What’s An Accommodation?

By Joel Smith.

Often, autistic people are seen as needing “accommodation”. We need something “special” to function in society, something that is fundamentally different than the types of things non-disabled people need.

But why is that? Too often, it’s a result of social expectation or presence of barriers in society. Everyone has things they can’t do the “best” way, for any given definition of “best”. An example I use is my ability to maintain my own automobile – even a modern one with tens of computers. Most people can’t do that. But it’s not seen as a failing to do so, because we have people called “auto mechanics” to fix our cars when we can’t. But, picture a society where there is no such person – where everyone is expected to have the mechanical aptitude, ability, and training to repair their own vehicle.

I’d fit into such a society fine. I can repair anything from the early 80s through modern vehicles. I haven’t tried fixing a hybrid yet, but I’m pretty sure I could do it. In fact, in this auto-fixing-society, I’m pretty sure I’d be seen as relatively normal – not a perfect mechanic, but an adequately competent one who rarely ends up in a bind he can’t fix himself. My mechanical, electronic, and diagnostic skills would be seen as typical.

Picture a society where the small-talk involves what firing order your 6 cylinder engine uses, the pros and cons of a limited slip differential, discussions about corrosive effects of anti-freeze, and relaxed discussions about better O2 sensor placement. Picture these discussions occurring to “break the ice” at job interviews, church, even weddings.

Picture it being normal for a person to break down on the side of the road and have the tools and ability to fix their own vehicle, without need of any assistance. Tow trucks would be restricted to truly intensive repairs – they’d laugh at you if you called needing a tire change or if you couldn’t change your own battery. Instead of providing a tow service, there would be “emergency parts delivery.” You would call about a clutch going out, and an hour later a truck would show up next to your car, stocked with a replacement clutch and the larger tools you would need to fix the clutch – but not screwdrivers or wrenches. It’s assumed you have those in your car already! After dropping the tools and clutch off, the delivery driver would leave, being dispatched to his next breakdown. You would fix your own car, right there, right on the side of the road, and return the large tools when done (or call the delivery driver back to pick them up).

But what about the person who couldn’t fix their car? They would probably get labels like “Chronic Mechanical Retardation”. Certainly “Mechanical Disability” would be a label. They would be uncomfortable having auto repair discussions in church while waiting for worship to begin, and new employers would question others skills in a person once they found out that they didn’t even know what a transverse-mounted engine is. They probably wouldn’t get hired.

But, fortunately for the majority of the population, we do have mechanics and tow trucks. People aren’t expected to fix their own cars unless they either enjoy it or don’t want to spend the money for someone else’s labor (yet have the ability to do it themselves). In fact, fixing your own car is seen as a hobby often (or something “poor people” do), while taking it to the mechanic is seen as “part of driving a vehicle.”

Yet, I can fix my car by myself just fine. It’s eating, taking care of my living space, managing to pay bills and return phone calls, etc, that I have trouble with. The very same things that are seen as “indulgences” of people with extra money, unless the disabled need them – then they are seen as “accommodation”, perhaps with suspicion that the person really is capable of doing it themselves but wants this “indulgence” to be provided by society. After all, it’s not common for someone else to clean your home or make your meals or return phone calls for you.