Trigger Warning: workplace ableism and academic ableism, lack of legal protection for students against discrimination.
In December 2019, I was in my first year of university and had accepted an internship in a medical school lab. It was Thursday afternoon in February 2020 and I was walking to my introductory biology class and got a message from the Principal Investigator (PI).
I should come by his office after my immunology exam. Not sure why, I immediately started to worry. I tried to keep calm: he probably wants to discuss my new project. Why worry when there have been no problems? I walked up to his office cautiously.
He told me to sit down. I obeyed, hearing in his tone that this meeting had been something to fear. He said other people in the lab had a problem with me. While I knew they didn’t particularly like me, I didn’t think they had actual grievances. I was flabbergasted. “What problems? What did I do?” I asked.
He said, “Let’s not get into specifics, but some other people have been upset with you.” I immediately knew who one of the people was. She was a fellow undergrad and classmate with a project. She had always rubbed me the wrong way but I had tried to be nice to her and engage in conversations about class.
“Why does it have to be me who has to go and why not Anna*?” I asked. “I’m here so much. You know I’m dedicated to this work.”
“I know. You’re the most talented and dedicated undergrad we have, but her project is further along.”
Feeling that I was losing the chance to remain in the lab, I decided to tell him. “I didn’t plan on telling you this, but I’m autistic. I can’t read non-verbal cues very well, so I didn’t mean to upset anyone. If I could just apologize to everyone and ask that everyone use more verbal communication, then I think that would really help.”
I was asking for an accommodation instead of being let go. I was asking for a second chance.
“I’m afraid we’re not that kind of lab,” he said. I sat there, stunned into silence. “Look, don’t let this hold you back. You’re the smartest I’ve seen. You’re going places. Don’t let this set you back in your career.”
I left his office in a daze.
“We’re not that kind of lab.”
I’ll never forget those words. I went to the bathroom and started sobbing, unable to stop. I kept going until my face was drenched and I felt fatigued from it.
In my head I went over the injustices: my PI’s unwillingness to give me a second chance, especially considering I had no idea anyone had a problem with me. Why hadn’t the PI gone with my requested accommodation? He acknowledged I was the best, most dedicated. Neuroscience was my life, my autistic special interest, which made it everything.
I went into class the next morning early. Anna came into class like always. I tried to pay her no attention. When my lecturer and mentor Dr. Smith* came in I looked at him, trying to communicate with my face that something was horribly wrong. Of course, he couldn’t do anything now, but maybe he would approach me later.
After class, he came right over. He led me to his office where he explained the PI had emailed him and told me what happened. The rest of the day, Dr. Smith looked out for me. I’ll never forget his kindness, but everything had changed.
I questioned my entire future. Who I was. Talent and hard work were not enough: people must like you. I had my entire life plan shattered. Who was I without neuroscience? My sense of self was gone.
Then, COVID-19 hit, and at home I processed things. I went through grief, with the anger and depression stages lasting months. Then, needing a fresh start, I changed schools.
At my new university, I discovered a love of history. It became my new special interest, which helped me find myself again. This profession entailed intellectual conversations and you weren’t expected to fit in with a clique.
I haven’t told my current mentor. He knows something happened to push me from science and that I’m autistic, but I never talked about the incident.
The PI should’ve given me a second chance. Accommodated me. I know my current mentor would have, given his reaction to my coming out: he said “ok.” In a tone that was accepting. Like “ok, good to know, not a big deal.” My current mentor’s reaction should be the norm, discrimination shouldn’t be.
Discrimination in STEM is a problem. Because I was not receiving pay or course credit, I couldn’t sue the PI.
When talking to a disability rights organization, they said, “We’d love to go after that university, but it doesn’t work in your case.”
This is an area of the law that needs more coverage, and more legal protection for students. The default should be conflict resolution, not firing.
Many disabled people experience discrimination, and we don’t forget. I’ll never forget that Thursday afternoon in February 2020.
* Names of individuals have been changed to protect identities.
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