When Sarah Hernandez joined the Enfield, Conn., Board of Education in 2017, she had a goal: making sure schools met the needs of students with disabilities. Among the first openly autistic candidates to be elected to public office in the country, she saw her win as a sign that her small town was open to her perspective.
But if voters were, her colleagues on the school board were not: They consistently denied her the accommodations she needed to do her job, according to a discrimination lawsuit she filed against the school board and the town of Enfield, which is 20 miles north of Hartford. The accommodations she asked for — both because of her autism and because she is hard of hearing — included asking board members to communicate by text or email instead of by phone and to face her while speaking to her.
The court battle over the lawsuit, which accused the board and the town of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, lasted more than four years. Last month, a jury sided with Ms. Hernandez and awarded her damages.
The amount? $10.
The nominal damages were a result of a 2022 Supreme Court decision, according to Stewart J. Schwab, a professor of employment and labor law at Cornell University. In the case, Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, the court ruled that people suing under the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits organizations that receive federal funds from discriminating against people with disabilities, could not be awarded damages for emotional distress.
Because the jury did not find that Ms. Hernandez had concretely shown that her experience had physically damaged her, she was denied a substantive award.
“The nominal damages, I’m incredibly proud of them,” Ms. Hernandez, 44, said. “But it almost feels like to me that they’re saying mental health damages aren’t real.”
Despite the size of the settlement, the legal victory was significant, Mr. Schwab said. Discrimination lawsuits like this one are often settled out of court, he said, because “these cases are hard to win.”
Ms. Hernandez prefers emails and texts to phone calls and group conversations, because of her auditory processing issues, and she finds long meetings taxing. To address these and other challenges, she asked to receive printed rundowns of what to expect at confidential meetings ahead of time, so that she could prepare and better follow along, and also asked if she could pass notes to other board members if she needed anything clarified.
Initially, board members seemed receptive. Timothy Neville, the board’s Democratic minority leader, emailed Ms. Hernandez after her election, congratulating her on “turning what many perceive as a disability into an ability.” And in a Facebook comment in 2019, Ms. Hernandez said the board appeared willing “to brainstorm through the problem” of meeting her requests for accommodations.
But according to court documents, members of the board resisted communicating with Ms. Hernandez in writing, out of concern that messages “could be taken out of context” and used against them. Board members also believed, their lawyers said in court filings, that Ms. Hernandez “portrayed herself as a victim.” Lawyers for the school board and the Enfield town council declined to comment.
Witnesses testified in court that Ms. Hernandez looked like she could participate in her board duties without accommodations, according to Ms. Hernandez’s lawyer, Anthony May.
Misperceptions like these are why autism is considered an “invisible disability,” according to Simon Baron-Cohen, the director of the Autism Research Center at Cambridge University.
Autistic people may be “having a lot of stress under the surface, or confusion or overwhelm, but to the outside, to other people, they seem like they’re just the same as everybody else,” Mr. Baron-Cohen said. “So there’s a change in attitude that’s needed.”
There has been significant progress over the last 20 years in understanding the psychology and neuroscience of autism, Mr. Baron-Cohen said. General awareness of the disability has also increased, he added, and the concept of neurodiversity, or the understanding that people’s brains work differently, has gained momentum.
But autistic people still have high rates of anxiety and depression, which suggests that the support systems they need are not in place, Mr. Baron-Cohen said.
John Elder Robison, who is autistic and advised the National Institutes of Health on neurodiversity from the George W. Bush administration into the Biden years, said that serving on a committee like a school board can be particularly challenging if only one or two of its members is autistic, because the other members will want a different pace.
But he said that the treatment Ms. Hernandez requested probably would have benefited others, too. He expects accommodations for autistic people to one day be as widespread as those for people with other disabilities, such as ramps for wheelchair users.
“It’s hard for people to come to the idea of making accommodations for people with disabilities,” Mr. Robison said. “But I think that over history, disability accommodations become the mainstream expectations.”
Mr. Robison added that it was likely that a number of currently serving politicians are autistic, noting that one in seven people in the United States is neurodivergent, a term that encompasses all people with brain differences, including those with A.D.H.D., dyslexia and other diagnoses.
“We need to recognize that neurodiversity is all of us,” he said. “It’s not like we have neurodivergent people applying for jobs or running for Congress or school board. They’re already there.”
While autism presents differently from person to person, one of the most common characteristics is special interests, or an intense focus on one or two topics. One of Ms. Hernandez’s special interests is democracy, something she says she is “joyfully fixated on.”
Ms. Hernandez said that when she was elected, she was proud to be part of what she saw as a “paradigm shift” toward positive representation of people with disabilities in government.
And while the lengthy battle over the lawsuit left her feeling isolated from the town she has called home for nine years, her court victory has emboldened her.
Ms. Hernandez’s lawyers filed for an injunction last week that would require Enfield to introduce a policy allowing accommodations for elected officials and those running for office.
“I should be on Town Council, and so should people who are like me, and I am unrelenting,”
she said. “I hope that just standing resolute is enough to maybe empower and encourage other individuals, with disabilities and without disabilities, to be unrelenting along with me.”