Story and photo by Debbi Casini Klein | Audio edited by Louis D’Aria
Al Condeluci has been instrumental in changing the lives of thousands of disabled people in the Pittsburgh area. His awareness and dedication started first hand, with his cousin Carrie, who had Down syndrome.
“When Carrie and I would go out to places, we’d go to a street fair, maybe a football game on Friday night,” Al said. “I would be with Carrie and my other cousins, and there we were, and all of a sudden the other kids, some of them, were cruel. They made fun of Carrie, called her names. They made her cry or maybe even worse, they didn’t even acknowledge her as a human being.”
That was the impetus for Al to become an advocate for anyone with a disability. Since 1973, he has worked tirelessly creating awareness and implementing programs for United Cerebral Palsy, and now his organization, CLASS – Community Living and Support Services.
“We want to see people be embraced with what they have in common to everybody else in the community, rather than some sad situation, where somebody can’t walk, or somebody can’t talk,” Al said.
While many strides have been made, Al feels there is still so much more to do so the disabled are treated like everyone else. He recalled an incident a few years ago when he was with his family at a fast food restaurant and seven people with significant disabilities arrived.
“I could over hear families sitting right next to us saying, ‘Don’t stare at those people, they have disabilities, but they have a right to be here at McDonald’s,’” Al said.
It was not the right narrative, it was a narrative of disability, not a narrative of all of us belonging to community. Or the narrative of our similarities, rather than our differences.
There have been countless success stories under Al’s tutelage.
Bill McDowell, who he met back in the 1970s, is one of them. Bill has cerebral palsy, and after going through Al’s program, he went to college and now works for Al.
“Because of Al, there’s no question, that I have a much more richer, fuller life than I could have ever imagined” Bill said. “He is just a tremendous human being.”
Dori Ortman has two special needs children, one with autism and one with Down syndrome. She also works with Al and sees the passion and the love he has for people.
“Al inspires me every day as a mother to keep my kids involved in the community and help form friendships and he has just taught me so much along the way,” Dori said.