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Thursday, February 1, 2024

Autistic School Board Member's Lawsuit

In The Politics of Autism, I write:  "Support from the general public will be an important political asset for autistic people. Another will be their sheer numbers, since a larger population of identified autistic adults will mean more autistic voters and activists."  Previous posts have discussed autistic officeholders and political candidates in California,  New YorkGeorgiaTexas, and Wisconsin.

Claire Fahy at NYT:
When Sarah Hernandez joined the Enfield, Conn., Board of Education in 2017, she had a goal: making sure schools met the needs of students with disabilities. Among the first openly autistic candidates to be elected to public office in the country, she saw her win as a sign that her small town was open to her perspective.

But if voters were, her colleagues on the school board were not: They consistently denied her the accommodations she needed to do her job, according to a discrimination lawsuit she filed against the school board and the town of Enfield, which is 20 miles north of Hartford. The accommodations she asked for — both because of her autism and because she is hard of hearing — included asking board members to communicate by text or email instead of by phone and to face her while speaking to her.

The court battle over the lawsuit, which accused the board and the town of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, lasted more than four years. Last month, a jury sided with Ms. Hernandez and awarded her damages.

The amount? $10.

The nominal damages were a result of a 2022 Supreme Court decision, according to Stewart J. Schwab, a professor of employment and labor law at Cornell University. In the case, Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, the court ruled that people suing under the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits organizations that receive federal funds from discriminating against people with disabilities, could not be awarded damages for emotional distress.


Witnesses testified in court that Ms. Hernandez looked like she could participate in her board duties without accommodations, according to Ms. Hernandez’s lawyer, Anthony May.

Misperceptions like these are why autism is considered an “invisible disability,” according to Simon Baron-Cohen, the director of the Autism Research Center at Cambridge University.

Autistic people may be “having a lot of stress under the surface, or confusion or overwhelm, but to the outside, to other people, they seem like they’re just the same as everybody else,” Mr. Baron-Cohen said. “So there’s a change in attitude that’s needed.”