After the November 7, 2017 election, Sarah Selvaggi Hernandez became a member of the Enfield, Connecticut board of education. Selvaggi Hernandez is an occupational therapist, assistant professor, and now one of the first openly autistic people elected to political office.
Sarah Selvaggi Hernandez first considered the possibility of running for office last January. She became politically involved during Bernie Sanders’ primary campaign. After Sanders failed to secure the nomination, Selvaggi Hernandez wanted to remain involved at the local level. She felt profoundly disappointed with local politics and particularly the education system. Two of Selvaggi Hernandez’s three children currently attend school in Enfield.
Around the same time as Selvaggi Hernandez pondered running for office, the chairman of Enfield’s Board of Education started posting racist and inflammatory memes on social media. Selvaggi Hernandez said of the memes, “Two of them targeted Hispanic students (literally entitled ‘magnet school students’), which is obviously unacceptable.”
the Enfield Board of Education said it was unable to take formal action because the chairman was a volunteer. Although the chairman apologized, he retained his position until the most recent election. These events galvanized Selvaggi Hernandez. “Even though the socialization required to run for office was challenging for me as an autistic, I knew I had to show up and do SOMETHING [sic],” she told NOS Magazine.
Selvaggi Hernandez ran for the Board as a Democrat. In Enfield, candidates must first go through a selection process in order to earn nomination. The Democrats and Republicans each nominate five Board candidates, for a total of nine spots available.
To earn nomination, Sarah Selvaggi Hernandez went through an application and interview process. The nomination committee selected her as a Board of Education candidate. Typically, the town committee automatically approves the nomination committee’s selections. But Selvaggi Hernandez’s candidacy hit a slight snag because an incumbent Board member was not asked to run for reelection. Some members of the town committee rallied in favor of the incumbent. Selvaggi Hernandez worried that she might be asked to step down. Ultimately, she and the other nominees were approved. In August of 2017, she began her campaign.
Campaigning for local office is a communal activity in Enfield. Once the parties selected a slate of nominees for the Board of Education, town council, and constables, the group campaigned as a team. When Selvaggi Hernandez went knocking on doors, she went with other Democratic candidates for office.
For her, the opportunity to campaign in a group proved helpful. “The communication thing was difficult until I got the hang of it,” she said. “So they gave me a lot of space to watch/listen/learn until I felt comfortable.”
The campaign required Selvaggi Hernandez to participate in weekly team meetings. She also had aschedule of social events, such as Comedy Night or Meet and Greets. At all events, candidates made themselves available to voters and answered questions.
Selvaggi Hernandez also took part in a formal debate. While she was excited for the opportunity to participate, Still, Selvaggi Hernandez experienced nerves during the debates. She said, “the lights were nauseating. That was the most difficult part, oddly.” Selvaggi Hernandez was thankful that she could sit next to a teammate, who wrote encouraging notes to her throughout the debate.
During the campaign, Selvaggi Hernandez openly discussed her autistic identity with voters and other nominees. She said, “On the campaign trail, I would tell constituents directly about my diagnosis if appropriate and talk about my experiences and supports. My entire team knew. And we referenced it often.”
Discussing her disability proved useful when Selvaggi Hernandez addressed differences in learning among students. Selvaggi Hernandez and her fellow nominees explained to constituents, “We believe that all students have a right to a dynamic, engaging education. We also believe that our students of differing abilities are guaranteed supports that help scaffold their educational experience. […] Each student is unique and needs different levels of support.”
Selvaggi Hernandez sees numerous problems with how disabled students fare in Enfield’s education students. Some students don’t receive the services and supports mandated by their Individualized Education Plans, or IEP’s, while others aren’t being adequately challenged. Moreover, some people resent students with disabilities. “There’s a lot of resentment to the amount of our budget that’s allocated for special education resources,” she said.
In campaigning, Selvaggi Hernandez encountered several people who voiced such sentiments on social media. She developed a standard response to these objections. Selvaggi Hernandez said, “My typical short response was that these children were entitled to a public education in the least restrictive environment by law, and we are responsible to ensure their needs are being adequately met and challenged. Sometimes, depending on the tone, I’d talk about my autism here to highlight my own challenges and how having supports has allowed me to continue to progress well into adulthood.”
Selvaggi Hernandez emphasized that while she encountered ableist comments on social media, she received strong in-person support from constituents she met. However, she did bristle at being referred to as “high-functioning,” which she feels is dehumanizing to all autistic people. Selvaggi Hernandez said that she’s still working on the most effective way to navigate this issue.
For her, running for election and winning has provided a greater sense of community. Selvaggi Hernandez’s family is relatively new to Enfield, having moved three years ago. Until running for the board, she hasn’t been able to form many social relationships. “This was a great way to really connect with people on an honest level,” she said. “I feel like I made real, true friends.”
Once she dives into Board work, Selvaggi Hernandez has a full agenda. She said, “I want to bring more cost-effective support services for ALL students to prove one-on-one or small group opportunities.”
She also wants to create more opportunities for students to move around during the school day. Currently, younger students have one 20-minute recess. Selvaggi Hernandez wants to change that to two recesses per day. Older students only receive half a year of gym class, she wants to change that to a full year.
Selvaggi Hernandez strongly encourages other autistic people who are considering running for office to “go for it.” Her advice for autistic candidates: “Be honest and communicate your needs/preferences. Tell people on your team how they can support you. Highlight your skills and expertise. Create sensory supports to help cope with the increased socialization. Set limits on how many events you’ll attend.”
Selvaggi Hernandez’s election represents a major milestone for the autistic community. If and when the next autistic person decides to run for office, they won’t be alone..