An Autistic School Board Member Sued for Discrimination. She Won $10.

When Sarah Hernandez joined the Enfield, Connecticut Board of Education in 2017, she had one goal: to make sure schools met the needs of students with disabilities. Among the first openly autistic candidates elected to public office in the country, she saw her victory as a sign that her small town was open to her perspective.

But if the voters were, his colleagues on the school board were not: They consistently denied him the accommodations he needed to do his job, according to a discrimination lawsuit he filed against the school board and the city of Enfield, which is 20 miles north of Hartford. The accommodations he requested, 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 look at her while they spoke.

The court battle over the lawsuit, which accused the board and 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 the result of a 2022 Supreme Court decision, according to Stewart J. Schwab, a professor of labor and employment law at Cornell University. In 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 recover damages for emotional distress.

Because the jury did not find that Ms. Hernandez had concretely demonstrated that her experience had physically harmed her, she was denied a substantial award.

“I’m incredibly proud of the nominal damages,” Hernandez, 44, said. “But it almost seems to me that they are saying that the mental health harms are not real.”

Despite the size of the settlement, the legal victory was significant, Schwab said. Discrimination lawsuits like this are often settled out of court, he said, because “these cases are difficult to win.”

Hernandez prefers emails and text messages to phone calls and group conversations because of her auditory processing issues, and finds long meetings exhausting. To address these and other challenges, he asked to receive printed summaries of what to expect at confidential meetings in advance, so he could better prepare and follow things, and also asked if he could pass notes to other board members if he needed anything. Cleared up.

Initially, board members seemed receptive. Timothy Neville, the board’s Democratic minority leader, sent an email to Hernandez after her election, congratulating her for “turning what many perceive as a disability into an ability.” And in a Facebook comment in 2019, Hernandez said the board seemed willing to “brainstorm the issue” of meeting her accommodation requests.

But according to court documents, board members were reluctant to communicate with Ms. Hernandez in writing, fearing that the messages “could be taken out of context” and used against her. Board members also believed, their attorneys said in court papers, that Ms. Hernandez “portrayed herself as a victim.” Lawyers for the Enfield school board and town council declined to comment.

Witnesses testified in court that it appeared Ms. Hernandez could participate in her board duties without accommodation, according to Ms. Hernandez’s attorney, Anthony May.

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

Autistic people may “have a lot of stress under the surface, confused or overwhelming, but outwardly, to other people, they appear the same as everyone else,” Baron-Cohen said. “So a change of attitude is necessary.”

There have been significant advances over the past 20 years in understanding the psychology and neuroscience of autism, Baron-Cohen said. General awareness of disability has also increased, he added, and the concept of neurodiversity, or the understanding that people’s brains work differently, has gained momentum.

But autistic people still have high rates of anxiety and depression, suggesting the support systems they need aren’t in place, Baron-Cohen said.

John Elder Robison, who is autistic and advised the National Institutes of Health on neurodiversity from the George W. Bush administration to the Biden years, said serving on a committee like a school board can be particularly challenging if only one or two of its members is autistic, because the other members will want a different rhythm.

But he said the treatment Ms. Hernandez requested likely would have benefited others as well. She hopes that one day accommodations for autistic people will be as widespread as those for people with other disabilities, such as ramps for wheelchair users.

“It’s hard for people to come to terms with the idea of ​​making accommodations for people with disabilities,” Mr. Robinson said. “But I think throughout history, disability accommodations have become the primary expectations.”

Robison added that several of today’s politicians were likely to be autistic, noting that one in seven people in the United States is neurodivergent, a term that encompasses all people with brain differences, including those with ADHD, dyslexia and other diagnoses. .

“We need to recognize that neurodiversity is all of us,” he said. “It’s not like we have neurodivergent people applying for jobs or running for Congress or the school board. They are already there.”

While autism presents differently from person to person, one of the most common characteristics is special interests, or an intense focus on one or two topics. One of Hernández’s special interests is democracy, something she says she is “joyfully obsessed with.”

Ms. Hernandez said that when she was elected, she was proud to be part of what she saw as a “paradigm shift” toward positive representation of people with disabilities in government.

And although the long battle over the lawsuit left her isolated from the city she has called home for nine years, her court victory has emboldened her.

Hernandez’s attorneys sought a court order last week that would require Enfield to introduce a policy allowing accommodations for elected officials and those running for public office.

“I should be on the City Council, and so should people like me, and I am relentless”
she said. “I hope that simply staying resolved is enough to empower and encourage other people, with and without disabilities, to be relentless with me.”

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