This question was suggested in an aside in the question Is it more difficult for autistic people to adhere to a code of conduct (in written communication)? .

As the OP of the above question mentioned, it is common for disability to be treated as a mitigating factor for rule violations. An example that many people are familiar with is the criminal justice system, where a defendant successfully establishing that they committed an offense as a result of a neurological or psychiatric disability can often obtain either an acquittal or a conviction with a lower punishment than they otherwise would have received (e.g. probation with mandatory therapy as opposed to prison). I have also encountered an argument that misconduct primarily driven by disability (as opposed to free choice) should result in an enhanced penalty on the basis that a user who lacks the ability to choose the correct behavior is dangerous and cannot be rehabilitated with education.

An enhanced penalty actually happened in an online community I was a part of in the past (it has since shut down). A user contributed constructively for several weeks (not one of our top contributors, but enough effort to satisfy us that she was not a troll). One morning, we got up to find that she had flooded the community with (off-topic and offensive) allegations of outré sexual practices among the mothers of various community members punctuated by long chains of obscenities. When moderators confronted her over this behavior, her defense was that that is what happens when she goes off her medication. The decision was made to give her an indefinite ban as opposed to a more typical timed suspension because her lack of control over her behavior made her dangerous to the rest of the community and none of us were equipped to help her with her issue.

Are there any best practices on how to handle disability defenses when it comes to determining the appropriate penalty for conduct violations, especially as it relates to online communities? Just to be clear, I am asking about cases where it has already been determined that a community member violated a code of conduct and the question is whether their claim that they committed the misconduct as a result of a disability (e.g. autism, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, etc.) should result in a diminished penalty, an enhanced penalty, or the same penalty as would be given to a user whose misconduct can be attributed fully to free choice. If there are no best practices, what are some practices that you have found helpful in making the determination?

To be clear, I am using the term "free choice" to refer to situations where a person has sufficient abilities and resources to comply with a rule, regardless of the reason that they do not. For example, I distinguish a case of a user who gets in trouble because they chose not to read the code of conduct and ignorantly violated it (free choice) and a case where a user's dyslexia prevented them from reading the rules (neurological disability).

I know that some people reserve the word "punishment" for moral retribution or revenge while characterizing preventative incapacitation (e.g. banning someone to prevent them from harming other community members rather than to make them suffer because they were bad) to fall under the broader term consequences. I am referring to setting consequences.

2 Answers 2


Disabilities should rather be considered from the start, not separated from the general rules. There are many people in the world who are not officially diagnosed with things such as Autism but still live as if they were. Disabilities in general should also not be things to be ashamed of, though an individual's thoughts on it can only be changed with their own approval. Having the separate rules hidden from the general community would be similar to assuming everyone is "normal" except a few people.

Rather than having two different sets of rules, having one official set of rules would be reasonable. That way, you won't have to be assuming the person going against the rules is "normal" or not, they must follow those rules.

This is an example of a set of rules that would be towards the whole community, no matter their abilities or disabilities:

  • You must consider whether your words are against this environment.
  • Do not send x messages within y minutes.
  • You have up to three warnings before removal, but you may also suggest changes to the rules.

You must consider whether your words are against this environment.

This is so the member can at least agree they have considered the impact of their words.

Do not send x messages within y minutes.

This is also something that can easily be checked. If they have any visual difficulties, they may use a screen reader.

You have up to three warnings before removal, but you may also suggest changes to the rules.

This is so they have agreed they can only have three warnings with the current rules, but if they don't think it is fit for the group (including people with disabilities), they can suggest changes to the rules and have them be considered.


In my experience in multiple professional communities, disabilities often culminate in punishments and escalating aggravation. Unfortunately this is not uncommon in various groups beyond the the more rigid professional environment.

  1. There still exists various stigma and discriminatory perspectives in society. This can result from various assumptions and preconceived notions;
  • this person is not able to meet the inflexible requirements everyone is held to
  • adjustments and modifications will breed dissatisfaction and disruption amongst the group
  • someone with this condition is unable to meet expectations
  • psychologically ill people are potentially dangerous
  • providing an accommodation is too much work for everyone else
  • they’re faking to get special treatment.
  • Everyone has issues, why should this person be accommodated.
  1. In the US there has been a expanding perspective of “Zero Tolerance” in respect to the consequences for many behaviors since 1994. This idea, has now had nearly 30 years of impact. In particular amongst children of that period, who are now adults. This has had a significant impact in eliminating discretion or even, in my own opinion, reasonable and rational consideration in issues of behavior tolerance and punishment considerations.

I believe this is a fundamentally flawed rational for dealing with social issues. I would put forth that “Zero Tolerance” is in fact definitionally intolerance.

  1. Society and technology have emphasized the concept that people are generally interchangeable with one another. This has a dehumanizing effect when it comes to establishing functional group, where the individual has expectations of conformity. The phrase “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down” accurately describes the cause and effect of aberrant behavior. Whether it’s mental health related, personality related, or simply expressions of individuality.

Answer: Mitigation should always be a consideration in all punishments for all people. Penalization is frequently a method more focused on alleviating and mitigating stress for the group. In the specific instance the OP referred to is an excellent example of how a participating member suffered the consequences of being excluded, for what sounds like a single infraction that was the result of a laps in medicine.

Perhaps the OP could provide some insight as to if…

  • Q1: Was there any consideration for asking the user to delete their content that they regrettably added, and bare that in mind in the future?
  • Q2: Were there any other alternatives considered amongst the moderators?
  • Q3: Was the community better of with the users exclusion?

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