What is a “reasonable accommodation”?

Recently I was asked to explain what a “reasonable accommodation” is.

The person put the question in some context:   Their child’s “special education school thinks a table in classroom with curtain is a reasonable accommodation for his bathroom needs. The class is coed teenagers with different cognitive and physical abilities.”

I doubt this is a “reasonable accommodation”, but let’s explore how we get there.

504 and ADA, not IDEA

First, “reasonable accommodation” is 504  and ADA language, not IDEA.  Under IDEA, a school must develop an IEP that meets all needs of a student with a disability.  This is not an ‘accommodation’; rather it is a legal requirement so that a child may receive a FAPE.

What does 504 require?

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (504 for short) is a federal law that prohibits a  facility that receives federal funds from discriminating against a person with a disability.  Under 504, a public school must ensure that a child with a disability has equal access to education and services.  To accomplish that, the school must provide modifications to education and services or a “reasonable accommodation” to such student so that he/she is not discriminated against because of his/her disability.

What does the ADA require?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is very similar to 504 and applies to schools equally.  The purpose is to prevent and prohibit discrimination against students with disabilities, so it requires the same as 504.

How is “reasonable accommodation” defined?

Unfortunately, neither 504, ADA, nor their regulations define this specific term.  We know from caselaw that schools are required to make reasonable accommodations according to a person’s disability unless such changes would fundamentally alter the nature of the school’s purpose, i.e. providing educational services.

There are obvious accommodations like making sure there is wheelchair access to all parts of the school for a student confined to a wheelchair.  There are slightly less obvious accommodations like assigning a staff member or student to assure that child in a wheelchair can get out of the building in case of fire or a fire drill.   But this is still reasonable.

Types of “reasonable accommodations”

There are several types of accommodations already determined to be reasonable.  They fall under categories.

a. Accessibility: This includes the wheelchair example above and a special needs bus or transportation.

b. Service Animals: For children who need the assistance of a service animal, schools must allow access to accommodate that child’s needs.

c. Interpreters: Access to sign language interpreters or hearing aids for those who have hearing disabilities or access to other interpretors like Braile materials or interpreters when a child with a disability does not speak English.

d. Auxiliary Aids and Services: A school may need to provide a medical plan or extra access to a nurse for a child with diabetes, epilepsy, or other illness requiring medication and/or monitoring during the school day. Or perhaps a child’s disability requires a smaller classroom, less noise, less distraction, different lighting, etc.

e. Removal of Barriers: If doors or stairways or other typical structural aspects of the school are a barrier to a child with a disability, the school must find alternate ways to accommodate that student.

There are several others, but these are the major categories in which schools must provide accommodations.

Is the accommodation reasonable?

Reasonableness is going to be determined by what the disability is and how it interferes with the child’s access to educational services.  So, accommodation may be decided on a  case-by-case basis, but, again, can’t change the fundamental purpose of the school.

Some guidelines (not legal advice):

– Identify your child’s specific needs

– Suggest an accommodation (don’t necessarily rely on the school to design one themselves, as it may not be appropriate)

– If the school finds your suggestion unreasonable, ask them to state why

– Ask the school to suggest an accommodation

– Provide medical documentation if appropriate

– Ask the school to respond to request in a reasonable time

Is the bathroom example in the question reasonable?

Although the person did not reveal what the disability of the child is, a desk in a room with other children with a curtain does not seem reasonable for numerous reasons: anxiety of the child because of the location; potential health risks because of unsanitary conditions; and may not appropriately address the need of the child.

Final word

Follow the guidelines above (and think of more yourself) to determine a reasonable accommodation that the school should make in order for your child with a disability to access the educational services.  If the accommodation that the school provides seems shocking or inappropriate, it is not likely reasonable.


3 thoughts on “What is a “reasonable accommodation”?”

  1. Thank you for the clarification of IDEA, ADA, and 504 criteria related to this question. Points not mentioned, the student requires an adaptive toileting chair over the toilet and a table to manage personal hygiene and clothes. These functions are managed by his nurse. A bathroom with these adaptations exists at the school but at a considerable distance from the classroom, resulting in lost time for education. The students that would benefit from the adapted bathroom have differences in cognition and physical abilities and are nonverbal. Their peers are verbal and can walk and have access to a bathroom with separate stalls and doors near their classroom. My gut feeling is that the verbal kids would object to having to manage their personal hygiene behind a curtain in the classroom. If majority of students have nearby bathroom that suits their needs and also provides privacy like doors on the stalls, why can’t the few that need adaptive equipment in a bathroom, also get bathroom near the classroom and have doors for privacy?

      1. I am a case manager and 7th grade ELA inclusion co-teacher, at a middle school, in S GA. I serve and co-teach SpEd students, on the higher cognitive level, and also regular education students at the same time, 4 periods per day.
        One student, on my caseload, is mentally & academically strong enough , not needing a co-teacher or supportive instruction (para) in his academic classes.
        However, he is confined to a wheel chair & requires and adult to assist with his traveling from class to class, a personal hygiene needs such as using the bathroom, often requiring lifting,
        Our school has hired a private contractor (a local citizen, experienced in years of coaching rec league sports, no formal education) to assist/shadow this student at all times throughout the school day.
        I teach in the second poorest county in the state of GA. But I can assure you, my students’ needs, according to their IEP & disability, are being met! If not, as an IEP Team, including parents, we meet, decide what is best for the student, and make amendments.
        I am just in awe , surprised, and somewhat heartbroken that this is not practiced in all public schools!

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