A FAQ Interview With Christopher Marsh On Disability, Employment, and Probable Discrimination

July 16, 1999 (modifed September 18, 2000)

X. Hello, Mr. Marsh, how are you?

CM. Fine. How are you?

X. Thank you for allowing yourself to be interviewed on the subject of equal employment opportunity for disabled people.

Q. As I understand, you yourself are disabled, correct?

A. Yes, I am.

Q. If I could ask you, what is your disability?

A. I have multiple disabilities, but the one that affects my employment the most is Asperger syndrome, a milder type of autism, according to Newsweek (1/98).

My other disabilities, which often co-exist with Asperger's, are depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and unless it is a mis-diagnosis for Asperger's, minimal-brain dysfunction, which we recognize today as attention-deficit disorder, which in my case included hyperactivity.

Q. How might these disabilities have impacted your career?

A. Depression may have weakened my optimism, but that has been corrected increasingly since October 1996 with medication, shortly after I started a new post-graduate-school job search.

Asperger's may be more damaging, however, because as my career counselors teach, a job interview is a very social exchange, emphasizing non-verbal communication which makes up 75% of human communication. The essential features of Asperger's are being unable to adequately intrepret non-verbal communication and to understand and apply the unspoken rules of interviewing. It is also very difficult to present proper appearances when required.

I have had thirty or more job interviews in the "research" field since October 1996. All but one was a failure, and even the successful interview was not without malice.

Q. What might account for this malice?

A. As a sociology-major-psychology-minor, I have had the opportunity to study some theories which seem to apply to the hardships some disabled people have when working or seeking work.

Q. Which disabled people?

A. Those people whose disabilities may cause behavior which deviates from average behavior enough to be noticed and reacted to, disabilities such as Asperger's syndrome or autism, attention-deficit disorder with or without hyperactivity, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Tourette's syndrome, depression, etc. There are two theories in sociology and social psychology which should be considered.

Q. Could you give us the sociology theory first, please?

A. Yes. Emile Durkheim was a turn-of-the-century French sociologist who focused on what holds people in society together- their rules and values. He also focused on what happens when rules, both large and small, are broken, as they inevitably do. Remember that some disabled people have behavior which goes outside the lines of average or shall we say, conformist, behavior, it becomes deviant behavior.

Q. So disabled people get out of line, but it isn't very much their fault?

A. No. It is like driving a car when drunk, except that it is the disability interfering with social interaction, not alcohol. It is like a U-2 or SR-71 Blackbird flying just outside of foreign airspace- when planes cross over the line, they are shot down, like Francis Gary Powers. A job interview can be very unforgiving. There can be a lot of favortism involved, and favortism is bad (James 2:1-4)

"My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favortism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say 'Here's a good seat for you' but say to the poor man 'You stand there' or 'Sit on the floor by my feet', have you not discriminated among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?" (James 2:1-4, NIV)

Q. But rejection in a job interview is not THAT bad.

A. No, of course not, not when you consider breaking other types of rules.

Job interviews are composed of customs, or sociologically speaking, folkways. People get more angry when mores are broken, like only people of different genders should fall in love, get married, etc., etc. Well, nobody breaks in the heads of disabled people who are "eccentric", but if one is are other than exclusively heterosexual, well, those people get violently and tragically killed. We might also keep Durkheim's theory in mind for employment discrimination against persons of different sexual preferences.

Q. What about the criminal justice system?

A. People are most angered by violations of the written law. Murderers get the chair, perhaps especially if they really offend society, like killing one's own children. People get angrier and angrier, and react more and more harshly, the more the offense violates social rules.

But even though poor eye contact, not smiling, poor hand shakes, are not capital offenses in a court of law, they can be in the court of a job interviewer, especially if he or she is not aware of the disability.

One interviewer might think, if just unconsciously, "why is this fruit cake wasting my time?"

Q. And is that the social-psychological theory?

A. Yes. Social psychologists studying attribution, notably Rotter and Weiner, find that people form emotions and actions based on what they think is the cause of a behavior, whether they are right or wrong.

For example, a man thinks his wife's absences are visits to another man. "Priming" is a part of the theory which suggests that previous influences play a part in attribution. If he's heard about or lived with infidelity before, whether or not he is right or wrong, he may develop a hostile attribution bias, and it may be true to him, so he is angry and becomes violent toward her.

Q. But attribution theory, although it has many possibilities in treating domestic violence, may also explain job interview outcomes?

A. Yes. If an interviewer believes that a person is responsible for poor eye contact, poor hand shakes, hesitation, low volume, not smiling, an interviewer may be annoyed or may pity the poor soul who can't help himself. In any case, the outcome is negative, no job, possibly with some frustration being communicated to the interviewee.

Q. How would knowledge of the interviewee's disability help?

A. If the interviewer can attribute certain behaviors to a disability, and be assured that such behaviors can be gradually overcome, especially in an environment without fear or hate, it would put a better picture on the applicant.

Q. What evidence have you seen of this in your interviews?

A. Rarely, but one interviewer in 1992 said I was mindless of certain social conventions such as personal space, and this was an interview for a job which could have required pleasantness skills.

My attempts to get answers during real interviews have met with resistance, but in mock interviews in the past month, I have been confronted with "too many 'ums" and not smiling. In any case, in mock interview 1, I was disqualified from further consideration after the first question, and the mock interviewer had years earlier actually interviewed people for real.

Of course, we need research, and hard data, to back up these theories and validate them as true or false. We might want to see if revealing a disability helps disabled people get a job with statistically less interviews, see if disabled people (as mentioned above) have significantly lower ratios of jobs attained to interviews had, or if disabled people have higher such ratios in fields that less competitive and therefore give the employer less alternative options.

This is also not to say that people with Asperger's syndrome should be employed in every job. They should not. Jobs which place a premium on the ability to influence, motivate, and interact with people should be carefully considered and in some cases, avoided. That would include management, public relations, the hospitality industry, flight attendants and other close contact employment, sales, and telemarketing. But it is also possible for people with Asperger's syndrome to improve their skills in a nuturing environment such as the job I have now in Northern Virginia.

Q. Were there any possible discrimination incidents in your employment record?

A. Yes. Until last year, incidents against me were basically classified as lapses of honest communication. In 1993 and 1997, it took me months to learn why I was separated, with or without the cooperation of the manager involved. Later in 1997, I never got an answer, so I asked the EEOC to investigate, and I still received no knowledge of why. I may never know how many "lay-offs" were legitimate or not.

In 1998, for the first time, I experienced a definite instance of employer malice.

Q. Is there evidence outside of employment to reinforce the possibility that disabled people are persecuted more often and due to disability?

A. This is anecdotal, and it comes from my own life, but it does show an interesting pattern. A special education classmate and I were both molested by older males. Perhaps disabled children get targetted more frequently for abuse if they are perceived as more vulnerable.

It isn't the only criminal activity I suffered. Someone stole my bike, someone else slashed the tires on Mom's car, we noticed a BB-sized hole in our kitchen window. I was crank-called by a girl from our high school- the sheriff took her into custody after we traced our line. Later, in college, my dorm door was vandalized, and in graduate school, I had repeated vandalisms of my door, some thefts of my bathrobe, one or two episodes of grabbing my chest, and a string of crank calls. I tried to prosecute the crank calls, but I am not sure the school traced my line or made a strong effort to prosecute. In any case, no prosecutions happened to my knowledge.

Q. I am sure that doesn't include incidents that weren't violations of the law?

A. No. Teasings in high school, vandalisms of my high school locker, and the unprofessional conduct of my high-school Spanish teacher (that might have been a civil-rights violation of a disabled student, I dunno) constitute some examples of non-criminal persecution.

I was so often accused of being mentally retarded, sometimes I think I am, even though three consecutive intelligence tests (1996-98) ruled that out. My IQ is 110 to 115, and to be mentally retarded, you have to have an IQ below 70. You also have to be unable to care for yourself. When I was in the community living skills class in Baltimore earlier this year, I met some who couldn't care for themselves, but last year, living alone in Greenbelt, shopping, working, and taking the Metro, I proved I was certainly ABLE to care for myself. So, armchair psychologists of Waldorf, MD, eat that!

Q. I have read on the Internet that up to 95% people with Asperger's syndrome are unemployed or underemployed. How has your employment and income been?

A. Right on the money. I have never worked at full educational level, and as I have accumulated education, up to a Master's, that has become increasingly crystal clear. By 1998 I was unloading a truck with a Master's yet apparently unable to navigate a job interview.

Q. But you are qualified to do social research!

A. Heck yes! As the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (1991) and the Occupational Outlook Handbook (1994) describe social research, I am well qualified with methods, statistics, and theory courses plus a year of experience analyzing criminal justice data. I also have a lot of analytical and verbal intelligence.

I applied for many jobs requiring just a Bachelor's. I didn't get jobs in my field I apparently deserved.

Q. Well said. Now, back to your employment and income...

A. Aside from low-level telemarketing, clerical, or industrial employment, which lasted brief periods of two to three months or less, and being unemployed between "jobs" for up to three months, my income tax returns show a shocking deficit.

If I was a social researcher with a Master's earning $27,800 a year (in 1994, to say nothing of adjustments to inflation since 1996), and in the same job since June 1, 1996 to June 30, 1999, I would have contributed $8,000 more to state governments MD and WV, $20,000 more to the Federal government, and would have taken home, after taxes, $45,500 more in three years!

Q. So, who takes up your loss?

A. State governments are hardest hit: most of the $8,000 represents WV food stamps, WV Medicaid, WV rehabilitation therapy, MD unemployment compensation, and MD rehabilitation aid, including six months' scholarship to the Baltimore rehabilitation center to study computer programming in early 1999! But Mom is hit hard too, as a widow of a Federal retiree. She is paying the full cost of the health insurance I used to have as a Federal employee and it is coming out of a fixed income less than I earned in 1998. I am also driving her car to Baltimore because I have none of my own. And when I am not on campus in Baltimore, Mom is feeding me, out of her fixed income.

Q. What would be justice?

A. May I suggest $70,000 civil compensation to me to cover lost take home pay since mid-1996, the cost of attending graduate school (if I must work as a computer programmer and not a social researcher), and some medical expenses incurred without company medical insurance in 1997. Mom should get $25,000, mostly for sending me to college without a sociology career which I seem to deserve, but also for lost expenses for food, utilities, medical insurance, dental and vision care, etc.

If I do use sociology our judgments should be reduced by $21,000 for me and $15,000 for Mom.

Maryland should receive $5,000 in fines, West Virginia $3,000, and the Federal government $20,000, to cover not just food stamps, rehab aid, etc. but also lost taxes and Federal Direct student loan repayment.

Finally, I should be employed upon termination of my internship at $25,000 a year as a computer programmer or $30,000 a year (adjusted for inflation) in social research, both representing starting salaries and also including health insurance.

Q. Let's get back to people getting angry over injustice. What do you think of the trends in society, revenge music, violent video games and movies, and violent acts at Columbine and similiar high schools?

A. Social interaction does not happen in a vacuum without other people. I seem to recall that many boys who shoot kids at school are mistreated by their classmates, rejected, teased, and maybe are disabled.

While not pardoning school shootings, the alienation and oppression between kids has got to go. When I look back at Thomas Stone High School, I feel as dead as the victims at Columbine. I didn't really begin to live again until I was a sophomore in college. So there are ways to kill people in high school with words and rejection and deprive them of life as average teenagers know it.

I was listening to maybe 96.7 or 97.9 FM one night three weeks ago driving from Baltimore to WV when I heard lyrics to the effect of 'they rejected him and now he's getting his revenge'. I am sure violent music, video games, and movies sell. Sociologists know that injustice is everywhere and often strikes along race, gender, class, disability, or sexual orientation lines. Perhaps the power structure does not want to let anyone else in. There are limits to what hard work can do, even artificial, unjust limits.

When I was a lot younger, I carried a knife, and I realize that, perhaps but for the grace of God, I might have been a statistic too.

I have not stopped fighting but my weapons have changed. The pen is mightier than the sword. We need to examine why disabled people are unemployed two-thirds of the time, find out if it is fair, and if it is not fair, commit ourselves to fighting injustice.

Q. How do we fight discrimination without weapons?

A. Laws, for one. An applicant must have the right to know certain aspects of the successful candidate, race, gender, age, disability status, perhaps sexual orientation.

Q. Would that encourage lawsuits?

A. The courts can sort them out.

Q. Would that make employers fearful?

A. Don't you think we're already afraid, whether we are disabled, non-heterosexual, or both? Should we be? Is it American?

Why don't I smile in mock or real interviews? I know that my presentation management (dramaturgical analysis) either means that I can use my hard work in a job or that my hard work is wasted. I don't think the process is fair. I believe the standard interview process discriminates against disabled people. Yes, I am scared. I am also scared when a boss hates me for my mistakes.

Look, it is not a crime to tell a classmate on the playground he/she is retarded. But it is a crime to violate the ADA law for the disabled. God gives earthly rulers the "sword", the power, the responsibility, to punish evil (Romans 13:3-4).

"For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer." (Romans 13:3-4, NIV)

Q. Is there a better screening process?

A. I have suggested in my mind ways to separate names from application forms. Committees could discuss applicants listed by number. The proceedings could be tape recorded, and of course, the law would let the applicant get a copy for a small fee. In any case, no names equal no hint of gender or ethnicity or marital status, and when the screening process is de-personalized a la Weber, perhaps disability, age, or sexual orientation will not matter either.

Q. Any other ideas?

A. The emphasis of the law is wrong, to identify what you can't use to consider employees, instead of what is acceptable to judge employees by. Some people then feel that they have the right under law to discriminate against homosexuals, for example, when sexual orientation is no valid reason to make employment choices.

Also, the government can do more to identify those who discriminate. ABC's 20-20 does it all the time with videotaped undercover people.

Q. Thank you.

A. My pleasure.

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Last updated: September 18, 2000