Mar 14, 2023 - Economy

Musk dust-up with former employee highlights challenges facing disabled workers

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Elon Musk once again seemingly said the quiet part out loud. In a tweet last week, which he later apologized for, the Twitter CEO claimed a former employee used a disability as an excuse not to work.

Why it matters: Most employers know better than to open themselves up to legal liability by tweeting something about a worker's disability — especially something derogatory — but that doesn't mean Musk's kind of thinking is unusual.

  • "They just keep that conversation offline," says Mia Ives-Rublee, director for the disability justice initiative at the Center for American Progress.

Catch up quick: The Musk situation started when a former Twitter employee, Haraldur Thorleifsson, started tweeting at the CEO to figure out if he still had a job at the company — he was locked out of his work accounts, and couldn't get a straight answer from the company as to his employment status.

  • Musk replied, and they had a back-and-forth where Thorleifsson explained his job. Musk mocked him in return, with a clip from the movie "Office Space."
  • Later, in a reply to someone else, Musk wrote that Thorleifsson "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."
  • Thorleifsson refuted Musks' claims, explaining that he has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair — and that the design company he founded was purchased by Twitter in 2021.
  • Instead of taking a large payout from Twitter, Thorleifsson took a job with the company — a move that was celebrated in his home country because he'd wind up paying higher taxes, as the AP notes.
  • Finally, Musk wound up apologizing to Thorleifsson for "my misunderstanding of his situation" — and offered him his job back.

Zoom out: It's not uncommon for an employer to disbelieve a worker when they say they have a disability, said Ives-Rublee.

  • The issue is becoming more complex now, as some workers with disabilities are being asked to return to office, where they'll need certain accommodations.
  • Ives-Rublee mentioned one person she's working with who is having trouble getting permission to bring his service dog to work.

The bottom line: Employers should slow down before making assumptions about a worker's ability.

  • "Employers frequently dismiss disabled people without taking the time to understand how we share our talents, and consequently employers suffer from the loss of brilliant people like Thorleifsson," Haben Girma, a disability rights advocate, told Axios in an email.
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