone else. Acknowledge that we are human beings. That we have a right to exist. That we should be treated with respect. That we deserve space on this Earth, just like everyone else. Greet us when we enter a room. Talk to us, not our interpreters/communicative devices. Don’t touch our assistive devices without permission.

You get the drift.

Be good. Be kind. Be human.

Now, try requesting accommodation.

“I thought you said you didn’t want any special treatment,” they say.

Folks, accommodation is not “special treatment.”


I know that a lot of us have been told our whole lives that requesting accommodations is being unreasonable and demanding special treatment. It’s not. We shouldn’t have to request accommodations in the first place, because if people treated us like everyone else, they would respect us as human beings and recognize and try to anticipate needs. Kind of how like a group of people walking arm in arm will break up and go single file to let someone else pass them on the sidewalk.

That’s not special treatment. That’s recognizing that another human being has a need which should be accommodated so that this human being can go about daily activities.

Talking about this with Anna recently, she pointed out just one source of frustration; the need for wheelchair-accessible transport to the airport. “Don needs to get to the airport,” she said. “That’s all. Just like everyone else who needs to get to the airport from their house.” Getting to the airport is not a “special need.” Needing a form of transit which you can actually travel on is also not a “special need.” These are needs which people at all ability levels actually encounter pretty regularly.

Likewise, everyone needs to eat. Everyone needs to breathe. These are not, in any way shape or form, unusual needs. And there are lots of different ways to fulfill them. One way is not better than another. And we have a duty, collectively, to make sure that all ways are equally accessible. There it is, the A word.

Accessibility is not about special treatment. It’s about ensuring that people are able to do things they need/want to do. Just like everyone else. We are not asking for special treatment when we request accommodations, we are just asking to have our right to access recognized.

Talking with my father about this recently, I was trying to frame accessibility in a sense that he would understand. I said “imagine that I was a full time wheelchair user, looking for a place to live. When I arrived at my house [referring to the house I live in now] to look at it, I would have turned away immediately. Because my house is not accessible. Every time you deny accommodations, it’s slamming a door in someone’s face.” My father said, in a bit of a lightbulb moment, “so, what you’re saying is that for people who need accommodation, the world can be like going to look at houses for rent and being told that you can’t have the key to the front door?” And I said “yeah, pretty much.”

Accommodation is the key to the front door. And everyone’s entitled to have a key to the front door, people.


18 thoughts on “Accommodation is Not “Special Treatment”

  1. Good post, meloukhia.

    “Kind of how like a group of people walking arm in arm will break up and go single file to let someone else pass them on the sidewalk.”

    Some people don’t even do this small thing – particularly in hallways when you can’t step into the street. (My high school replaced the old charming main building – with so many windows per classroom! – with a soulless block – only one window per class that doesn’t open. The soulless building has wider hallways and stairways, supposedly making it easier and easing traffic jams. Not! The people who crowded the hallways just increased their groups!)

    This applies to so many groups as well – take affirmative action. “If we’re all equal, why do you need it?” Because we need equal access to the same things – we don’t all “deserve” an A, or admission to a fancy college, but we all deserve the right to try to get it. My teachers and professors who help(ed) me when I was/am sick were giving me “special treatment” but dammit, I was sick. One teacher did not, and the principal backed her up! “You deserve that F, you don’t deserve your A’s.”

    Still bitter over that.

    As for people who would deny others access, are they just not thinking or are they cruel? My sister (one who would whine about standing aside) is just self-centered.

    Accessibility win – I’m finally back on campus and I met with one professor today and went to his class today. If, according to the syllabus and the “rules”, we miss a quiz, we’re SOL. Not only is he letting me take one of the quizzes I missed, he said that if I have to miss any more days, I can also make up that quiz. And he said that if I need to take the final early, I can.

    One of my other professors extended the due dates to the last day of class for my three papers. One of them was due last Tuesday.

    I hope it goes as well with my other professors.

    I hate asking for help – thank the FSM that we can e-mail our profs! – and I always have. But sometimes you have to. You need it. So you can be on an equal footing with everyone else – an illness should not mean that you flunk out of college. More people need to realize that much of life is determined by luck. You are not better than me because you are healthy. I am not better than someone born in another country because my parents are American citizens – by birth as well.

    I saw a great analogy once – a coach wants the player with potential, not the superstar. He can teach the first one, but the second one doesn’t need his help.

  2. I often say that I don’t want to be treated “the same.”

    I want to be given the same respect and the same oportunities. Sometimes this means the same treatment and sometimes this means accommodations, depending on the circumstances.

  3. Well said!

    People try to turn my service dog away, and they don’t understand that when they do that, they’re turning ME away – not just right now with the dog, but permanently, because my life is always ‘right now with the dog’.

    And oh the time I went through my first year of law school! I was sick and in incredible amounts of pain, and most of my classmates thought of me not as a person, but as an excuse. I was the most vocal person in the class, always on top of the readings, and my classmates treated me as…not even a person. Because my then-undiagnosed disability made my life hellishly difficult. Fortunately, with two exceptions, my law professors were very accepting and even helpful.

    If you had asked me, all I wanted out of my classmates was to be treated as a person – the same level of respect they gave anyone else.


  4. Kali – oh yeah, right here with the “undiagnosed pain” – the worst part is that we’re only allowed to miss 2 weeks of classes – if it meets 3x a week, you can miss 6 sessions. once a week – 2 classes.

    I’ve just missed three solid weeks.

    They look at you as an excuse, as a whiner, because “everybody has pain.” “It can’t be that bad.”

    A *doctor* fed me that line after he probably messed up my right ureter for good by putting the stent in wrong. I’m writing on the bed, and he’s standing there all stern, “I have pain. Your mom has pain. Everyone has pain. You have to learn to deal with it.” Grr.

    If doctors can’t treat patients with respect, where are we?

    Kali, I have a happier story to tell. When I was kind of sick but not sick enough to go homebound my senior year, none of the teachers that I liked were mean and nobody was mean to my face. I had to stand in class, and in one class, a girl stood with me so I wouldn’t be alone. That’s still one of the *sweetest* things of my life.

    But this was senior year of high school, after being at school all junior year. Not first year law school, where you don’t know anybody.

  5. The really annoying thing is that modern society is set up to cater to individual needs via mass accommodation – look at the roads, the garbage collection, the electricity, the water that flushes your toilet. And yet those needs fade into the background because (nearly) everybody uses those things. They’re still accommodations to allow people to perform their daily tasks and journeys.

  6. Well said.

    Accommodation is sometimes referred to as “leveling the playing field”, but the way it’s practiced in real life barely gets us on the team, and then it’s often as the watercarrier.

    I have had good experiences and bad with schools and universities, but the one thing that seems universal is that once a student who has learning disabilities leaves the special ed department and moves into the mainstream, accommodations go out the window. Or they are there, but not offered. They are hidden, or there is some trick to getting them. If I had a nickel for every time I heard, “The student has to ask for extra time on tests” when it is clearly written in the individual education plan that the student needs extra time for tests. Every test, every time!

    Not everybody is going to be able to do everything, even with accommodation. Some abled people will use that as an excuse to NOT accommodate. “Well, you’ll never be able to do X or Y, so there is no reason for us to help you do Z.” It’s infuriating.

    And then, as with any dispute involving a ‘minority’ group, the spectre of “reasonable accommodation” rears its ugly head. Just how far should “we” go to make things “easier” for “those other people”.

    I concede willingly that not everything in the universe can be fully accessible to everyone. You’d need a lot of extraordinary, custom-made equipment for someone who uses a wheelchair to climb Mount Everest.

    But the local movie theatre is NOT Mount Everest, and a ramp? guide rails? a wider door? washroom on the main floor? That’s not extraordinary or custom-made. That’s just common decency and good business sense.

  7. Beautifully put. Thank you.

    The phrase “special needs” irks me for precisely that reason. There’s nothing special about needing food, transit, or access to public education, but I’ve witnessed otherwise lovely, fair-minded people act as though the accommodations that make such things possible are a favor more times than I can count. It feels to me as if there’s an underlying assumption that the greater society isn’t harmed by the exclusion of people with disabilities (or any marginalized people for that matter). Which is, of course, ridiculous.

    And I love your analogy about letting people pass on the sidewalk.

    I hope I’m making sense. I didn’t get much sleep last night. But this post really struck a chord with me, so I wanted to say thank you.

  8. I have a question about classroom assistive technologies: If you had 1.7 million dollars to spend on assistive technologies for elementary school classrooms and needed to outfit as many classrooms as possible, what technology would you choose? This is a one-time expenditure, so it can’t be used for salary (except for training on the use of the technology) “The funds must improve student achievement for students with disabilities.”

    So what would you spend the money on?

  9. Thanks for this reminder about the importance of talking about accomodations to my students. I always put our university’s statement about access, rights and resources for students with disabilities in my syllabus and talk about it on the first day. On the other hand, I have hesitated to tell them that I have an invisible chronic illness and that sometimes I may take more time grading their papers because I am ill. I believe that being open about it would be a good thing, yet I also know that it can be viewed as “making excuses” or used against me in evaluations. I am going to consult the Disability Center on campus about whether or not I should include a statement about MY need for accomodation in the syllabus.

  10. Liz — I don’t know if this would be more of a media rather than an accessibility thing, but one of the first things I thought of would be to give teachers a small wireless microphone to clip on their shirt, and then pipe the sound to speakers in different parts of the room. My middle school classrooms had a system like that; and it made it much easier to hear and pay attention, especially when the teacher was moving around the room.

  11. Great post. I too love the analogy of people walking on the sidewalk, because it so beautifully illustrates that accommodating is what people naturally do for those they perceive as part of their community. The sidewalk is for everyone, so naturally, we move aside so as not to impede others.

  12. Liz at 8 asks about the most efficient use of 1.7 million dollars for outfitting elementary school classrooms with assistive technology. I think a lot of that depends on your starting point. Some schools have very limited computer hardware, perhaps only in libraries and specialized computer classrooms. Others have networked computers with audio capability in every classroom, before they start working on accessibility per se. 1.7 million can get you a LOT of text-to-speech capability, audio notetaking, and voice recognition software for people with difficulty using their hands. Scanners and large monitors are also useful, but perhaps 1/class rather than 1/student.

    Because you are looking at capital expenditure, rather than ongoing funding, ergonomics is tricky. Adaptive equipment needs to FIT, both the needs of the child and the size of the child. There might be some value in having a box of different sizes and types of pointing devices and keyboards, so a teacher can change them if a child is having trouble.

    If the classrooms aren’t physically accessible, that would need to be addressed first. Kids who can’t get into the room can’t learn there. You may be able to get things like ramps, lighting, and ventilation paid for with another line of the budget, but they are critical.

  13. Everest isn’t a bad analogy in a small way. The guides that live in the area can go much further up, I think, without resting and without extra oxygen. Does that mean no one should be allowed to climb Everest if they need to make camp sooner or carry extra oxygen?

  14. With 1.7 million for classrooms, I’d change the lights from godawful florescents to something that doesn’t flicker, and/or get netbooks with text to speech & screen readers & large print all ready to go (many linux variants have those packages & linux is usually free). You can get a LOT of netbooks for 1.7 million.

  15. How is making doors wide enough for wheelchairs (to use one accessability need)any different from makeing them tall enough for everyone to get through? Or how is making sure there are ramps any different from making sure steps aren’t too tall for people to use them? OR putting electric lights or windows in a school for the blind so that the sighted teachers/guests/maintenance workers can see?

  16. meloukhia,

    What an excellent post. I love the sidewalk example you gave where people walking arm in arm break up to let someone pass. I love the way you worded the entire post to stress what ACCOMMODATION really means, and I really loved the fact that you explained things until your dad had a light bulb moment.

    This closing was perfect:

    “Accommodation is the key to the front door. And everyone’s entitled to have a key to the front door, people”.


    .-= Jeanne´s last blog ..Shopping From Home… Update =-.

  17. Thank you for making the obvious obvious. 🙂

    (harlemjd, your point does that too!)

    Just letting you know: I’ve been directing people to this essay so much that I’m linking to it from the Travel Hopefully Blog.

    And this while I’m so overloaded with fighting for the help I’m entitled to, that the blog’s being neglected!

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