Access vs. Accommodations


On this page, we will dive into the difference between access and accommodation by exploring the social and medical models of disability.

You have a choice as to how to engage with the material in this lesson. Remember, the key concepts are always addressed in the text. If you need more info or learn by watching, the videos and resources are great supplements.

Read: Difference Between Access & Accommodation


When we use the term ‘access’ when talking about people with disabilities, we’re using it just as we do in any other context – the ability to retrieve, use, benefit from something. Specifically, the ability to access something independently or without needing to ask for a modification or alternative format. For example, making sure a blind person can navigate a website without the help of a sighted person.


The term accommodation refers to making a modification for someone to gain access. Accommodations are made when a user is unable to access material without additional assistance. However, this doesn’t mean that if a student needs accommodations your course is not accessible. There are cases where a student will need accommodations regardless of the work you’ve put into your course (the changes you’ve made will not necessarily eliminate the extra time it takes to complete a quiz with a screen reader or without the use of a mouse – that extended time accommodation is still important). 

Social vs Medical Model

Traditionally, disability has been viewed using the medical model. The medical model approaches the impairment as the problem – something that needs to be cured or fixed; the problem resides within the individual. When we think about the work done to remove and reduce barriers for people with disabilities, we’re using the social model of disability. The social model of disability focuses on how society does or does not allow an impairment to disable the person with the impairment; the problem is in the environment, not the individual.

Putting it Together

While there are cases that people will always need accommodations (like using a sign language interpreter, or extended time to allow for use of a screen reader), by making your materials accessible, you eliminate some of the obstacles and cut down on some of the hassle it may take a person to navigate your content. Doing as much work as you can on the front end eliminates the potential for a lot of work put into modifying your content when an accommodation notice arrives in your inbox the day before classes begin.  

Focusing on access is proactive – you’re taking the steps to design materials that are usable for the most number of people. Focusing on accommodations is typically reactive – you’re waiting for someone to approach you with a problem before you’re willing to make changes.

Let’s use a physical example. Imagine if architects didn’t prioritize accessibility. As an architect, I could design a beautiful three story building. But imagine that building only had stairwells and no ramps or elevators. If someone in a wheelchair needed to access my building, I would have to go back and retroactively fit the building with an elevator. Think about the time and resources that would take.

The goal here is for you to be proactive when it comes to accessibility; do what you can to make your material as accessible as possible. Students and users may still need accommodations, but these accommodations will require less work for you. 

Think about the students that won’t seek out accommodations or users that don’t want to point out that they cannot access your materials because that requires more work on their end, they aren’t comfortable with having the label “disabled” applied to them, or they cannot afford to see a doctor in order to get the proper documents. We don’t require that people give proof to use a ramp or elevator – why design materials that require a student to give proof to access content? You’ll learn more about how to design in such a way on the next page when we discuss Universal Design for Learning. 

Watch: Understanding the Social Model of Disability

The Social Model of Disability (2 mins)

This video addresses the social model of disability. 

What is Accessibility? (8 mins)

In this video, people will discuss what accessibility means to them and the concrete steps people can take to help create accessible spaces.

Aimee Mullins: The Opportunity of Adversity (22 mins)

Mullin’s TED Talk is a powerful lecture on the meaning behind the word disability and how society views people with disabilities. Her discussion hits at the harm of the medical model and the importance of society embracing the social model of disability in order to make greater strides towards accessibility. If you do not have time to watch Mullin’s full talk, jump to 8:56.

TED Talk – Aimee Mullins: The Opportunity of Adversity