Indiana University Professor Accused of Verbally Abusing Worker, Customer With Disabilities
This article contains offensive language essential to reporting on the incident that may be hard to read.
Editor’s note: Claire Nisonger, the professor who was accused of making offensive remarks toward people with disabilities, has reached out to The Mighty multiple times to say the claims made against her are a false accusation. Nisonger also noted that she has an adopted son with a disability who was “in ‘resource room’ special education classes.”
The city of Bloomington, Indiana, and Indiana University (IU) officials are investigating after a professor allegedly verbally and physically assaulted two individuals with developmental disabilities and their support worker at a local McDonald’s.
According to a now-deleted July 8 Facebook post by direct support worker Christy Fields, she was accompanying a client with an intellectual disability to McDonald’s, where they planned to celebrate his birthday by ordering his favorite meal, three cheeseburgers. As they waited in line, Fields saw another client and friend, who has intellectual disabilities, was working the cash register. While Fields waited, the cashier made a mistake with the order for the woman in front of them and became anxious. Fields tried to reassure the cashier and suggested he ask another employee to assist him.
At that point, the woman who had placed the order, later identified as Indiana University Senior Lecturer Claire Nisonger, became agitated and made offensive remarks toward the cashier. According to Fields, Nisonger told the cashier, “I’m in a hurry, so if you can’t do your job correctly, find someone that can.” She then turned to Fields and said, “He’s one of those stupid retards, isn’t he?”
Fields stated she attempted to remain professional and told Nisonger her language was unacceptable, explaining the r-word has been removed from government documents because it is offensive to people with disabilities. Fields then suggested that Nisonger go home and educate herself. “Educate myself?“ Nisonger allegedly screamed. “I’m an IU professor!”
Fields then told her that as a professor, she should know better. At that point, Nisonger noticed Fields’ client and said, “Oh, I get it. Another retard.”
In an effort to protect her client, Fields said she asked another direct support worker to go sit with him at a table. As Fields and Nisonger continued to argue, a manager noticed the conflict and asked what was happening. Upon having the situation explained to him by Fields and other witnesses, the manager defended his employee.
Nisonger allegedly told the manager, “Well I think it’s ridiculous that people like them are even allowed out in public, let alone running a register. They should at least be put in back flipping burgers, if they can even do that correctly. ” The manager then repeatedly asked Nisonger to leave, but she refused.
As Fields and her group were waiting for their food, customers and employees expressed their support and wished Fields’ client a happy birthday. When Fields went to pick up their food, another customer who was taking video on her phone confronted Nisonger about her behavior, and Nisonger appears in the video to attack her, trying to scratch her face.
Fields then turned on her camera to take a brief video of Nisonger, and the video appears to show Nisonger throw a drink at her and try to knock the phone out of her hand. As Nisonger screamed at Fields to delete the video, two customers had to restrain her while others helped Fields and her group leave the restaurant safely.
Although Fields’ original post and video was removed by Facebook, The Mighty obtained a copy. Portions of the incident were recorded by Fields and another individual and have been aired on local news outlets. When Nisonger was reached by Indiana Public Media, she said much of the information spreading online was a lie and did not provide further comment.
Bloomington residents on social media called on Indiana University to terminate Nisonger’s employment. The Indiana University Neurodiversity Coalition began circulating a petition for Indiana University to investigate her actions and ensure she is not in a position to abuse neurodiverse individuals at the university.
“Being neurodivergent myself and knowing other students who are, I know how hurtful those words can be, especially when they are used so casually,” the coalition’s faculty advisor, Nejla Routsong, told Bloomington’s Herald-Times.
According to Routsong, Nisonger sent the following apology to the coalition’s Facebook page:
I regret that my use of the term ‘retarded’ offended people. I did not abbreviate it and it was not directed at the cashier on duty. I had no intention of offending people and sincerely apologize. I should note that I have received a number of awards for my work with diversity groups at IU over the years. Look at my whole record.
The coalition declined to accept the apology, as they felt it did not seem sincere and continues to back their petition.
Indiana University has pledged to investigate the incident. University spokeswoman Holly Vonderheit issued the following statement:
Indiana University is aware of the off-campus incident involving an IU employee and the associated social media response. University leaders have heard from individuals engaged in or concerned about the matter and are taking steps to learn more.
The Mighty contacted Fields, but she was unable to comment due to the pending investigation.
Scott Schroyer, whose son was at the restaurant with Fields to celebrate his birthday, told The Mighty his son doesn’t fully comprehend what happened and is doing OK. He described his son as a kind person who loves everyone.
“Sad thing, is if that lady was having a bad day, he would have given her a hug and asked her if she was OK,” Schroyer said. “People don’t see the love that special people seem to have and share just at the moments we need it most. They let hate blind them.”
Getty image by Narin Nonthamand.