Kindness Without Respect is Worthless

Autism, Neurodiversity

Two stories co-occurred in my Facebook feed this past week:
*The Autism Cake (link goes to a great commentary by The Crazy Crippled Chick because I can’t ever bear to link you to a news piece calling it “heartwarming.”)
*Abuse at an Adelaide Autism Center  (Australian news story; see full text here: AEIOUabuse.)

I suspect some readers will instantly grok how these stories are interrelated, but let me break it down for you, beginning with the cake.

The story, brought to us by Cake Lady herself, goes thusly, and all the emphases are mine here: Cake Lady walked into a supermarket and to the bakery counter. She asked the person working at the counter to decorate the cake with a Happy Birthday message in icing. “After taking a long time,” the bakery worker presented the cake, Cake Lady smiled and thanked her before looking at the cake, then she looked at it while she walked away and laughed, but, “didn’t really mind that it looked so bad – I thought people would think it was funny.” At checkout, several other employees gathered round the cake, discussed it, took pictures, and finally told Cake Lady that the bakery worker was autistic and “you probably made her day” by smiling at her and saying thank you. The moral of the story, Cake Lady concludes, is “kindness is important.”

Where to begin? There is no kindness in this story at all. Not when Cake Lady smiles and says thank you in an ordinary exchange of goods at a supermarket. Not when she laughs behind the bakery worker’s back and how bad the cake looks – and not when she decides it is redeemed by comedic value for being so badly done. Not when the other supermarket employees gather around to gawk and not when they disclose the bakery worker’s autistic identity to a stranger without her consent so that they can applaud her for having a normal human interaction with a disabled person.

There is no kindness when Cake Lady posts this story to social media, with photos of the cake she finds so comically bad, literally to congratulate herself for “kindness.” (??) There is no kindness in the many many media outlets who published this story as an example of a heartwarming story of human kindness, without ever getting the perspective of the bakery employee, as if she is not a person at all, merely a prop. Which she is.

So what’s all the hype about? The reality is that our society does not value disabled people. We (yes I’m saying “we” because autism is a disability and I am autistic – it would feel weird to say “they”) are seen as dependents, non-contributing entities, demi-humans whose lives are just a weak, broken, inferior version of “real,” “normal” people’s lives. Mostly, disabled people are just flat out ignored.

Insofar as non-disabled people have any positive feelings about us, they are based around condescension and pity: “Oh, that poor person. It’s so inspiring that they _____!” [have a job, were allowed to play for .5 minutes in a basketball game, went on an arranged date to the prom, etc.] “It truly gives me faith in humanity, when a normal person acknowledges the existence of disabled people in any way!” This is called Inspiration Porn. (Link opens a Ted Talk by the kickass comedian Stella Young.)

I see plenty of Inspiration Porn stories – usually they are about disabled people or homeless people, bonus points for both! – but Cake Lady has stuck with me. Why? Because it’s so flagrantly NOT an act of kindness, yet is being lauded as a shining example of goodness in the world. Cake Lady did not do ONE single kind thing in this story – I challenge you to name one! What people are lauding, really, is that: 1) a disabled person is allowed to have a job, and 2) the normals didn’t yell at her for fucking up at work, because 3) they feel bad for her because she is just a poor poor autistic person who probably doesn’t understand anything and it’s a special treat for another human being to SMILE IN HER GENERAL DIRECTION. That, it seems, is more than she deserves.

This story makes me angry and I’m on a long rant about this, but it’s my blog so I’m doing it. I haven’t been able to write in almost three weeks because this kind of shit is just relentless and it weighs on me.

What does Cake Lady have to do with the other story? In Adelaide, Australia, the AEIOU autism center for young children is facing allegations that workers abused some of their young students, leaving bad bruises on their legs – parents suspect that this is related to potty training at the center. These are vulnerable non-speaking children who were not able to tell their parents in words what was happening to them, but they told them by becoming extremely upset about going back to AEIOU each day. The center’s response is to deny, deny, deny. Other parents are rallying to the staff’s defense, claiming that because it didn’t happen to their children, it didn’t happen to anyone.

Autistic children are not respected. They face the double whammy of being children, who generally are not respected by adults anyway, and disabled to boot. Autistic children are very often treated with this kind of “kindness” without respect: they are treated well as long as they are obedient and don’t have too many “behaviors.” Another way to describe this is “tolerance.” As Amythest Schaber said in their brilliant talk at the Richmond Autism Research Fair, “There is no love in tolerance. Tolerance is inequality. Tolerance says, ‘Who you are is different and wrong, but I, as the right majority, will conditionally allow your unpleasant existence to go on.'” 

The punishment for not staying meekly in the mold of the poor poor disabled person who is grateful for the slightest acknowledgment of their humanity is pain, abuse, and sometimes even death. The AEIOU case isn’t even that unusual – as noted in the Autistic Family Collective statement on the case, there had been five separate cases of abuse against autistic children in a 12 week period when the AEIOU story broke – in Australia alone. But this goes on everywhere.


In a world where it is considered a kindness to laugh behind an autistic person’s back instead of to their face and then publicly congratulate oneself for conducting an ordinary business transaction with a disabled person in a polite manner, abuse of disabled persons is a given. It’s a GIVEN. Abuse and murder are the inevitable outputs of a society that fails to have a very basic level of respect for disabled people, that does not even seem to know how to recognize disabled people as fully human – complex, unique people who experience the full range of human emotions that anyone else does (and in the case of many autistic people, an even richer and more intensely felt range of emotion), who are self-aware no matter how old or young they are, who need real human connection and shouldn’t have to settle for tokenism, inspiration porn, and abusive relationships.

I get frustrated, these days, when I see people sharing the Mr. Rogers quote that says, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'” This is good advice to comfort children, but for adults it seems to be, more and more, an excuse for doing nothing. It sounds like people are just asking to be allowed to continue to ignore the bad and wrong things, to not have to talk about them. You’re a grownup now. Stop looking for the helpers and be one.

You don’t have to be an activist. I know more than many that it’s hard enough sometimes just to get up and face each day, without feeling obligated to join a war against evil. But I believe in the contagion of ideas as a powerful social change agent. So even if you never join a picket line, sign a petition, write a blog, or even share a Facebook post, you can be a helper by changing your mind. If you’ve gotten to this paragraph, you’ve at least read one blog post by a disabled person, and that’s a start. There are so many others out there. Someday when you’re bored, or maybe right now, you can go to the “Autistic Resources” page of my blog, link at the top bar menu or right in this sentence, and read one more. And that’s just for autistic resources. There is a wealth of voices talking about lived experiences of being disabled, or queer, or persons of color, or in so many other ways the people who are calling out for social justice. Once in a while, hear them. It will change you.

And remember. Kindness without respect for others is worthless at best, and actively harmful much of the time. Kindness without respect is what we already have in abundance: inspiration porn and tolerance. We don’t need more of that.

 

 

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44 thoughts on “Kindness Without Respect is Worthless

    1. Thanks Erin! It’s good to hear from you. Sometimes I wonder how many of my “old” readers, from the days when I blogged mostly about parenting, are still reading. I am still following you via email. 🙂

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    2. And what Mr. Rogers ignored is that sometimes — often! — THERE ARE NO HELPERS. Nobody is helping. Many of us, as children, were taught a famous story about a man who’s been mugged and left for dead by the side of the road — busy, important officials pass him by, not wanting to soil their hands (and lose time) on an apparent corpse … then, finally, an unimportant social reject stops and cares for him. That’s a story: in real life, a victim is just as likely to be ignored by everyone, high and low, as they each look for _someone_else_ to be the helper.

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  1. So good to see someone getting really angry about this stuff. The cake thing made me vomit; hardly anyone I know understood why. Even some of the disabled people. We’re so used to the crumbs we’re allowed from the ‘normal’ people’s table – and being expected to be grateful.

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  2. The original “cake” post IS self-serving. Another commenter framed the poster as “polite”. With no knowledge of the decorator’s abilities or disabilities, she didn’t throw a fit and/or demand a re-do. Is it kindness without respect? No, but I would argue that it was an epiphany of sorts. While the poster originally just shrugged her shoulders at the cake, laughed at how humorous it looked (with no knowledge of the decorator’s “autism”), the information shared by the cashier changed her outlook completely. She went from laughing at a badly done cake to accepting the effort behind it. Disability scoop.com is reporting that the jobless rate for persons with disabilities was 12.1% in November, far above the national average. They also write that more persons with disabilities are seeking employment than ever before. How do we get jobs for persons who are on the end of the spectrum that makes verbal communication very difficult? How do we get jobs for people who are developmentally delayed? How do we get employers who traditionally hire only “typical” people to see the value of the “non-typical”? If nothing else, the cake post makes it public that there are people at work everyday whom you know nothing about. That some business are working hard to incorporate “non-typical” people, and maybe your business should too. Visibility changes attitudes- it’s true for LGBT rights, it’s true for civil rights, and it’s true for the rights of differently abled persons. You may call it “inspiration porn” but if activists use this post to highlight businesses hiring the differently abled and pressure more into doing the same, then it’s an effective push for visibility.

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    1. That’s an interesting way of looking at it, thanks for your perspective. Makes me think. I agree that disability visibility is important (as is the problem of employment for disabled people).

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    2. This is also why people with disabilities have a hard time getting and keeping jobs. She was laughed at, her privacy was violated, and it was thrown all over social media afterward and then people continue defending the fact that all of this was done “for a good cause”.

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    3. Keep in mind, the other workers have come forward in the story, the Cake Lady has come forward. The young lady who decorated the cake had not. Clearly this is not something she is comfortable with our feels good about, because it’s not a feel good moment. This story is not inspirational no matter how you look at it.

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      1. Could you please direct me to some links about the workers who have come forward? I would like to learn more. Thanks.

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      2. Well, since the articles I read quote the lady who bought the cake and the workers who disclosed the girl’s medical diagnosis, but do not quote the girl with the diagnosis who decorated the cake herself, my understanding is that it is they who all came forward and she has not, because I’ve read multiple articles in which they were quoted from interviews and none where she was quoted. Have you not read articles where they were interviewed and quoted and she was not?

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      3. I have not read any articles about the workers who have come forward. I am trying to put everything in context and understand what happened by hearing what they have had to say about this. This is aside from the fact that they clearly violated her privacy. In first reading the original article it seemed to me that the coworkers’–though clearly making a mistake by not stopping to think about her privacy–were genuinely happy for the bakery worker and not making fun of her. On second reading, the fact that they were taking pictures makes me question whether their response was more nefarious than I imagined. I would just like to hear their words.

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      4. P.S. I am not trying to put you on the spot by making you reference your comments. If you can’t remember where you read them that is fine–I believe you. I would just like to read them myself and was wondering if anyone could point to some articles for me. Thanks.

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      5. It’s not a failing to remember, it’s a refusing to do your research for you. A simple Google search will pull up dozens of articles for you. This is not a complicated task. If you would like to see the article, do a Google search on the “cake decorated by autistic girl”. It will pop up tons of results, but I’m not going to prove or disprove this for you, it’s your responsibility to fact find and determine your opinion on the matter your own.

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      6. If you pull up any of these articles the pictures of the cake are there. So it’s pretty easy to ascertain that the lady who bought the cake took pictures and then plastered them on social media. Just Google it, lots of results pop up.

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      7. I can do my own research and am certainly not asking anyone to take time out to do research for me. I just thought if someone already knew of an good, objective article I could be directed to, it could be pointed out to me in a few seconds. Many times when events go viral there are many, many worthless articles to sift through and it seems that others here already know a good deal about the situation. If you do not want to be helpful to me that is your choice. I am not seeking an easy way out–I am just trying to learn from people who are seem to already know a lot about the subject. I am “neurotypical”, I suppose, and have an autistic son, although I share many traits. Believe me, I know this world is not set up for him and just as he is to be challenged throughout his entire life to be understood and have equal rights, I work extremely hard every day to understand what this world is like for him. I am constantly doing research and trying to educate myself and was just hoping for a little helpfulness. Please do not be upset with me. I am honestly just trying to understand for myself and my son.

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      8. Laura, this helped clarify what you were trying to do, I appreciate your patience and not getting frustrated. I am not NT. I’m an Aspie and also quite defensive. I didn’t understand what you were aiming for and thought you meant to defend the worker and the cake buyer here and was not following why you were so intent on me having to prove that they came forward when to me is painfully obvious they came forward in all the articles they were interviewed in because they are directly quoted. Thank you, Laura, for your patience, your son is lucky to have a mother who wants to help him and understand him, even when she knows she can’t always do it the easy way. My son is also on the spectrum I know it’s a hard road and it’s something I navigated easier than many. I sometimes I forget what a struggle it can be. Many on the spectrum want very much to fit in, I always embraced my differences and I often forget for many that’s not so easy to accept. As I get older I start to understand just how hard that is. I feel for the girl who decorated this cake because no matter whether we embrace our differences or not, I can pretty much guarantee none of us like being the center of attention, especially over fouling up a cake. It’s one thing if the lady had been appreciative and taken the cake home, not snapped photos and posted them publicly, but that’s not how this went down and she’s probably at home terrified someone’s going to come knocking on her door wanting to talk to her about it and I cannot imagine. Reading these articles, knowing her boss outed her diagnosis, and wanting to defend herself, but also knowing the shit storm she’d bring to herself if she did. A true rock and hard place. Thank you for being open, honest, understanding, patient and willing to learn. I apologize for being abrupt in my frustration. But you can search and read any of the articles, anything quoted means they spoke to them in person. I have yet to see anything quoted from the girl said to have autism in the article, only the boss an and the lady who bought the cake. I hope that helps and you can find some articles to read.

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      9. My Circus, My Monkeys, thank you so much for this, for your honesty, and for not dismissing me in the end. I wish intent was not so difficult to convey on the Internet — there are plenty of jerks out there who don’t make it any easier. (I will admit that I was being a bit lazy as well.)

        I very much appreciate this conversation. I was hoping that the coworkers did know her well enough to understand how she felt, and I thought that was the case as there didn’t seem to have been any disparaging remarks made about the bakery woman. I was pretty sure I was right. However, the responses here did make me go back to read the original story with a different lens. Upon second reading I realized that I DID dismiss the bakery woman’s feelings and had judged the situation soley on the woman’s account of the coworkers’ responses. Thankfully she has since said the incident did make her happy, but there very easily could have been another side to the story.

        The realization that I dismissed her is very disconcerting to me. In the past nine years in raising my son I have come to know that different does not mean less, and I’ve thought I was pretty good at treating people with respect. I want my son to always be respected for they wonderful, amazing person he is. Thank you for helping me to realize that I still have implicit biases and I still have work to do. Next time I come across something like this, I will pause to think that my first impression may not be correct and consider I can’t make as assumptions about a person until they are heard from (and even if they are not heard from.)

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      10. I did see that she did finally come forward and seems to have positive feelings towards this story. I do wonder if they are misplaced but it’s also not my place to tell her how to feel and I’m so glad that she’s taken away something positive regardless of anyone else’s intent, because I feel like she’s important. So often I knew my son (also ASD and badly bullied for so many years) has made “friends” that, well, you know how the saying goes… With friends like that, who needs enemies? I know many autistics who have a hard time judging intent, so I do still have my doubts here, but I am happy for her if she was made happy. And I think you’re right, intent really is hard to judge over the Internet, so maybe the lady in telling her story didn’t tell it right and her intent was misunderstood too. I am really hoping that’s what this was. Good luck to you and to your son. I think you guys are going to do great.

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  3. I agree with you 99%. The cake story bothered me but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. The “kindness” of the cake lady is accidental and her post is self-serving. Thank you for expressing what I could not. There is true kindness in the story though–it is through the reaction of the bakery worker’s coworkers. No one got angry or went back and yelled at her for writing on the cake when she wasn’t supposed to. In fact, the opposite happened. They showed that they truly care for her in their happiness about how this incident must have made her day. THAT is kindness with respect! The other story? Despicable.

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    1. how do you even know if it made her day if they didn’t even talk to her? That was not nice at all. They were all talking behind her back and she had no way of defending herself because they never confronted her. Maybe she wanted to know if she made a mistake. It’s not right not to tell her because you think it might hurt her feelings. Treat her as a human. Not doing that means you are thinking lower of her and have no expectations that she can learn and correct her mistakes.

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      1. They did treat her like a human–a human that they care about. When people care about other people, they feel happy when they think the people they care about feel happy. If they thought it would have made her sad or angry, then they would have felt sad or angry because they care about her. We don’t know what happened afterward, but if they went back and talked to her and she told them it made her sad or angry, then they would have felt sad or angry. When people care about others they think about how others may feel. When they get a chance to ask them then they ask. If they are wrong, then they change their feelings accordingly. It just showed that they love her as an equal human being. It didn’t seem condescending or insincere at all. It was a normal response that neurotypical people have when they care about someone (autistic or not).

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      2. Yeah, It wouldn’t have made my day. If I was in her shoes and this had happened, I would have written on the cake because I was asked to, without having thought “ah, this person thinks I am the person who usually writes on cakes, but I’m not, so I should let them know this fact”, not because I’ve been dying to write on cakes whilst I’ve been working there and am thrilled to be given the opportunity. The only kind thing in the scenario was not making a big deal about it, which was then blown by the co-workers, and then putting it publicly on the internet.

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  4. I disagree with you that there was no kindness displayed by the cake story. The girl who wrote on the cake was not suppose to write on cakes. However, she stepped up to serve a customer when no one else was available. She could have just said there wasn’t anyone available…but she took initiative and did what she wasn’t suppose to do. She could have lost her job.

    The lady who purchased the cake saw that it was not professional quality. She didn’t say “she laughed” she said maybe those who she was serving it to might think it was suppose to be funny. She was trying to make the best of a situation that was not her fault. Yet, she didn’t try to make a complaint about the cake. The other workers at the store who figured out why the cake was less than professional quality could have called for the girls job. A supermarket bakery is about serving customers. That means professional quality work. Every person in this story displayed kindness towards another person. Each person looked beyond themselves to show respect to another. That is the definition of kindness!

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    1. Okay, so my counterargument to that would be, would this have been a popular news item if there was no disabled person in the story?

      It is because disabled people are not automatically considered worthy being treated of basic human decency that it’s viewed as a special “heartwarming” moment when someone is nice to us. If society really respected disabled people, being kind to an autistic person would be a total non-story, an ordinary thing that happens every single day.

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      1. I don’t know if it would have been a popular news item. It was a facebook post that went viral. What people are drawn to is not always “news”. It was a heartwarming story with a picture and a moral to the story. I’m sorry you can’t see it for that. Just a heartwarming story tucked in the daily killings and terrorists attacks and political correctness. People are drawn to such things. Often these stories involve children with cancer, or cats. It has nothing to do with your opinion that “disabled people are not automatically considered worthy being treated of basic human decency.” Quite a chip…or rather a cement block on your shoulder I would say.

        Regardless, here is the cake decorator’s reply to the attention:

        http://woodtv.com/2015/12/09/cake-decorator-with-autism-thank-you-for-being-kind/

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  5. Thank you for this truthful and honest article. You have expressed what I have felt in a way I couldn’t begin to. I’m not familiar with the cake lady story so I have to take you at your word. Well, I don’t have to but I’ve seen the same story happen IRL. I’ve never experienced it because I’m a high functioning guy and when I crap things up and act weird I usually get beaten over the head because of my stubbornness or my manipulating behavior or my laziness.

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  6. Hello,

    I’m new to the whole self-advocating scene, but I’ll put in my two cents here. Also to note that I chose to start self-advocating in order to stand up against the vitriol and efforts to cure/eliminate us and silence voices on all parts of the spectrum (especially ones like Amy Sequenzia, who is inconvenient to their agenda) that Autism $peaks pours out against us. I’m glad to have found a community online.

    On one hand, the lady who posted on FB might have had good intentions about being “kind,” but on the other hand, I, too, found it quite rude of everyone involved in the story to talk about the Autistic employee behind her back. If you can’t say something to someone’s face about something, don’t say it. I also agree with you in that the story is terribly flawed without input from the Autistic employee. Ultimately, I think that many people can’t see how Cake Lady’s “kindness” can rub the Autistic community the wrong way.

    While I do get upset at a lot of things, I try really hard to imagine how NTs try their very best to be kind, but stumble (same can go for us, as well). I view my observations and interactions with NTs as a cultural exchange. I have found over the years that really mean people (no matter the neurotype) have an extensive record of being a jerk.

    Indeed, as the title of this entry states: “Kindness Without Respect is Worthless.” Kindness, besides respect, also requires understanding (which requires a lot of time around other people, which people can’t be bothered to do nowadays) and, most of all, empathy. Empathy emerges from understanding – and ultimately, I would argue – acceptance. They’re all interlinked.

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  7. I’m struggling to understand the cake lady story. How are you defining respect here? Can you explain examples of how else this could have gone down in a better way, and what the difference is between them? I’m HFA, often struggle with understanding these things. I’m not getting what the real problem is, but feel like there is something important just beyond my grasp.

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    1. Hm, interesting thought experiment. How could this have gone down in a better way? Well, I suppose the respectful way this would have played out is that, if the customer was not bothered by the cake, she would have paid for it and left. If other employees noticed that the cake was not decorated to their usual standards, perhaps they could have privately talked to the decorator about either not doing cakes, or training to do them better. Or, if the customer was not satisfied with the cake, the store could have apologized, refunded/replaced it, and again, privately spoken with the would-be cake decorator. Nothing would have been posted to the internet at all.

      The disrespect here lies with 1) employees gathering around to make a spectacle of the cake, 2) disclosing the autistic employee’s status to a customer which they had no business doing – in fact as a medical diagnosis it may have been a HIPAA violation to disclose without consent, 3) posting this publicly, with a photo – and we know that the customer found this cake funny so it definitely has an element of mockery to it to post the photo – and making an even bigger spectacle of the autistic employee and her work, all for self-congratulation, as if being kind to a disabled person is an act of heroism.

      The main point is that even if there were some small act of kindness here, say in not getting upset about a cake, acting like it’s a great and noteworthy act of generosity to be nice to a disabled person essentially says that disabled people do not *as a matter of course* deserve to be treated nicely.

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      1. HIPAA expressly does not apply to employers who obtain medical information in the course of regular business. However, the ADA does apply here, and this appears to contravene that act.

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  8. Thank you so much for spelling it out. “The Cake” story doing the rounds was doing my head in – If you need internet love & a freaking pat on the back for being what amounts to “almost polite with a snide order of mockery” to a disabled person, then f**k you.

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  9. Thank you for putting into words, what I was feeling about the Cake Lady. I was very puzzled about that story, as I could not see the kindness there. I must admit that my first response was “Autism is not something that necessarily means you can’t do stuff”. In fact, I think that I heard that Microsoft is counting some forms as a plus, as it leads to out-of-the-box thinking, that they need.

    I once had a kid in my Theatre Tech class. The biggest thing that I had noticed about him was that he seemed a bit tentative about doing stuff. I asked him if he was comfortable using the Skilsaw, and he told me “No. I have Cerebral Palsy.” I told him it was fine and he could do what he felt comfortable with. (I had shown him how) Next thing I know, he picks up the saw and uses it. He was very pleased, and frankly, I was too, as he had picked up on my belief that he could do what he wanted, not what others said he could do. He became a leader in the class, and his confidence went right up.

    I guess that my feeling is that People are people and deserve respect, though I have a bit of a hard time respecting people who are unkind and disrespectful, themselves.

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  10. Thank you so much for this post. Hearing words, ideas, finding words through other people, is so important. I’m finding more and more that respect means a lot more to me than people seem to be willing to grant. I’m having trouble finding words to express how much this post means to me, so I’ll settle with, Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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