John Angelo
John Angelo (middle) with his parents, Shirley and Joseph. Courtesy of Joseph Angelo

Joseph Angelo of Indiana, Pa., tells this story about his son John’s birth 40 years ago: 

The day after delivery, the doctor came into the hospital room and told his wife, “Your baby is a mongoloid.” 

The doctor had used outdated and insensitive terminology to describe a person with the chromosomal abnormality known as Down syndrome, which causes degrees of cognitive disabilities and distinctive facial features. 

Shirley Angelo was crying when she called her husband with the news. 

“My immediate reaction was to throw up,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “When I went to see her, there were tears streaming down her face, but she was smiling. She told me, ‘Joe, we’ve got a job to do.’” 

He wasn’t so sure.

Finding blessings

“I went into a state of depression,” he said. “Having a child with a disability would affect all the things I planned to do. I had six weeks of constant prayer, but I wasn’t thinking about what I could do to help him to have a good future. I was being foolish, and I was thinking about myself. Then I remember that night like it happened today. I prayed like I had never done before. I gave God my petition, emptied my mind and let God take over.” 

Interview with John
OSV: Tell us about your speaking engagements. 
John Angelo: I like it because of the people I talk with. I love going into schools, and talking to the Knights of Columbus. In the past, we have done some fund raisers.
OSV: What do you want people to know about people with disabilities?
Angelo: Stop stereotyping them. Let them do what they can do.
OSV: Tell us about the book you wrote.
Angelo: It’s called “My Wonderful Life.” It’s the story of my life and how I grew up. It’s funny and it’s heartwarming. It’s finished now, and I just have to make sure everything is correct.
OSV: How have your parents influenced you?
Angelo: My dad is an absolutely fabulous speaker. He is a great buddy and a great friend. My mother is a great mom. She is the one who when I was younger did things for me right from the start. She is a great cook and she is the force in our family.
OSV: What are your plans for the future?

His depression lifted. 

“I immediately became much more aware of Jesus’ preference for the poor and for the weak and vulnerable,” he said. 

It was the beginning of the family’s journey to find blessings in the gifts of their seventh child who would teach many people about love, kindness and the joy in ordinary days. 

One of the first things the couple did was say “no” to the advice to put John on an institution waiting list. Instead, they put him on the waiting list for the laboratory kindergarten and elementary school at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where Angelo taught math. 

Angelo immersed himself in researching information about Down syndrome. Hopeful literature inspired him to devote his life to assuring that his son lived fully and that others who are cognitively challenged are treated with the dignity they deserve.

Fighting for the disabled

Angelo, now 77, became a founding board member of The Arc of Indiana County, the local chapter of a national organization for people with developmental disabilities. As state president of The Arc, he and a team of about 20 others visited state institutions and became instrumental in shutting them down or cleaning them up. 

“The first one to go down was Pennhurst State Hospital near Philadelphia,” he said. “I don’t even want to talk about the atrocities there. They would punish the people in the middle of the winter by sending them outside until they begged to come back in. It was horrible.” 

At Western Center near Pittsburgh, they found residents on palettes on the floor of the common room, lying in their own waste while the staff watched TV. After Angelo left, he inhaled soapy water into his nose to eradicate the stench. 

“Embreeville State Hospital was another one, and the same thing was happening there,” he said. “When we went to visit, we found a case where a resident was pushed down the steps and suffered two broken legs. That was disturbing. In Polk Center [in northeast Pennsylvania], there were incidents of moving people with cattle prods and keeping them in cages.”

Gifts to share

John did not need to be placed anywhere. He attended both mainstream and special classes in school, learned to read at the sixth-grade level, and graduated from high school. He was an altar server and usher at St. Thomas More University Parish, sings in the choir and reached the fourth degree in the Knights of Columbus. He took piano lessons for two years, plays golf and is a store assistant at a local pharmacy. 

When he was 16, he and his father started touring regionally and nationally to show how people with disabilities should never be stereotyped. At a recent appearance at Bethlehem (Pennsylvania) Catholic High School, 750 students gave him a standing ovation. 

“I feel like we are doing the work that God has called us to do, and before I speak, I pray to be filled with the Holy Spirit, to get our message across,” Joseph Angelo said. 

While John is exceptional in his achievements, Joseph Angelo is sensitive to parents who have children with profound challenges who need constant care in group homes or even institutions. 

“But even they have gifts to share,” he said. “They are examples of courage, strength, perseverance and patience. My advice to their parents? Love them. And help them to do the things that they can do.” 

One of John’s greatest accomplishments, his mother said, is that “he has shown us how to accept everybody as they are.” 

One day somebody asked him if he was having a good day. He replied that every day is a good day. Then when Shirley Angelo said that she loves Thanksgiving, John told her, “I just love every day.” 

“I told him, ‘I do, too, John,’” she said. “He is a very happy person, and he has touched so many lives.” 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.