The mother of a teenage autistic son is suing the organization Autism Speaks for alleging rescinding a job offer after she asked if workplace accommodations might be possible due to her child’s needs.
That is, an organization that says it champions the needs of autistic individuals and their families is being sued for failing to accommodate the needs of a mother and of her autistic child.
Autism Speaks Sued For Disability Discrimination
According to Disability Scoop, Simone Greggs is charging Autism Speaks with violating the the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act when, just as she was going to start a new job as walk events manager at Autism Speaks’ Washington, D.C. office in early May, the organization rescinded the offer. Greggs had completed five different interviews, a pre-employment background check and a drug test but “everything changed” when she asked for workplace accommodations or if she might work from home, as her autistic son returns from school early on Wednesdays.
Autism Speaks told Greggs that accommodations would not be possible. She was able to make other arrangements but, according to the court filings, Greggs was then told that Autism Speaks was “rescinding the employment offer because they did not want to make any accommodations for the care of her autistic child.” Expecting to work for the organization — which, as the mother of an autistic teenager like myself she must have felt a personal connection to — Greggs had turned down a job with the Democratic National Committee in April and is seeking compensatory and punitive damages.
But as she emphasizes to Disability Scoop, Greggs says that her suit is “not about money but principle for her.” Once a supporter of Autism Speaks (certainly, to seek to manage the autism walks, which are important fundraisers for the organization), Greggs describes the experience as “devastating”:
“They say one thing and they do another. You can’t say that you’re for helping families with children with autism and then you can’t give me an accommodation.”
Working Mothers of Autistic Children and the “Having It All” Debate
A Pediatrics study published in March found that we mothers of children on the autism spectrum earn less earn less. We earn 35% ($7189) less than the mothers of children with other health issues and 56% ($14, 755) less than mothers of children without health issues and disabilities.
I’ve been able to work full-time for most of my son Charlie‘s life because I’ve been a professor at a number of smaller colleges and universities where teaching has been my primary responsibility. I’ve been able to set up my work hours so I can see Charlie off to school, get home before the school bus arrives and drop everything when the school nurse or principal calls to say: “You need to pick him up now.” My husband Jim Fisher is also a professor and has flexible work others. Otherwise, I have no idea how we could take care of Charlie (we have no other caregivers for him). As Jim often says, “we have no margin for error.”
Taking care of Charlie has completely affected our careers. We can teach and work from home but are unable to travel to professional meetings and undertake extensive research that would involve visiting archives and distant libraries. I feel very lucky to have a job that allows for accommodating Charlie’s needs and love all the time we spend with him, but taking care of him has meant cutting corners in my academic scholarship and limiting certain kinds of professional advancement.
Autism Speaks: Past Controversies
Greggs’s lawsuit is not the first time Autism Speaks has found itself at the center of controversy in its short history. Shortly after its founding in 2005, Autism Speaks was criticized by parents and autistic self-advocates over its promotion of a film, Autism Every Day, in which a mother said she once despaired so much that she thought of driving her autistic daughter and herself off the George Washington Bridge. A dispute about vaccine research also led to a front-page New York Times story describing a rift between Bob and Suzanne Wright, who had founded the organization, and their daughter, Katie Wright.
According to its mission statement, Autism Speaks says that it “dedicated” to “raising public awareness about autism and its effects on individuals, families, and society; and to bringing hope to all who deal with the hardships of this disorder.” Gregg’s discrimination lawsuit has surely raised awareness about the challenges of raising an autistic child. It is unfortunate that Autism Speaks has not actually practiced what it preaches and presented a model of how to accommodate for the needs of autistic children and their families.
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