By Hannah Getahun , Business Insider
The halls of Congress have yet to see an openly autistic legislator, but New York Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou could change that.
Niou, who was diagnosed with autism at 22, said she was “surprised” to learn she could be the first openly autistic Congressmember but also said it showed a lack of representation of disabled communities in policy making.
“I think we hear a lot of the first and only sometimes,” Niou told Insider. “While it’s an amazing thing, I think that what’s more important is that there are people understanding that it’s also a really lonely thing. And I think that it really is important to have representation because you need that lens to talk about everything in policy.”
Niou, a progressive Democrat and Taiwanese immigrant who represents New York’s 65th district, announced her run for Congress this year in a high-profile race against Bill de Blasio and Rep. Mondaire Jones.
Niou’s diagnosis became well known after Refinery 29 published an article discussing it in 2020. After parents and kids reached out to her relating to her, she became aware of how talking openly about her autism helped to “drive away stigma.”
Among full-time politicians, disabled Americans are underrepresented. People with disabilities make up 6.3% of federal politicians, compared to 15.7% of all adults in America who are disabled, research from Rutgers shows.
“People with disabilities cannot achieve equality unless they are part of government decision-making,” said Lisa Schur in the 2019 Rutgers report.
The number of disabled Americans may have increased in the past two years. Estimates show that 1.2 million more people may have become disabled as a result of COVID-19.
Niou also said that she knows what it feels like to be shut out of the government process. In 2016, Niou became the first Asian to serve as Assemblymember in her district, a large Asian district that includes New York’s Chinatown.
Disabled people have been “invisible by exclusion from the policy-making process,” Niou said. Her disability status helps her bring perspective to a host of laws from transportation to housing, and she wants to make sure that neurodivergent people have more of a say in the legislative process.
“We’re not considering all the different diverse perspectives, especially when you’re talking about neurodivergent [issues] or when we’re talking about disability issues,” Niou said.
Disabled people are more likely to be incarcerated, are at a higher risk of homelessness, and more likely to face impoverishment.
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