Hello again,

I get so many questions about this topic… so let’s see if this explanation helps.

Educators and parents often get confused about the difference between these. Remember: an accommodation does NOT fundamentally alter what is being taught or tested, and a modification DOES. A fundamental alteration changes the essence of what is being taught or tested. For example, providing a student with a reader (someone or a technology to read the text to him) on a reading lesson or test fundamentally alters the lesson or test. If a student uses a reader, he is not reading–he is being read to. That is a different skill set. Therefore, it is a modification.

Making these decisions arise in schools–and in many other settings. Do you remember Casey Martin, the golfer whose lawsuit went all the way to the Supreme Court in 2001? That’s what the case was about. The whole country got a lesson in accommodations and modifications then!

Due to his leg impairment, Martin could participate in the PGA Professional Tour only if he was allowed to use his golf cart. His impairment substantially limited his ability to walk long distances (5 miles on that golf course, as I recall.).

Well, the Supreme Court analyzed the situation and came down on his side. It decided that the cart would NOT fundamentally alter the PGA Tour. And here’s the key: To do so, it had to analyze whether WALKING was fundamental to the game. If it was, Martin could not use the cart. If it was not fundamental, then he could use it. Based on the evidence it had, the Court decided that walking was NOT fundamental.

Importantly, the Court reminded us that accommodations should NOT provide an unfair advantage to the person. If the cart had done so, it would not be allowed. Based on the evidence before it, the Court found that the cart did NOT provide an unfair advantage. So, it was allowed.

Bottom line: decide what is fundamental. And go from there!

I hope this post is useful. Would love to hear! Miriam

About Miriam

Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, JD, MA—an expert in public education, focused on special education law— is a lawyer, author, speaker, consultant, and reformer. For more than 35 years, Miriam worked with educators, parents, policy makers, and citizens to translate complex legalese into plain English and focus on good practices for children. Now, she focuses her passion on reforming special education, with her new book, Special Education 2.0—Breaking Taboos to Build a NEW Education Law. Presentations include those at the AASA Conference, Orange County (CA), Boston College (MA), CADRE (OR), and the Fordham Institute (DC). Her writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Education Week, Education Next, Hoover Digest, The University of Chicago Law Review on line, DianeRavitch.net, and The Atlantic Monthly on line.

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