The Amy Wax situation: On academic freedom, diversity & inclusion, workplace mobbing, and cancel culture

Screenshot from Inside Higher Education

Applying just about any conventional measure, law professor Amy Wax has built a spectacularly successful career. She holds a chaired professorship at an Ivy League law school (University of Pennsylvania). She has assembled a ferocious c.v. (link here), loaded with sterling academic and professional achievements, publications, and awards. Her degrees include a J.D. from Columbia and an M.D. from Harvard.

And yet she is under heavy fire for an ongoing, alleged series of polarizing, critical statements and negative characterizations about people of color, women, and gays. For that she faces potential discipline and loss of tenure protections. The Dean of her law school has asked the university’s faculty senate to impose sanctions on her, a possible prelude towards eventual termination proceedings.

Scott Jaschik, writing for Inside Higher Education (link here), provides a lot of details about this situation, which has received national attention. Here’s his lede:

Some students and faculty at the University of Pennsylvania have been clamoring for years for the ouster of Amy Wax, the polarizing law professor who courted scandal with incendiary and racist remarks and writings and seemed to relish the resulting controversies. Despite the repeated calls for her removal from her tenured position, and the criticisms of her actions—including by university leaders—that followed each controversy, Wax remained in the position and seemed firmly protected by free speech and academic freedom rights.

That pattern may be about to change: the dean of the Penn law school has started a process that could lead to Wax’s termination.

To be clear, we’re not talking about an isolated instance or two of questionable speech. From Penn Law dean Theodore Ruger’s memorandum to the Chair of the Faculty Senate (link here), here are some of Prof. Wax’s alleged statements, made to individual students, her classes, and public audiences:

  • “Stating in class that Mexican men are more likely to assault women and remarking such a stereotype was accurate in the same way as ‘Germans are punctual.'”
  • “Commenting in class that gay couples are not fit to raise children and making other references to LGBTQ people that a student reported evinced a ‘pattern of homophobia.'”
  • “Commenting after a series of students with foreign-sounding names introduced themselves that one student was ‘finally, an American’ adding, ‘it’s a good thing, trust me.'”
  • Telling a Black student…”who asked whether Wax agreed with [a panelist’s] statements that Black people are inherently inferior to white people, that ‘you can have two plants that grow under the same conditions, and one will just grow higher than the other.'”
  • Telling a Black student “that Black students don’t perform as well as white students because they are less well prepared, and that they are less well prepared because of affirmative action.”
  • “Stating, based on misleading citation of other sources, that ‘women, on average, are less knowledgeable than men,’ women are ‘less intellectual than men’ and there is ‘some evidence’ for the proposition that ‘men and women differ in cognitive ability.'”
  • “Stating that ‘our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites.'”
  • “Stating that Asians have an ‘indifference to liberty,’ lack ‘thoughtful and audacious individualism’ and that ‘the United States is better off with fewer Asians and less Asian immigration.’”
  • “Stating that ‘there were some very smart Jews’ among her past students but that Ashkenazi Jews are ‘diluting [their] brand like crazy because [they are] intermarrying.'”
  • “Stating that low-income students may cause ‘reverse contagion,’ infecting more ‘capable and sophisticated’ students with their ‘delinquency and rule-breaking.'”
  • “Stating that ‘if you go into medical schools, you’ll see that Indians, South Asians are now rising stars. . . . [T]hese diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are poisoning the scientific establishment and the medical establishment now.'”

In her recently posted GoFundMe appeal to create the “Amy Wax Legal Defense Fund” (link here), Prof. Wax states that Dean Ruger’s charges of inappropriate conduct are an attack on her conservative principles and are “littered with indignant invective and unsubstantiated and distorted claims.” She adds:

Penn Law Dean Ruger’s latest steps are part of a longstanding campaign at Penn Law School against me based on my stated positions, opinions, and speech, and despite my stellar performance as an award-winning teacher and academic during my decades-long career as a law professor. Penn’s actions represent an unprecedented and deeply destructive threat to the practice and traditions of free expression on campus and the tenure protections afforded to professors who express unpopular views. They are further evidence of the “woke” takeover of our university system, which seeks to stifle and punish dissent and purge our campuses of any deviation from a narrow set of progressive dogmas.

Academic freedom and tenure

While academic tenure may not be the lifetime job guarantee that some claim it is, it’s true that tenured professors at stable institutions who perform their work satisfactorily can expect continued employment. (For more about this topic, see my blog article, “What is academic tenure?,” link here.) And as a tenured professor at a prestigious university, Prof. Wax enjoys some of the strongest job protections available to any American employee.

One of the main purposes of tenure is to safeguard academic freedom in teaching, scholarship, and service activities. This includes freedom of expression, written or spoken. I regard academic freedom and tenure as carrying both rights and responsibilities. They include earned protections and accompanying obligations to perform one’s job with integrity. Tenure revocation is possible in cases of serious misconduct.

For controversial speech in such a context, I suggest that we establish a spectrum between being a thought-provoking scholar and being a simple provocateur.

The thought-provoking scholar pushes the boundaries of our assumptions and perceptions, using facts, analysis, interpretation, and sometimes creative expression. At times, this may include voicing or supporting unpopular viewpoints. The simple provocateur is more akin to a keyboard warrior, playing to the crowd in the comments section. This is the stuff of the internet troll and has very little to do with reasoned thought.

Where Amy Wax places on that spectrum may help us understand how her situation should be resolved. If her statements are considered so outlandish, irresponsible, and hurtful as to constitute misconduct, then sanctions may be in offing.

One of the most challenging considerations here is that we don’t have a bevy of comparable situations to give us guidance on how this should be handled. Assuming that Prof. Wax said or wrote most of the statements attributed to her, then this is a far cry from more typical scenarios that involve isolated instances or a small cluster of utterances deemed problematic.

It’s fair to point out that if Wax had been employed in a standard-brand, private-sector job setting (like a law firm or medical center), then it’s likely that she would’ve been terminated for cause already, perhaps following disciplinary warnings or a suspension. But academic freedom and tenure provide both substantive and procedural protections that most jobs do not offer.

Diversity and inclusion

You can easily see how the Wax situation is tailor-made for America’s tortured and fraught political and civic dialogue about diversity and freedom of expression. Her alleged statements have caused such an uproar because many have found them to be outrageous, hurtful, and wrongheaded. They’ve come at a time when “DEI” (diversity, equity, inclusion) is a deep focus of the day, in academe and corporate America alike.

Wax’s defenders range from those who agree with the substance of her alleged statements to those who place a very high value on academic freedom. 

Workplace mobbing

Folks have every right to criticize or defend Wax. She should be subjected to appropriate discipline if she’s crossed a clear line. From my concededly distanced perch, I believe that she is at that line or has even crossed it. While some of her alleged statements may fall under the cloak of academic freedom, many others appear to be grounded in animus towards difference.

Whether one agrees with Wax or not, there’s always a risk that critical voices can become an unruly mob. I find Wax’s worldview deeply objectionable, but I’m not happy about workplace mobbing scenes either. Prof. Kenneth Westhues’ pathbreaking work on mobbing in academe has repeatedly illustrated how quickly and dramatically such behaviors can escalate.

I imagine that Prof. Wax is feeling quite under siege right now. I don’t envy her. If she does face any disciplinary proceedings, then I hope — for everyone’s sake — that they will be conducted with dignity, fairness, and honesty.

Cancel culture

Especially because there is no legal definition of cancel culture, it’s important that we have some understanding of what it means in the employment context. I suggest that we define cancel culture at work as a response claimed to be disproportionately harsh — typically, either severe discipline or termination — to statements or actions deemed objectionable, hurtful and/or controversial.

At this juncture, it’s hard for anyone to legitimately claim that Amy Wax has been “cancelled.” However, the University’s moves toward possible disciplinary action and/or termination will cause the term to be used. And especially if her tenure is revoked and she is dismissed, then notwithstanding any due process she had been accorded, the cries of cancel culture from certain circles will be loud and sustained.

If Wax does leave Penn under whatever circumstances, then she will very likely land on her feet. She will be accorded martyr status and will no doubt be hired by an institution more compatible with her social and ideological views.

Summing up

While admitting that I’ve waded into this conversation with some trepidation, I feel obliged to share my own sense of this situation. I consider many of Amy Wax’s alleged statements to be hurtful and divisive. They sound like those of a provocateur fueling an ugly, exclusionary worldview, rather than those of a thought-provoking professor who occupies a position of enormous privilege and responsibility.

Yup, issues surrounding diversity and difference are challenging and can yield honest differences of opinion. There is a place in that discussion for strong language. But I don’t think that the heart of Wax’s rhetoric is contributing to our understanding of these issues. Sadly, one thing I’m certain of is that the eventual outcome of this situation — whatever it happens to be — will drive a deeper wedge into our political and social divide. 

Podcast: Drs. Gary & Ruth Namie and the history of the Workplace Bullying Institute

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of interviewing Drs. Ruth and Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute about the history of their pioneering work to address workplace bullying, the latest addition to Gary’s Workplace Bullying Podcast series. The interview — a conversation, really — runs about 90 minutes. You can access it here (YouTube) or here (Podcast page, “The WBI Story — Drs. Ruth and Gary Namie”).

In 1998, I stumbled upon an online interview with Gary, in which he was describing a form of employee mistreatment that he called “workplace bullying.” He further explained that he and his wife, Ruth, had started an initiative called the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying (eventually to become the Workplace Bullying Institute). I read the interview and had a fast epiphany: Bullying at work is one of the most neglected forms of abuse in the American workplace.

I called Gary and Ruth and introduced myself as a young law professor specializing in employment law. I offered to start researching potential legal protections against workplace bullying, and they accepted. This call would lead to a partnership and friendship that have endured to this day.

Thus, it was my special privilege to interview Ruth and Gary, starting with their origin story and moving into the present day. For those who have been closely following their work for years, this story should be of special interest.

The pandemic hasn’t curbed workplace bullying, but the Great Resignation might do so

Image courtesy Clipart Panda

As discussed on this blog last year, the pandemic did not put the breaks on workplace bullying, at least in the U.S. Rather, as verified in a scientific study by the Workplace Bullying Institute done with Zogby Analytics, much of the offending behavior simply went online, mainly via video conferencing platforms such as Zoom.

But perhaps the greatest shift in the labor market related to the pandemic — tagged broadly as the “Great Resignation” — is signaling to employers that it would be in their best interests to take bullying and related behaviors more seriously. 

You see, even the mainstream business media, such as Bloomberg and Forbes, are acknowledging that toxic work cultures are a major driver of the Great Resignation. And although references to toxic work environments do not necessarily equate with workplace bullying, you can bet that the latter makes up a lot of the former.

The pandemic has given many people opportunities to reflect upon their work experiences, and a good number have reckoned that they’ve been toiling under unpleasant conditions. Overall, a more plentiful labor market has offered workers greater flexibility in terms of changing jobs.

In addition, a resurgent labor movement — most strongly evidenced by a wave of successful union organizing campaigns at Starbucks locations across the country — is providing more workers with an opportunity to voice concerns about their conditions of employment, including bullying, harassment, and abuse. Bullying and related concerns can, in turn, be raised at the bargaining table. (Some unions, such as SEIU/NAGE here in Massachusetts, have become major allies in standing against workplace bullying.)

Generational dynamics are playing a role. There’s evidence that younger workers, in particular, appear to be valuing respectful working conditions over trendy perks. Many are entering the workforce after learning about bullying and exclusion during their years of schooling.

It’s too early to tell how many employers will take hard looks at their workplace cultures in the midst of this evolving labor market. After all, if there’s one word that characterizes our current climate of employee relations and the wider frame of the economy, uncertainty is it. In fact, if the economy goes into recession, then workers may suddenly find themselves with much less bargaining power over job offers and working conditions.

Nonetheless, smart employers will proactively address bullying and other abusive workplace behaviors as part of an intelligent program of employee relations aimed at bolstering productivity and worker well-being. The resources for doing so are readily available. The Workplace Bullying Institute, for example, offers a “Healthy Workplace System” with various education and training components. For starters, it can be as simple as applying lessons from The Bully-Free Workplace (2011), by Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie.

Opportunities to build healthier workplace cultures abound. Reducing and responding to workplace bullying can be chief among them.

Dr. Martha Stout on outsmarting sociopaths (including those at work)

Reading this on the subway gets me some odd looks

Years ago, when I began learning about psychiatric disorders that can fuel workplace bullying and abuse, I found Dr. Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door (2005) to be quite the eye-opener. She started by suggesting that if we want to understand a condition that may be present in roughly 4 percent of the population, then we should try to imagine living and acting without a conscience. She went on to explore the dynamics of sociopathy, mainly in terms of interpersonal relationships.

Her bottom line? If you find yourself around a sociopath, then try to distance yourself from them.

Dr. Stout’s latest work, Outsmarting the Sociopath Next Door (2020), builds strongly on her earlier, excellent volume. She explores sociopathy in different settings, including parental (if a child exhibits sociopathic traits), workplace (as in bullying and abuse), spousal/legal (especially custody battles), and criminally assaultive contexts. She also examines how private and public institutions can engage in sociopathic behaviors.

Although Stout’s advice on avoiding sociopaths still holds, she recognizes that circumstances may make it difficult to do so and offers guidance on how to interact (and not interact) with sociopaths in specific settings. In addition, she looks at potential systemic responses to sociopathy, including legal ones.

If you want to learn about sociopathy and sociopaths, then I heartily recommend both books. But if you have time for only one, then Outsmarting the Sociopath Next Door is my recommendation. It is clear that the author did a lot more digging between the publication of these books. (Among other things, Stout incorporates illustrative stories shared by readers of her first book to offer new insights.)

Sociopathy at work

I was very happy to see Dr. Stout looking deeply into our workplaces. In a chapter titled “Human Evil at Work: Sociopathic Coworkers, Bosses, and Professionals,” she dives into sociopathic behaviors on the job. This represents a major expansion of the range of her investigations and may resonate strongly with those who have experienced bullying, mobbing, and related behaviors in their jobs. It has long been my ongoing hypothesis that the worst types of bullying and abuse at work — targeted behaviors designed to drive people out of their jobs and destroy their livelihoods — are committed by folks with significant personality disorders.

I was grateful to see Dr. Stout discussing our workplace anti-bullying initiatives in her final chapter, “The Nature of Good: Compassion, Forgiveness, and Freedom.” She mentions Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie (co-founders of the Workplace Bullying Institute) and me by name and touts our work in drafting and advocating for the Healthy Workplace Bill.

In short, I highly recommend Outsmarting the Sociopath Next Door to anyone who wishes to understand the nature of sociopathy, the behaviors of sociopaths, and how the rest of us can respond to these threats to our well-being. This is an important work.

A shout-out to our workplace anti-bullying work

Great literature may help us to understand trauma

Great literature may help us to understand psychological trauma. In a newly published essay (link here), “Ahab Rages and Odysseus Weeps: Trauma as a Core Concept for Humanistic Inquiry,” I summon Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Homer’s The Odyssey for that purpose. Drawing upon Moby-Dick, I consider the injured Captain Ahab as a workplace trauma sufferer and abusive boss. Examining The Odyssey, I see Odysseus experiencing grief and exhaustion as he tries to return home after 10 years of fighting a war.

The piece has just been posted to the blog of Harrison Middleton University, a fully online university devoted to Great Books and Great Ideas, where I am a 2022 “Fellow in Ideas.” In this side-gig role, I am contributing writings to HMU’s publications and taking part in various discussion groups.

Presentation: “Bullying and Incivility in the Academic Workplace”

Earlier this year, I gave a virtual presentation about “Bullying and Incivility in the Academic Workplace” for the Northeastern University College of Science in Boston, as part of a series on “Disrupting Academic Bullying.” The recording has been posted to YouTube (link here). I use the first 18-19 minutes to cover bullying, mobbing, and incivility generally, and then I discuss these behaviors in academic work settings. My prepared remarks run for about 44 minutes in all, followed by Q&A and comments for another 25 minutes.

Relevant Earlier Posts

  • Addressing workplace bullying, mobbing, and incivility in higher education: The roles of law, cultures, codes, and coaching (2017) (link here);
  • UMass-Amherst launches campus-wide workplace anti-bullying initiative (2013) (link here);
  • Workplace bullying and mobbing in academe: The hell of heaven? (2009; rev. 2014) (link here).

Dr. Edith Eger’s “The Gift”: Recovery and renewal for trauma survivors

In her first book, The Choice: Embrace the Possible (2017), Dr. Edith Eger recounted the major events of her life, framed by her experiences as a teenaged survivor of the Auschwitz and Mauthausen concentration camps during the Second World War. She shared the many steps of her own recovery and healing, and then described her work as a therapist helping others who have experienced significant trauma in their lives.

Dr. Edie (as she is known) has followed The Choice with The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life (2020), a compassionate, potentially transformative book that draws heavily upon her experiences and those of her patients to offer guidance on recovering from trauma. Here’s a description of the book from her website

Eger explains that the worst prison she experienced is not the prison that Nazis put her in but the one she created for herself, the prison within her own mind. She describes the twelve most pervasive imprisoning beliefs she has known—including fear, grief, anger, secrets, stress, guilt, shame, and avoidance—and the tools she has discovered to deal with these universal challenges. Accompanied by stories from Eger’s own life and the lives of her patients each chapter includes thought-provoking questions and takeaways….

Choice therapy

Dr. Edie describes her therapeutic approach as “choice therapy, as freedom is fundamentally about choice.” She identifies four core psychological perspectives that inform her eclectic method:

  • Positive psychology, i.e., moving from “learned helplessness” to “learned optimism”;
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy, i.e., “the understanding that our thoughts create our feelings and behavior”;
  • Unconditional self-love, i.e., moving away from the “misconception that we can’t be loved and genuine”; and,
  • Understanding “that our worst experiences can be our best teachers,” contributing to “healing, fulfillment, and freedom.”

On victimhood

Dr. Edie’s first lesson is the big one, leaving the “prison of victimhood.” Among her observations:

  • “Suffering is universal. But victimhood is optional.”
  • “Many of us stay in a prison of victimhood because, subconsciously, it feels safer.”
  • “Why did this happen to me? Well, why not you?”
  • “This is the first tool for moving out of victimhood: approach whatever is happening with a gentle embrace. It doesn’t mean you have to like what’s happening. But when you stop fighting and resisting, you have more energy and imagination at the ready to figure out ‘What now?’ To move forward instead of nowhere.”

Targets of workplace bullying and mobbing

For many reasons, I recommend The Gift to those who are struggling to recover from bullying and mobbing at work, especially when the abuse has resulted in major harm to well-being and livelihood. Dr. Edie has a unique voice that blends compassion and, when necessary, tough love, and both qualities can be helpful in helping folks to recover and renew from work abuse. For those trying to get “unstuck” and out of a place of rumination, this is a very good start.

Below I’ve linked to several relevant earlier articles, including two about Dr. Edie, whom I had the distinct privilege of meeting at a conference back in 2017.

Related Posts

  • Life lessons from Dr. Edith Eger, Auschwitz survivor (2018) (link here)
  • The Holocaust is a key to understanding interpersonal abuse and systems that enable it (2018) (link here)
  • Dr. Edith Eger’s “The Choice”: On trauma and healing (2017) (link here)
  • Helping workplace bullying targets get beyond rumination (2015) (link here)

WBI’s Workplace Bullying Podcast: Learn from authorities in the field

Dear readers, if you’d like to learn more about workplace bullying from leading researchers and subject-matter experts, then check out Dr. Gary Namie’s Workplace Bullying Podcast (link here). Here’s how Gary describes the series:

This podcast showcases the reality of workplace bullying and abusive conduct and related phenomena from the dark side of the world of work and society.

Dr. Gary Namie, Director of the Workplace Bullying Institute sits down with people of various disciplines, striving together to develop and share with you a greater understanding and insight around this topic.

The guests so far include:

  • Dr. Ståle Einarsen, Director of the Bergen Bullying Research Group and Professor at the University of Bergen in Norway, perhaps the world’s leading researcher on workplace bullying;
  • Dr. Maureen Duffy, preeminent expert on mobbing behaviors, who kindly recruited me to join her as a co-editor on a two volume book set, Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (2018);
  • Allan Halse, a relentless workplace anti-bullying advocate in New Zealand, founder of CultureSafeNZ;
  • Kathy Fodness and Alice Percy of MAPE (Minnesota Association of Professional Employees), a labor union spearheading anti-bullying efforts in Minnesota, including the adoption of a policy protecting state workers;
  • Attorney Ellen Pinkos Cobb, a leading researcher and author on workplace anti-bullying laws and author of a new book Managing Psychosocial Hazards and Work-Related Stress in Today’s Work Environment: International Insights for U.S. Organizations (2022);
  • “Luke,” a longtime TV news executive who explains abuse and toxicity in the world of corporate media;
  • G. Richard Shell, legal and business ethics professor at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and author of The Conscience Code: Lead with your Values. Advance Your Career (2021);
  • Carol Fehner, perhaps the original union anti-bullying activist and an expert on applying for Social Security Disability insurance;
  • Tim Jon Semmerling, PhD, JD, talks about litigating death penalty cases and explains attorney-on-attorney bullying;
  • Retired union leaders and anti-bullying advocates Greg Sorozan and Jeff Recht explain their pioneering work to engage the labor movement in addressing workplace bullying;
  • Carrie Clark, a long-time, leading anti-bullying advocate, shares how she experienced this abuse as a targeted public schoolteacher.

Folks, I have the pleasure of knowing many of these good people, and I’m delighted to recommend that you spend some time with them. Check out this important series to learn more about workplace bullying and how we can effectively respond to it.

In addition, I’ll be joining Gary for a couple of episodes during the coming months, including a special one in which I will play the role of the interviewer. Stay tuned!

On expanding our view of global leadership to embrace human dignity

The term “global leadership” is strongly associated with economic, political, and social dominance in a neoliberal context. Degree programs using global leadership or similar monikers tend to be offered through graduate schools of business, and they usually emphasize market command in terms of ideas, information, and products. The latter point also applies to business conferences and workshops invoking the term.

However, at last December’s Annual Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict, hosted by Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HDHS), I suggested that we should reframe global leadership through lenses of servant leadership and global stewardship. I expounded upon this topic and related it to themes of compassionate justice and therapeutic jurisprudence during my short remarks (under 10 minutes), which you may access here.

Definitions

If you’re wondering where I’m going with this, it may help to define terms, and I’ll simply draw from Wikipedia:

Servant leadership is a…

…leadership philosophy in which the goal of the leader is to serve. This is different from traditional leadership where the leader’s main focus is the thriving of their company or organization. A servant leader shares power, puts the needs of the employees first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. Instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people.

Stewardship is an…

…ethic that embodies the responsible planning and management of resources. The concepts of stewardship can be applied to the environment and nature, economics, health, property, information, theology, cultural resources etc.

With these general definitions as guideposts, I would like us to conceptualize and practice global leadership in a way that emphasizes our roles as stewards of, and servants to, the health of this planet and its inhabitants. 

Google hits

Last fall, in preparation for the HDHS workshop, I did a quick Google search to see how many “hits” certain relevant terms would yield. Here is what I found:

  • Search “global leadership” = ~1,060,000,000 hits
  • Search “global stewardship” = ~93,000,000 hits
  • Search “servant leadership” = ~57,000,000 hits

Clearly, among these terms, “global leadership” holds sway. Hence my belief that we should invoke it to advance dignitarian values, while elevating global stewardship and servant leadership in association with the core term.

Legal systems

As I further noted in my HDHS presentation, we have to apply these concepts of servant leadership and stewardship to those served by our legal systems, on a global level. After all:

  • Many are ill-served by it right now.
  • Our laws & public policies and their applications are not necessarily just.
  • The experiences of litigation and dispute resolution can be traumatizing in and of themselves.
  • Access to quality legal assistance is far from universal.

One of the answers to this is the field of therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ), which examines whether our laws, legal systems, and legal institutions support or undermine individual and societal well-being and psychologically healthy outcomes in legal proceedings. I have discussed TJ often on this blog. In 2017, I helped to create the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, and last year I published a thorough assessment of the field, “Therapeutic Jurisprudence: Foundations, Expansion, and Assessment,” in the University of Miami Law Review. You may freely access it here.

On disability bullying

We have long known that children who have disabilities are more likely to experience bullying behaviors than their peers who are perceived as being non-disabled. The National Bullying Prevention Center (link here), for example, shares that in 10 U.S. studies examining “the connection between bullying and developmental disabilities, all of these studies found that children with disabilities were two to three times more likely to be bullied than their nondisabled peers.”

Indeed, search the term “disability bullying” and you’ll find the top hits centering almost exclusively around bullying of kids with disabilities. I’m glad that we have established that connection. At the very least, it validates the experiences of those being targeted and helps us to focus on preventive and responsive measures.

What about bullying of adults with disabilities?

We see less attention given to bullying of adults who have disabilities. That’s among the reasons why I welcomed a recent column by disability expert Andrew Pulrang, “The Many Flavors Of Disability Bullying” (Forbes.com, link here):

There are few things as simply and straightforwardly awful as bullying disabled people. But there is so much more to do about ableist bullying than just condemning it.

Ableist bullying is surprisingly difficult to recognize and understand, because it’s more than one thing, and has has many facets and flavors.

Pulrang goes on to identify predominant forms of bullying behaviors directed at adults with disabilities:

  • “Simple, superficial mockery,” such as making fun of appearances, physical movements, and mental health conditions;
  • “Dismissing complaints” over problems that persons with disabilities might face;
  • “Portraying disabled people as privileged and entitled” as they struggle to deal with impairments and seek accommodations;
  • Making jokes about someone’s disability in their presence, as if to test their sense of humor; and,
  • Gaslighting disabled individuals into questioning their perceptions of reality.

He concludes:

To fight disability bullying, people of all backgrounds and roles need to not only refrain from these bullying behaviors, but also engage with and refute the kinds of thinking and assumptions that prompt them.

The legal angle

At times, those subjected to these forms of mistreatment may have legal recourse via civil rights and anti-discrimination laws. In workplace and public accommodations settings, the Americans with Disabilities Act figures most prominently. Here is where questions of reasonable accommodation come into play.

Furthermore, if someone is being subjected to workplace harassment because of their disability, they may have a hostile work environment claim under the ADA. However, such legal claims are hard to win. Occasional jokes or putdowns about a disability, for example, may not be sufficient to state a harassment claim under the ADA.

Ultimately…

A combination of more enlightened human behaviors and stronger legal enforcement will diminish bullying behaviors directed at people with disabilities. Obviously we have work to do on this front. If you doubt this, then consider that less than six years ago, the U.S. elected a President who cruelly mocked a reporter’s disability while on the campaign trail.

In the past, this one act would’ve been sufficient to self-torpedo any political campaign. I can only surmise that in 2016, some people voted for him in spite of this incident, while others were more inclined to vote for him because of it. Both possibilities teach us sad but important lessons about unfinished business in terms of advancing human dignity.

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