Pennsylvania candidate would be first autistic woman elected to a state legislature

Pennsylvania candidate would be first autistic woman elected to a state legislature
© Jessica Benham

A Pittsburgh-area graduate student and candidate for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives would, if elected, become the first openly autistic woman to serve in a state legislature.

Jessica Benham (D) shares a few things in common with other candidates who made national headlines.

Like Virginia Delegate Danica Roem (D), the first trans woman elected to a state House, Benham's campaign is largely focused on infrastructure policy despite the milestone her election would represent.

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Like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezSanders wishes Ocasio-Cortez happy birthday Democrat launches primary challenge to Ocasio-Cortez Ocasio-Cortez fires back at Washington Times after story on her 'high-dollar hairdo' MORE (D-N.Y.) and Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyPennsylvania candidate would be first autistic woman elected to a state legislature Pressley joins hundreds of activists calling for Kavanaugh impeachment: 'I believe in the power of us' The 13 House Democrats who back Kavanaugh's impeachment MORE (D-Mass.), her first step is to face off against a longtime Democratic incumbent in the primary: Rep. Harry Readshaw, who has represented the state’s 36th District for 25 years and who Benham told The Hill “has consistently been out-of-touch with the voters of this district,” citing his voting record on labor, abortion and gun rights issues.

“Readshaw has also attempted to pit the disability community against other communities, like the pro-choice community, without realizing that people with disabilities deserve bodily autonomy and choice as well. The district deserves someone who will listen and unite, not divide, our community,” she said.

Benham is quick to note that she would not be the first autistic women elected to office overall, as there are two currently serving on school boards. Both these cases and her own candidacy, she said, illustrate the need for disabled people who want a seat at the table to get involved locally.

“Disabled people make up approximately 20 percent of the population in the United States, but emerging research confirms what we’ve known on the ground — we don’t have equitable representation in government,” Benham told The Hill. “I want to use my perspective to ensure that disabled people have the same access and opportunities as everyone else in our district.”

Benham also cites other disabled and autistic activists who have served as role models without necessarily working in politics, such as climate activist Greta Thunberg, as well as Dustin Gibson, co-founder of Disability Advocates for Rights and Transition, which works against the forcible institutionalization of disabled people.

Benham, who is bisexual, would also be the first LGBTQ woman elected to the Pennsylvania legislature, and has taken similar inspiration from people like Ciora Thomas, a Pittsburgh activist who founded SisTers PGH, an advocacy and housing organization for trans women.

Benham told The Hill she plans to draw on her own history of community organizing and activism, including her work with the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy, where she has advised on and written local and state legislation.

Benham’s candidacy is part of a broader trend in disability and autism advocacy that centers autistic people themselves as the most qualified advocates on the issue, according to Julia Bascom, executive director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network

"The motto of the self-advocacy movement is ‘nothing about us, without us.’ As we push for greater acceptance and inclusion, one of the key measures of our progress will be whether or not self-advocates are seen as leaders outside of the disability community,” Bascom told The Hill.

“When autistic people run for office, they are challenging ideas about what our community can do and showing that we belong everywhere — including in the halls of power,” she added.

Disabled candidates and legislators also bring a unique perspective to issues that affect the broader community, Benham told The Hill.

“People with disabilities face many of the same challenges that abled people do – we breathe the same air, drink the same water, use public transit, and live in the same communities. In many of these cases, we are more at risk than the abled population,” she said.

“When we pass a policy that helps people with disabilities, everyone in the community benefits. I care about improving our infrastructure and ensuring access to quality health care.”

Benham will face Readshaw in the Democratic primary in April 2020. Another challenger, Erin Molchany, unsuccessfully challenged Readshaw in 2014.

If elected, Benham would be the latest in a series of historic firsts for the autism community. Earlier this year, Haley Moss became the first openly autistic person to practice law in Florida. Because the disorder is underdiagnosed among women and often erroneously believed to predominantly or exclusively affect men, Benham said she thinks visibility for autistic women is particularly important.

“We know that women are less frequently diagnosed than men and often later in life, because of the stereotypes connecting autism with maleness,” she told The Hill. “I hope that my candidacy demonstrates to young people with developmental disabilities that they can be leaders, and that they can stand up for the future of their communities.”