I am a Black multiracial autistic activist who has been working in disability advocacy for the past decade. My work is well known: I’ve spoken at the White House’s LGBTQ Disability Day, the United Nations, and MIT. I’ve won multiple awards for my contributions to the disability community, including the Heller School’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion award and an induction into the Disability Mentors’ Hall of Fame. In April 2022, I was forced out of my job at the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy (part of Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management) because of racial discrimination. I don’t know whether this exclusion was intentional or not, but the effect is the same: a highly qualified, nationally renowned Black autistic staff member felt forced to resign because his white supervisor favoured a less-qualified white colleague—ironic, given that it was Heller that gave me the DEI award last year.
My experience at the Lurie Institute was mostly positive until April 2021, when a new communications coordinator—a white Brandeis alumna—was hired to support me. This person came at the strong recommendation of my immediate supervisor, who is also white. Although the communications coordinator was supposed to support me by creating graphics, making posts on social media, and writing and editing, her work was not up to the standards that I had already set at the Institute. She was unfamiliar with standard editorial practice, which I pointed out. I found her writing mediocre, clichéd, and trite, and she was also unfamiliar with how to write in plain language, which is important in our work. Her writing was full of grammatical errors and lapses in usage. When I offered her feedback about her writing, she was curt and dismissive and told me that “no one had criticised her writing before.” Somehow, I suspect that she was affronted that a Black man had the nerve to correct her grammar and usage. I admit that I showed frustration about her poor usage on a few occasions, but this was because her lack of skill contradicted what she said when I interviewed her for the job. She had limited experience with graphic design, to the point that her earliest graphics were distorted and visually unappealing. And though she was hired to support me with social media, she initially refused to make a Facebook account. She also had limited familiarity with Twitter. She was trained to make PDF documents accessible, but she never fully got the hang of it.
As her supervisor, I was dissatisfied with her performance and complained to my boss, saying that her lack of skills made her a poor fit for the job and that she would be better suited to work with the research team, where her expertise actually lies. I was convinced to give her a chance, which I now believe was a mistake. Instead of being supported, I had more and more of my responsibilities taken away. I was told, both implicitly and explicitly, that my standards for this person’s output were too high. My direct supervisor wasn’t a skilled writer—she was better at managing and budgeting—so she was unable to judge the quality of the communications coordinator’s work. Instead of trusting my judgment, though, she kept pushing back to defend this person, possibly because it was she who recommended the coordinator. I also think that she was worried I was judging her, too. (If I was, it was because she kept dismissing my complaints.)
To add insult to injury, the communications coordinator was reassigned to my supervisor, so I no longer had managerial duties. I was forced to do menial work—e.g., scheduling short-term queues of social-media posts, rather than developing long-term campaigns—and was discouraged from taking on more complex projects, apart from time-sensitive ones like our annual reports. I did more complex work for Lurie as a graduate student than I did in the two to three months leading up to my resignation. I complained repeatedly about the simplicity of my tasks, but I was told that “everyone has things they don’t want to do.” I lost much of my autonomy, which I used to have a great deal of. My supervisor routinely held check-ins with the coordinator and a student worker without me, both of whom were white.
I was becoming more and more left out of the process that I had set up. My supervisor started handling more and more of my responsibilities, which I never asked her to do. All this happened after the communications coordinator was hired. I think that the coordinator (a) resented having a Black supervisor at all, and (b) felt a bit of pique at the idea that a Black person could point out ways she could improve her work. She was too genteel to say this directly, but her actions said what her words could not. Before I left, I told the leadership team that I couldn’t return to work if the coordinator was still there, but I couldn’t articulate fully why I couldn’t work with her any longer, so nothing came of it. But now I know: I felt pushed out of my work because of racial bias.
Before the arrival of the communications coordinator, I WAS the communications team. I am an experienced typographer, graphic designer, curriculum developer, writer, editor, artist, speaker, and trainer; the communications coordinator was none of those things. I designed entire reports and white papers by myself, as well as reports written by my colleagues. I put together presentations for our research teams. I wrote (and in one case, illustrated) dozens of policy briefs—including plain-language and Easy Read documents—for our grant-funded research projects. I conducted professional workshops about sensitivity in research, accessible writing, bias in quantitative research, English usage, and inclusive language. I collaborated with our community partners to put together documents. I wrote a seventy-seven-page style manual on my own. I updated the website and created entire social-media campaigns. I wrote letters to funders. I made sure everything was scrupulously copyedited. I did all the design and layout for our briefs and information sheets alone. I was the one who watched out for noninclusive language, jargon, and buzzwords, since our goal was to communicate our findings to the public. I helped write grants for our multimillion-dollar research projects. I designed and updated logos for our research programs. On top of that, I updated most of our social media and made sure to highlight my colleagues’ accomplishments, as well as my own. To be blunt, I did more as a one-man shop than I did with the communications coordinator on the team. (I often work better alone, but I think that’s the case for quite a few autistic workers.)
And yet, after the communications coordinator arrived, I found myself being pushed out of my job in favour of an underqualified white woman, whom my supervisor kept defending even after I continued to complain. My contributions no longer mattered, and the focus shifted to the team as a whole, which was all white except for me. My fulfilling, fast-paced job had turned into a sinecure. To be fair, my supervisor knew I was going through a difficult time in my life, but work gave me meaning and purpose. When the meaning and purpose were lost, I no longer felt fulfilled. I felt as though I was just a mascot: a Black face for a predominantly white team.
I felt insulted, dismissed, and betrayed by my supervisor, though I couldn’t admit to myself how upset I was until last month.
After a year’s worth of fruitless complaining, I started experiencing mental-health difficulties—PTSD-related dissociation and hypervigilance—that were a direct result of being constantly gaslit and invalidated by my supervisor about my colleague, coming to terms with my heritage as a Sephardi Jew whose family had to hide from the Inquisition for hundreds of years, as well as a breakthrough COVID-19 infection that caused some neurological symptoms. (During the dissociative fugue, I said some things on Twitter and elsewhere that were garbled, confused versions of what I wanted to say now: I was experiencing racism in the workplace, and I was tired of having my contributions diminished. I regret what I wrote, even though I’d lost my self-awareness.) I also started to lose my temper, at least in writing, because I was tired of seeing my white colleagues put minimal effort into what they wrote and said, while I was careful and scrupulous. It felt unfair: why should they get to be so nonchalant and get away with it? Why should I be made to feel guilty for holding these people accountable? My supervisor even implied that I was being misogynistic, as though asking my white female colleagues to use standard English in their emails was somehow offensive to women. She complained about my “sharp cutting words,” even though my tone was nothing compared with the insults I’ve had to experience as a Black person in this society. I don’t think it’s too much to ask professional communicators to communicate professionally. On top of that, I’m autistic and find certain errors physically aversive, which I have said repeatedly. They’re painful to read. Also, I felt as though I wasn’t worth the effort of trying to get things right, which is often how Black people are treated. When I complained that my supervisor’s dismissiveness toward my needs was a violation of the ADA, I was told to get formal documentation, even though nobody had asked me that before. I’m a somewhat public figure in the disability community, and the ADA doesn’t just cover documented disabilities, but perceived and former disabilities, too. I felt as though I no longer mattered as a person, that I was just a cog in the machine when I’d made the machine myself with my bare hands.
I’d like to return to the Lurie Institute, but only if serious measures are taken to avoid racial discrimination, whether implicit or explicit. If I can be pushed out, imagine how much worse it would be for someone without my profile, without my relationships with the community, without my reputation.
As a Black autistic person, I’ve found this a traumatising, humiliating, and frustrating ordeal. If you care at all about racial justice and disability rights, I ask you to support me in holding the Lurie Institute and Brandeis accountable. You can do this by sharing my open letter on Twitter or Facebook, contacting Lurie or Brandeis yourselves, or supporting me financially while I try to solve this problem. If you do contact Lurie or Brandeis, keep it civil. I don’t want them to be punished; I want them held accountable, and there’s a huge difference between the two phenomena. Please do not insult anyone involved with this.
If you’d like to support me financially, you can contribute to my PayPal: firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like to arrange something else, email me at the same address. I’ve been struggling this month—I owe some back rent and need to pay some bills—so every little bit helps.
Thank you for your support. It means the world to me.