By Norman G. DeLisle Jr.
Because disabilities are a part of the entirety of the human experience and accommodations typically reflect current understanding, knowledge, and technology. It is common to experience occasional conflicts when making accommodations for people who have different needs. While less common than the more typical refusal to provide accommodations, they occur, and are occurring more often as the movement to expand inclusion accelerates. These conflicts require thoughtful dialogue and creativity to preserve the values of our common commitment to disability rights.
A typical example is the use of a service animal in the presence of someone who has significant allergies to animal dander. A more difficult conflict arises when animal dander triggers asthma. In many cases it is possible to keep the service dog and the affected person far enough away for the issue to be avoidable. But work sites are more difficult to manage. Different entrances and a high end air purifier can help.
Another example is the different learning needs of people with various characteristics, especially differences in tolerance for sensory input. Some people are easily overwhelmed by sensory input that other people find necessary for their learning to occur at all. There are many kinds of AT for both increasing and decreasing sensory input so that an individual can control the impact of their immediate environment on their experience.
A more difficult example comes out of the community of people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS). MCS can and does produce unanticipated reactions. It is not practical to know every polluting chemical or electrical entity in a novel environment. Currently, the MCS community is working on housing standards as a national template for how to reduce reactions. But the primary efforts to accommodate MCS right now are initiatives involving fragrance-free policies and meeting locations.
More than any other accommodation I have tried to implement over the last few decades, fragrance-free initiatives test my own, and the larger disability community’s, ability and willingness to respond to the accommodation needs of all members of our community. Because the use of fragrances and similar chemicals is habitual and automatic, reducing their use becomes the most difficult kind of habit change; one in which no thought has been given to their habitual use for decades, tied with a habit that was originally created to avoid social exclusion (“you smell bad”).
There are also rare conditions whose treatment produces very strong noxious body odor, requiring the use of fragrances and topical odor maskers if the person is to have anything like normal social interaction in actual social spaces. Though we are a long way from them, environmental standards are the only way to open up social spaces for people in the MCS community.
In the meantime, it will often be necessary to use AT such as video chat and teleconferencing to ensure participation by people in the MCS community, and persons who deal with social exclusion because of disability characteristic or necessary medical treatment. Also, while I don’t think this has been the subject of research, there is an urgent need for practical and safe methods for blocking the intrusion of odors, fragrances, and chemical pollution that don’t also increase social exclusion. This is necessary because it will be a very long time before any conceivable environmental change that actually eliminates the 10,000 chemicals that we all interact with every day will occur.
In the meantime, our organizations must take on the difficult task of supporting the creation of genuinely and completely accessible digital communication system that is easily useable by anyone. Right now, there is no one approach that I could point to as fulfilling this basic requirement. We are always having to accept less than total accessibility, and cobbling together tinkered approaches in an attempt to maximize participation.
The standard of accessibility for this kind of AT must be the ability of any community of people with disability to fully participate in all that impacts their lives. A tall order indeed! The conflicts of accommodations are the real-time indicators of the difficulty of making our world genuinely accepting of diversity.
Although the conflicts often play out as power conflicts between one community and another, at the end of the day, these conflicts represent the same long-term structural failures of our larger societies to accept and value everyone. We must remember this when we are tempted to exclude a disability community member or group because accommodation is too difficult.
- ASKJAN page on accommodating MCS and environmental triggers
- Service Animals and Allergies
- Various Accommodations for over stimulation issues