The city of Boston is rolling out new guidelines for how it serves residents with disabilities.

“This is a big change in our policy for the city,” said Disability Commissioner Kristen McCosh. The new guidelines suggest that city departments ask about accommodation needs rather than a person’s disability.

“Previously, we [the city] would ask about what type of disability somebody had. It could be blind, deaf, someone with mobility impairment or cognitive disability,” McCosh said. “But now, after feedback from the focus groups that we did, we really had to flip that and just ask about what people need to attend a service or, you know, attend a program or come to City Hall or anything they need.”

The guidelines propose a new set of questions for city workers to use when planning events, meetings or providing services. For example, rather than asking how many constituents are blind, departments will ask if people need services like braille, large-print documents, audio description or areas for service dogs to relieve themselves — a reflection that each person’s individual needs can be varied and diverse within disability categories.

“We really want to know who we’re serving so that we can better meet people’s needs,” McCosh said.

The project was a collaboration with the city’s Disabilities Commission, Office of Human Resources, Elections Department and the Department of Innovation and Technology. Training materials and office hours will be rolled out this summer.

In focus groups held over the past year with residents with a variety of disabilities, officials said they heard a need for the city to focus more on accommodation needs rather than on questions about their medical conditions or questions that can generate a fear of discrimination.

“One thing we heard from the focus groups was that a lot of people have disabilities that are dynamic,” McCosh said. “That is, they change from day to day.”

For example, someone may identify as hard of hearing, but that doesn’t mean they know American Sign Language, and their hearing may depend on the day or type of event or venue.

The project also gathered feedback on how to make elections and the voting process more accessible, and will recommend that the Office of Human Resources ask all city employees a voluntary question about whether they identify as a person with a disability.

This is the second such project the city has undertaken to better understand its community and implement inclusive standards, officials said. The first, about gender guidelines, resulted in gender being taken off the application for marriage licenses.

Gathering more inclusive data will lead to long-term changes about how the city serves residents, said aleja jimenez jaramillo, director of tech governance and policy for the Department of Innovation and Technology, who worked on both the gender project and the disability project.

“The way we collect data shapes our understanding of reality,” said jimenez jaramillo. “It helps to create a sense of the size of the problem, and more qualitatively, shapes how we think about what is the right way to address this issue.”

The conversation about how disability is counted is also underway at the national level. Most government data on disability comes from the U.S. Census annual American Community Survey, which defines disability as six types: hearing difficulty, vision difficulty, cognitive difficulty, ambulatory difficulty, self-care difficulty, and independent living difficulty. 

The Census Bureau had been weighing a change to how it collects data on disability, focusing instead on level of ability. Many advocates expressed concern that it could make it harder for people with disabilities to access government services. Earlier this year, the census announced it would not move forward with the changes.

McCosh said officials are not aware of any other cities in the country that have adopted similar guidelines on disability, but several have indicated that they are “very interested” in learning more about Boston’s new policy.

McCosh stressed that every city event and service must already be accessible as a standard. But the new data, over time, will help the city better plan for the future and go above and beyond on accessibility. Officials hope the new guidelines will benefit many residents, whether or not they currently identify as disabled.

“I think there will be a specific population that is probably most directly benefited by this, but accessibility benefits everyone,” said jimenez jaramillo. “I think the standard is one example of moving towards a world that is just easier for folks to ask for and get what they need from government.”