When you are an employment lawyer, you tend to view events through a particular lens. Recently, I had my “ADA specs” on when I read an article about a Duke University professor who, in discussing her book, “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America,” made a remark about Libertarians during a book tour. She opined how she found it “striking … how many of the architects of this cause seem to be on the autism spectrum,” The professor, Nancy MacLean, continued, “You know, people who don’t feel solidarity or empathy with others and who have difficult human relationships sometimes.” (You can read the story here.)
This offhanded comment, which I am sure Professor MacLean regrets, was not received well. One of those people who did not receive the remark well wrote an op ed piece in the Wall Street Journal. Although not a professor, he did some educating of his own:
I … have autism, and I would like to set the record straight about what that means. Specialists in the field long ago debunked the simplistic stereotype that people with autism have no feelings or compassion. We can be empathic and express feelings, but we tend to do it in a different way.
I have trouble making eye contact, for example. But that doesn’t mean I am not listening to you when you talk. In fact, I tend to listen better when I’m not trying to make eye contact, because my brain is more focused on processing the words I hear.
Ms. MacLean is equally wrong in stereotyping people with autism as libertarians. Like everyone else, we believe in different political ideologies and vote for different political parties. We’re humans, not robots.
This, I thought after reading his piece, is why the Americans with Disabilities Act has had such significance and power. It was championed by men on opposite sides of the spectrum – the political one, that is (liberal Ted Kennedy from Massachusetts and conservative Bob Dole from Kansas). It was signed into law by a Republican President (George H.W. Bush). It was meant to, and has, transformed the way we view people who are different than the majority by virtue of the way their brains are wired or their bodies function. Admittedly, it is a law that is fraught with difficulties, which I know from many conversations with clients trying to understand its parameters and work within them. But, it undoubtedly has resulted in a transformation: public spaces and places of employment actively considering whether barriers to entry or employment may reasonably be altered to accommodate the participation of individuals with these differences, which we call “disabilities.”
Autism is considered a disability under the ADA. But, the lesson I take from Professor MacLean’s verbal gaff and the eloquent response of the op ed writer is, perhaps for some, in name only.