elon musk

Elon Musk’s Cruelty to a Disabled Worker Exposes an Ugly

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elon musk

On Tuesday, Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of Tesla and Twitter, publicly shamed and bullied a disabled employee because that employee dared to ask if he was still employed by Twitter. Musk replied by calling him lazy and a faker. But the exchange did not just reveal Musk’s penchant for cruelty; it exposed a larger, ugly truth about this country: The disabled are deprived of the opportunity to work not because they lack talent but because of the bigotry of no expectations.

Here’s what happened: Haraldur Þorleifsson, who goes by Halli, is a famous Icelandic designer and the creator of the major design firm Ueno, which was sold to Twitter in 2021. Ueno was fantastically successful, and only sold to Twitter because Halli suffers from dysferlinopathy, a genetic type of muscular dystrophy, which painfully and slowly robs the sufferer of any control of their muscles. Halli is wheelchair-bound and can only eke out a few hours of work a day, but he took a job at Twitter because he believed in the company.

Ten days ago, Halli found himself locked out of his work computer at Twitter, and unable to reach HR, he tweeted Musk to figure out what was going on.

Musk demanded proof, which Halli provided, after which Musk tweeted something disabled Americans like me have heard from employers time and again: “The reality is that this guy (who is independently wealthy) did no actual work, claimed as his excuse that he had a disability that prevented him from typing, yet was simultaneously tweeting up a storm. Can’t say I have a lot of respect for that.”

Sadly, this kind of language is all too familiar to us in the disabled community. Too often, we are called lazy, or fakers because of our limitations.

Musk earned heavy criticism from all quarters for these comments, yet continued to double down until late yesterday, likely after he learned from Twitter that he had just attacked a member of the “Do Not Fire” list that had been one of his lead designers on the new “edit” feature.

“I would like to apologize to Halli for my misunderstanding of his situation,” Musk rather sheepishly tweeted later in the day. “It was based on things I was told that were untrue or, in some cases, true, but not meaningful. He is considering remaining at Twitter.”

All’s well that ends well, right? It’s not like there isn’t a shortage of issues plaguing Twitter. So why care about this tale of buffoonery?

Because it illustrates an ugly underbelly of American society that is rarely noticed by the healthy-bodied: In the United States, around only 20 percent of disabled Americans are able to find employment. That isn’t for lack of trying; the unemployment rate for the disabled, which requires participants to seek work, is double that of the general population. On top of that, disabled Americans are three times less likely to be employed, less likely to receive benefits, and most likely to suffer significant gaps in employment and discrimination in the workplace.

It is not just federal statistics; polls and studies overwhelmingly reflect this data. In one vivid 2015 study by Rutgers and Syracuse Universities, researchers determined that when a prospective employer considers hiring or promoting a potential applicant, disabled candidates were 26 percent less likely than their abled-bodied competition to get the job.

This is the harsh reality for millions of disabled Americans. The shameful behavior displayed by Elon Musk toward a disabled employee is unfortunately not uncommon in the American workplace. Or, as one prospective news manager years ago warned me, “If you want to make it in news, then you cannot let people know about your disability, even in your socials; it will hold you back.”

Consider what happened here: Halli is an internationally respected designer, a recipient of awards galore, and himself a multi-millionaire. He’s worked for everyone from Apple to Walmart, has been a longtime fixture in the disability and charity communities, and is respected by all. If this prolific man with a visible and well-documented disability can be publicly defenestrated and bullied, what chance do most disableds with lower-class living standards and invisible complex illnesses stand in private by employers who see them as potential liabilities or lazy fakers?

Elon Musk Tesla CEO Elon Musk leaves the Phillip Burton Federal Building on January 24, 2023 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty

There is a huge discrimination problem in America: It’s the well versus the unwell. Despite laws and regulations aimed at promoting equality, discrimination against the disabled remains pervasive, especially in the workplace.

America desperately needs a workplace culture change on this issue. Shame on the Doge King and all those blessed by fortune to live as cruel Ebeneezers against those whose only crime is living without health.

Peter Pischke is an independent journalist, covering health and disability issues, also politics, tech and more. A lifetime nerd and cheerful member of the disability community, Pete is the Host of CultureScape and a member of Young Voices.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.


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