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human & civil rights | social services

Someone Else's Rainbow

Reposting this important story with an update: Felicia Akubuiro has changed her name back to Nelson. Workers who have been harassed deserve to know they are not alone.
Harassment and "crazy baiting" of people with mental illness continues unabated, even among people who tout themselves as being champions of diversity.It's time for this to stop.

I used to work for Multnomah County, Oregon. I was a social worker. And while the rest of the world remained pretty much steeped in misogyny and racism and homophobia, our little island had made great strides. Overt discrimination was illegal, and the laws on this subject were rigorously enforced at the county . Jokes making fun of people based on race or religion or gender were no longer tolerated. "Diversity" became a mantra, and women, people of color, and people not conforming to traditional gender identities rose in the ranks. There was equality like never before, and it was...almost everywhere.

But the Diversity Rainbow seems to have left some of us resoundingly out. Because, while my supervisor, Felicia Akubuiro (aka Felicia Nelson), gave great lipservice to the concept of diversity, neither she nor the head of the Human Resources Department, Urmila Jhattu made room for any "diversity" at all when it came to neural diversity. Neither was willing to address their staggering hostility and ableism against workers who struggled with mental illness.

There was a woman in my department, the Adult Care Home Program, who suffered from depression, and all of us witnessed Ms Akubuiro taunting this woman to tears on a daily basis. We all had to listen to Ms Akubuiro's "jokes" and mocking impersonations of this woman in staff meetings. No one did anything. No one spoke up. Not even me. Had Akubuiro made references to race or gender, it is my belief that she would have been reprimanded or fired. But as she was "merely" making reference to the terrible and debilitating struggle this woman went through with her disabling mental illness, no one stopped her.

The woman repeatedly went to HR in an effort to end the harassment, but was then doubly harassed by Urmila Jhattu, who accused her of "malingering" on at least one occasion, and astonishingly, accused her of doing a poor job and "harassing" her boss. (Unsurprisingly, Akubuiro and Jhattu were friends, with a history of working together to enhance each other's careers. These things do happen. However, someone at multomah county should have noticed this and addressed it. No one did.)

This was a difficult time in the job market, and we were scared. So none of us did much to help. And there's that famous saying about that: "And then they came for me." And they did.

I had reason to fear getting into a conflict with my boss over a coworker's struggle with mental illness. I had quietly been struggling with my own mental illness - crippling OCD and a host of mood disorders - that I'd had for my entire life and worked hard to keep hidden. It was embarrassing and stigmatizing to me to be mentally ill, and I never willingly shared the reality of my private struggle with *anyone*. I appeared a little eccentric, perhaps "weird," to people I worked with, and that hurt but it was better than telling them I was mentally ill.

I often wore hats and odd clothing that functioned as a costume to hide behind, due to the body dysmorphic disorder - a cousin of OCD - that plagued me and told me I was hideous to look upon. I was uncomfortable eating in public and preferred not to attend office parties for that reason. These and other slight idiosyncrasies popped up here and there, and I was occasionally ridiculed by my coworkers about them (they thought behind my back, but in a small office with cubicles most of them weren't tall enough to see over, nothing was ever very private).

But I did my job very well, and no one had cause to complain. In spite of the same mental illness, I'd earned three college degrees and graduated summa cum laude at the top of my class with a perfect 4.0. My credentials were impeccable, I was over qualified for the job, and ten years of flawless performance reviews from my previous supervisor, Bob Palmer, can easily demonstrate, for anyone who cares to look, that I was a model employee in that same position for more than a decade before ms Akubuiro came to work there.

Immediately upon starting to work there, however, Ms Akubuiro began to undermine all the work I had done to function effectively in spite of my mostly invisible disability. At the same time that she was hounding and mocking the woman in the next cubicle, who had revealed her struggle with depression, Akubuiro was also hounding and harassing me for issues that had nothing to do with my job performance. She began with insulting remarks about my eating habits. (I am vegan, and Akubuiro sat in several meetings publicly mocking my dietary choices and demanding that I attend an unpaid office Christmas party at a very expensive, non-vegan restaurant. This was difficult for me because I couldn't afford to eat there, there was nothing vegan for me to eat anyway, and my disability makes eating in public around a lot of strangers hard for me.)

I complied with her order and attended the party, on my unpaid lunch break, and sat at a table without eating anything. But then she began harassing and mocking me about my attire. She said I wore "too many bracelets," for example, and that she didn't like my wearing hats.

This was hard for me, since although some people have told me they admire my style, much about the way I dress is influenced by my OCD. I simply wasn't able to comply with all of her demands in this regard, and was initially too embarrassed to say why.

Next it was my cubicle: she didn't like the way it was arranged - it wasn't messy, and had nothing to do with my work performance, but she insisted I reorganize it. FOUR TIMES. Again, my struggle with OCD made it very hard for me to comply with her orders, and her orders changed daily.

Then it was my email. We all had little quotes or links as a footer to our email. Everyone did. It was one small way to express a personal identity on an otherwise depersonalizing environment. Akubuiro herself had a MLK quote at the bottom of her own emails. However, because mine was a quote by a political prisoner who had gone to jail for the animals (as opposed to having gone to jail for civil rights, like the person *she* was quoting), she deemed it "inappropriate" and " unprofessional" for me to have done that and banned me from using a footer in my emails.

Then it was doodling.

Aside from being a social worker, I was and am an artist. When I get nervous, I draw. So for a dozen or so years in that job, before she ever came, I would doodle in the margins of my notes during meetings. It was never an issue, and had *nothing* to do with my job performance. But Akubuiro singled me out and decreed that my doodling was "intolerable," and demonstrated a "lack of respect." She suddenly demanded I not draw, and that I maintain eye contact with her all through meetings.

She was undermining my self esteem and my dignity with each passing day. My partner, who knew about my mental illness and who admired the way I'd worked so hard against such obstacles to get through college *anyway*; to go to work every day *anyway*, and to do a good job in spite of everything, was outraged. I started coming home every day in tears, every day a new indignity to suffer through. He wanted to go to her boss and complain about what she was doing to me. Much of it was illegal harassment - in many cases she was holding me to different standards than other workers, and was expecting me to do work out of class. So yes, my mate wanted to stand up for me. I wouldn't hear of it. I fought my own battles.

At one point, Akubuiro decided to hold me up for extra ridicule. Our department was creating a rules manual for operators of adult care homes. She made lipservice to my work as an artist, and suggested I contribute by designing the cover. I agreed, and asked for guidelines concerning what she wanted. She offered none at all, saying it was "up to me" and that I had "full creative control."

So I worked, unpaid and on my own time, for more than a week on a design. I brought it to her and asked whether it was acceptable. She said nothing to me, but instead brought my design to the next staff meeting and held it up for ridicule in front of everyone. It was a degrading public rejection. I felt humiliated. She wanted me to do another piece, again without any guidance or compensation. (Astonished and upset, I refused to go to the trouble. Instead, I took a photograph of an encaustic painting I'd done of a monkey wrench and submitted THAT. She asked people to vote on it, and I guess out of sympathy after what she'd put me through, my coworkers voted it in.)

After enough of this harassment, she finally managed to destabilize me to the point that my previously well-controlled mental illness began to become more apparent. I grew increasingly anxious and afraid to do anything at work. I began to miss work. My therapist grew concerned that this person was preying on me, and advised me to seek help.

I finally went to HR and sought help with the harassment. Like my predecessor, I found myself confronted by Urmila Jhattu, who took Akubuiro's side as she had done previously. With no other recourse and facing the possibility of joblessness otherwise, I was finally forced to admit that I suffer from mental illness, and to ask for reasonable accommodation.

I told Jhattu and Akubuiro that I have OCD, body dysmorphia, and mood disorders, and that the constant demands with regard to my dress, my cubicle, and my eating habits were intimidating and difficult for me. I told them that being constantly taken to the woodshed and upbraided for unexpected reasons every day was destabilizing to me and that I considered it to be harassment.

I expected things to get better, but they only got worse. Akubuiro got more threatening and more intimidating, and HR did nothing. I went to the union, and was told that although they had been well aware of problems with both Jhattu and Akubuiro for some time, there was little they could do about it.

Around that time, my partner and the love of my life was diagnosed with terminal cancer, adding an unbearable burden to the stress I was already under. My mental health deteriorated, and I was forced out on medical leave. When I returned to work, I elected to bring my service dog with me. I'd had a service dog for a number of years, but had elected not to bring her to work because I did not want to be branded with the stigma of "crazy." At this point, I no longer cared about the stigma and only wanted to do my job. And at this point, I was simply too sick not to have my service dog with me.

Nothing could have been more humiliating to me than the horrific and invasive and embarrassing meeting that Jhattu and Akubuiro subjected me to before allowing me to be accompanied by my service dog. I'm not even sure it was legal.

As far as I'm aware, even in the strictest environments, one need only provide medical documentation of the need for a service dog, and to state what service the dog provides. People are prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act from asking specifics about the disability.

Jhattu and Akubuiro subjected me to an hour-long gauntlet of embarrassingly probing questions about the exact nature of my disability, what my dog did, how she did it, what that does for me, and etc. Just informing them that she was a medical alert dog and showing them documentation from my doctors and therapist concerning my documented need for a service dog should have been ENOUGH. Legally and reasonably, I believe that's all they were entitled to from me. But they made me sit there and tell them, in embarrassingly intimate and graphic detail, very personal things about the nature of my mental illness, the way I am impacted by it, how it makes me think or act, what exactly my dog would do, how she would do it, why she would do it, how I would benefit from it. Then they asked questions about how my dog might impact my coworkers and what I would do about that. They implied that I was being selfish and silly to bring a dog to work. And I sat there and took it because I was too afraid to speak up about the humiliating, irrelevant, and probably illegal nature of their questions. I felt dirty and traumatized when I left, and that feeling has never really gone away, even more than two years after being forced out of that job.

I had a very distinct feeling that if they'd had any legal means to deny my request, they would have. But as I have had a documented disability for years and as I was meticulous about getting all the necessary documentation, they were prevented by the ADA from denying my request.

One might think that, now that the cat was finally out of the bag concerning my disability, my supervisor would let up. She did not. Quite the contrary, she ratcheted up her harassment. She seemed to take it as a personal
slight that I would dare to be mentally ill on her watch. No crazies need apply.

She began calling me to intimidating little meetings to upbraid me for every little thing, every single day. It was my "attitude," it was my bracelets, it was my boots, it was my Banksy print on my cubicle wall, it was my "unhemmed" sweater, it was my hair, it was my "lack of initiative," it was one thing after another after another, and it was terrifying. I lived in fear of getting fired for a stack of made-up complaints.

I was having trouble just keeping my head up. The moment Akubuiro found out about my mental illness, she treated me with absolute contempt. Even my coworkers noticed it. She became predatory toward me. In one case, she made a wholly unsupported and unsupportable claim that I was "insubordinate." The claim was so ridiculous and without merit that it was immediately dismissed, but the harassment continued.

At one point, everyone on my floor put up a bulletin board display explaining who they were and what they did. As I am an artist, I volunteered to do ours. I put together a graphic-novel bulletin board that was very popular. Each of us had our own little character, with name and title and role. I'd worked hard on it, and got a lot of compliments for the work. Only a few days after putting it up, it disappeared. I couldn't figure out who would have vandalized it or why.

I asked all over the office, and no one seemed to know what happened.

I was in Akubuiro's office for yet another intimidating meeting when I saw part of the display sticking out of her "In" basket. I asked her about it and she said, simply, "I took it down." She then said I would "find out why at a later time," and suggested I would be punished for it.

That was almost the last straw. I went back to the union, and there was an investigation this time. It lasted a long time and was scary to go through, but in the end my drawings were at least returned to me, though I was asked not to put them up again. Akubuiro had claimed that I'd "insulted" her by "changing the drawing" of her. This was a lie, and although the results of the investigation were never shared with anyone in my department, it is my belief that she got in trouble for some of her actions. (I was told by a number of coworkers that they were "very honest" about the harassment they'd observed her perpetrating, and one of the investigators had implied they were very concerned about her actions.)

She was less troublesome to me for a short time after that, but returned to daily harassment within the month. Still, no one did anything and there was nowhere to turn.

Akubuiro routinely used the word "crazy" in reference to me, mocked my anxiety around her, and implied that unless I "got a grip" (meaning suddenly self-cured my lifelong disability), she would find a replacement for me and I would be unemployed. (Again, nothing about my illness was impacting the job that I had been hired to do. Instead, it just made me work harder, and made me appear very anxious.)

In 2012, my partner died, and my world went with him. Although we'd both had good jobs and medical benefits and he'd paid into longterm care and disability insurance for more than a decade, it turns out there really is no social safety net after all. While he was dying, Safeco insurance refused to pay, saying that his diagnosis of renal cell carcinoma "wasn't clear enough." So in a heroic effort to save our home, he kept dragging himself to work on two canes and pain killers, in excruciating agony. But in the end, he couldn't work and I was his caregiver for the last few months, so I couldn't work either. I'd already exhausted my FMLA with my struggles with mental illness (although I'd not had to miss work due to my disability under my previous supervisor for an entire decade), and so we were without income. The bank foreclosed on our only home while he lay dying in the hospital, and a few days later I received a letter from multomah county letting me know that unless I immediately returned to work I would be fired.

I was in no shape to even respond. A few days after the death of my lifelong partner, I was "let go" from multomah county. After being hounded and harassed into illness for more than a year by my supervisor Felicia Akubuiro, after getting absolutely no help or support against the relentless harassment from any corner.

I'm not sure whether I mentioned it or not, but Akubuiro considered herself to be a "champion of diversity." She said so all the time.

It's about time that ableism be counted among the "isms" no longer tolerated in progressive workplaces. It's time that supervisors like Akubuiro be held accountable for preying upon workers with mental illness. And it's long past the time when disability, mental illness and neurological diversity should have been considered a part of the Diversity Rainbow.