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National Service and Inclusion Project

Inclusion: The active engagement of people with disabilities as service members in all levels of national and community service

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Reasonable Accommodation: Examples and Recommendations

Reasonable Accommodation:

A reasonable accommodation is any modification or adjustment to a service environment that will enable a qualified applicant or service participant with a disability to perform essential service functions. Reasonable accommodation also includes adjustments to ensure that a qualified individual with a disability has the same rights and privileges in service as participants without disabilities.

Reasonable Accommodation is both a legal concept and a practical approach to effective program management. As a legal concept, reasonable accommodation defines the responsibilities of the service program when a qualified participant or applicant identifies as having a disability and accommodation is necessary for this person to perform essential service and participate fully in the program.

Many participants noted that most reasonable accommodations are simple and low cost or free. This was true of the accommodations provided for the participants in this study.

In many cases, the accommodations were made without cost by a program coordinator's placement of the participant. One caution with placement is that it should reflect the participant's abilities and not be based solely on convenience or the cost of accommodating. Programs with multiple sites and flexibility in terms of the kind of service provided were best able to do this.

Reasonable Accommodations or Characteristics of Inclusive Programs:

Reasonable accommodations are determined on a case-by-case basis. Informal accommodations are often made without formal procedures and creative solutions sometimes bring unexpected benefits. Foster Grandmother Ruth Koffler serves with children ages 3 to 5, and has low-vision. Ruth has a device that she uses at home to read the program materials but does not bring it into the classroom:

The children know the book so well and the story so well; and so we sit together, and they tell me the stories. And they turn the pages like they're reading to me. They even take their finger and pretend they are reading every word and they make it up. Its entirely different from what the book says but they are reading to me and they think they are doing a wonderful job.

It would have been reasonable for Ruth to request assistive technology for reading if she hadn't had it already. If the essential service function had been reading to children, as opposed to literacy building and educational play, Ruth might not have had the choice. The children clearly love Ruth and with her, get a chance to play grown-up and develop their language skills.

There were other situations in which a participant adjusted to the service or site limitations because it was a realistic solution that expedited their participation in service programs. Two such cases were a Foster Grandparent using a manual wheelchair because the available transportation could not accommodate his power chair and an AmeriCorps member bringing equipment from home while he waited for his program's request for funds to go through and for the equipment to be purchased. In some cases these kinds of compromises are possible.

Participants should not be expected to sacrifice their safety or participate less than fully in order to be a part of a program. However, individual choices about whether or not to identify or request accommodation should be respected. if there is effective communication and participants trust a program's commitment to accommodating, this can be effective. Programs should expect the same level of performance of essential duties from all their participants, whether or not they have disabilities or request reasonable accommodation.

There were three cases in which financially significant accommodations were made. In one of those cases, most of the costs were covered by the state department of vocational rehabilitation because it was determined that the equipment and training the participant needed would leave him more job-ready at the end of his year of service. In another case, the equipment that was purchased by a state commission put the state's programs in a position to accommodate future participants with the same disability. The third case involved structural modifications to an NCCC campus, which is now identified as the most accessible for participants who use wheelchairs.

Margaret Stran served in the National Civilian Community Corps from 1996 to 1997. She endured frustration, having to negotiate physical barriers on a daily basis and waiting for accommodations that were never delivered to her satisfaction. She also experienced a reasonable accommodation process that she considered model. Her team had applied for a short-term project in Washington DC that involved renovating low-income houses. She felt they weren't initially considered because it was assumed a team that included a wheel chair user would be a problem. Margaret insisted that she could participate with reasonable accommodation and worked with program director Kate Becker to identify necessary accommodations:

For the project in Washington DC the reasonable accommodation that I felt was necessary was making my living accommodations completely accessible and it was very well done. The ramps were put up; the bathrooms had that little chair lift; the closet bar was lowered; there was a long length mirror so I could see in the mirror. All the accommodations that I needed in my living quarters to ensure that I could do every thing that I needed to do without ever thinking about it were done. On the other hand, I didn't feel like it was reasonable of me to ask that everything at my work site was accessible. Especially [because] as a service project· these people need help and they don't have the financial resources in general to do it on their own, which is why they bring [AmeriCorps*NCCC] in.

Margaret was able to participate in the renovations sometimes relying on assistance from her team: "The apartment renovations were great. I learned so many new things about spackling and painting and scraping and laying tile and electrical work. I learned a lot of really cool things that I can apply and use in my life now." The campus that hosted the spike gained the ability to accommodate other wheelchair users, and the experience was educational and morale-building for Margaret's team.

The process of making accommodations requires clear communication, partnership, and compromise. Sofia Maneschi highlighted the responsibility of the participant with a disability to clearly identify his or her needs as soon as possible. Sofia qualified this because from her own experience, the person with the disability doesn't always know about all of the assistive technology that is available. The Job Accommodations Network is a service that assists with this, and other organizations offer evaluations of essential job functions in relation to the person with a disability. Sofia also commented on situations in which the participant's disability is progressive:

This could be a scary thing for the coordinator but accommodations can help. I think it's so important to keep those lines of communication open.

Situations and marginal functions sometimes change, as with Michai Freeman's service:

I had problems with my wheelchair and attendants who were accompanying me, and those problems made it very difficult for me to get into work. And that's why I say be flexible. Because if my supervisor had said, "Well this is not going to work. We have accommodation and you are unable to fulfill those responsibilities; we are gonna have to let you go," that just would have happened.

Instead, Michai is able to do some of her work from home, without significantly changing the nature of her service. Kira Fisher , who serves as a pre-school teaching assistant, was accommodated with a slight adjustment to her schedule. She served the same number of hours as other participants in her program but needed to leave at a certain time each day to catch her paratransit ride. In fact, Kira reached the required 1700 hours of service a month early.

Jean-Richard James Méhu, a former journalist with New York City's Amsterdam News, now uses his journalistic skills to help people identify their goals and advocate for themselves. His disability requires an accommodation that is simple and free:

I can do everything that I did before my injury. The only difficulty now, for the time being is that things take a little longer. Instead of taking me 10 minutes to do something, it takes me half an hour. So I can still do everything I did before, I just need a little more time.

There are several disabilities that require only a little patience, and a willingness to refrain from making assumptions about a person's ability or intelligence based on how they talk or the way they appear.

Hidden disabilities bring up particular challenges to accommodation: Abike Jotayo Anderson and Peter Anderson addressed the issue of hidden disabilities and self-disclosure. Unless the disability is obvious, the program cannot formally accommodate a participant who has not identified as having a disability and asked for supports. Abike gave the following advice to program staff who suspect that a participant has a learning disability preventing them from fulfilling a service requirement properly:

If this supervisor is seeing that the person has difficulty in a certain area...[I suggest] sitting and being frank about it and talking about what you expect as a service coordinator from them to do their service. And if the person is really into this whole field of what AmeriCorps is all about, and that is doing something for your community and doing something for yourself at the same time, this might be a good chance for them to say, "Yeah you know, I do need help." But its always going to be on a person-to-person and individual basis because we have not made the world safe enough for people to be opening up.

Peter Anderson, a former AmeriCorps*Vista and Promise Fellow who is now directing a VISTA program, is open about his own hidden disabilities in the hopes that it will create an atmosphere where participants feel comfortable disclosing their disability.

Thomas David Forderer, a Robert F. Kennedy Fellow and ADA expert, serves with Pacific News Service, bringing voices of minority youth to communities. He summarized a model approach to reasonable accommodation:

Ask the person with the disability in the beginning of his or her service what they need. It is up to that person to clearly delineate what his or her needs are as far as accommodation. And always keep a dialogue [with the host site] and the person with the disability because, who knows, maybe the situation will change over a month or two. And give the person with the disability time to get acclimated to the environment that he or she will be serving in. Work with agencies that specialize in accommodations, to build a bridge of working together, to make sure that during the time of national service, the person with the disability feels like yes, he or she is a vital part of the national service program. If you give disabled people the opportunity with the appropriate tools, they will be able to succeed greatly.

Most of the cost of Dave's accommodations were paid for by the California State Vocational Rehabilitation. There was some delay in acquiring the appropriate equipment because the essential service functions had not been clearly worked out with his host site. This experience inspired the following advice from Ife Tayo, the Director of RFK Fellows program in San Francisco:

[It's important to determine] the essential service functions and if the service that you are trying to fill can be completed by a person with a specific disability. I kept thinking this is not just about working with people with disabilities. In general, when you are negotiating on a project with a new host site or partner, you have to be very clear about what it is you want this person to do so that A: the site knows what to expect, and B: the person coming in to the project knows what they are supposed to be doing.

There are a number of resources to help programs follow the formal legal process of accommodation. What makes reasonable accommodation an effective approach to program management is that it focuses on how to engage the skills of an individual so that the most important needs of the community are met. Informally, it's as simple as looking at ways to maximize and support the skills of each individual participant. The formal procedures encourage practices that have the potential for improving the service program and its impact on everyone.

Accommodation Resources:

  1. The person with the disability
  2. The Job Accommodation Network (JAN)
  3. ADA Information
  4. InfoTech

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Go to another chapter in the Field Essay:

  1. Introduction: Project and Methodology
  2. Service & Inclusion: How Do These Concepts Relate?
  3. Disability Awareness: Identifying Barriers to Inclusion
  4. Reasonable Accommodation: Examples and Recommendations
  5. Advice to Service Programs: For Successful Inclusion
  6. Appendix

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©The National Service Inclusion Project (NSIP) is a training and technical assistance provider on disability inclusion. NSIP partners with the Association on University Centers on Disability, National Council on Independent Living, Association on Higher Education and Disability and National Down Syndrome Congress to build connections between disability organizations and all CNCS grantees, including national directs, to increase the participation of people with disabilities in national service.