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One-time legislative candidate speaks up for those with disabilities

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

Christopher Gagliardi lost his bid to win election to the state Assembly this June, but he scored a huge victory as the first candidate in New Jersey with autism to run for office.

Now the Englewood native will be a regular blogger on www.justsaysomething.org , launched by the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities to encourage people to speak up every time they see something positive or negative that affects people with developmental disabilities.

Gagliardi has also become a Special Needs Outreach Coordinator for the 37th District Legislative Office.

“Running for Assembly was the biggest adventure of my life. I had to learn how to do all sorts of things to get my name on the ballot and I had to learn about the entire election process,” Gagliardi said. “It was the first time I tried something this big to get my message across.”

For Gagliardi’s mother, Lynda Grace Monahan-Gagliardi, simply seeing her son’s name on the ballot was a victory.

Chris Gagliardi, who ran in the Democratic primary for the Assembly, is now fighting for people with disabilities.

“When I went to vote and I saw my son’s name up there, I thought of every one of my sacrifices for him and all of the obstacles we faced, and I felt that we really won,” Monahan-Gagliardi said. “Because when I was raising him, autism really wasn’t heard of. My own mother told me to put him away in a group home, but that just wasn’t something I was willing to do. So that day when his name appeared on the ballot was a victory beyond victory for us.”

Speaking up for people with disabilities is the whole reason Gagliardi ran for Assembly in the first place. He said he was sick of just reading about the poor treatment of people with mental and physical challenges. He wanted to speak up. He wanted to do something about it.

Gagliardi speaks up every time someone picks on a person with a developmental disability or when he hears terms like “slow” or “retarded.” He also speaks up when he sees progress being made.

The Education of an Activist

Growing up, Gagliardi confronted many of the challenges other children with developmental disabilities face. He was picked on in school and was often the victim of bullying. He wasn’t always comfortable with himself and didn’t speak until he was 12 years old. He didn’t allow his mother to hug him until he was 16 years old.

Despite the challenges, he developed a strong sense of confidence in high school and began to participate in many school activities. He came home from Ridgefield Memorial High School one day and told his mother he was going to run for president of the student council. She said “go ahead.”

“When Christopher says he wants to do something, I always say ‘Do it’,” Monahan-Gagliardi said. “How do I know if he can’t? I have no clue. Sometimes I notice parents saying ‘oh no, you can’t do that.’ I would never say that to him.”

Gagliardi’s mother was right on. He won the election and became student council president. His love of politics blossomed from there.

Gagliardi had been a phone bank volunteer for various political candidates he supported for about five years, but he increased his political involvement with zeal. He helped campaign for candidates such as Governor Jon Corzine, County Executive Dennis McNerney and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle. Huttle would later be one of his opponents in the primary election, although he maintained a close relationship with her throughout the campaign.

After graduating high school in 2002, Gagliardi attended Bergen Community College briefly, but found the transition too difficult. He earned a scholarship and was excited to attend classes, but the environment was not friendly to someone with a developmental disability.

His experience in college made him want to create a better opportunity for students who would come after him, and ultimately became one of the cornerstones of his campaign policy.

“Just Saying Something” about the Issues

Gagliardi is set to become a Special Needs Outreach Coordinator for the 37th District Legislative Office and already works closely with Assemblywoman Huttle.

He is working to ensure the rights of all physically and mentally challenged people in New Jersey are recognized on a public policy level. The issues he works on with Assemblywoman Huttle are the same issues he advocated during his Assembly campaign:

Educational Rights: Gagliardi’s experience in college taught him that the change between high school and college is too abrupt for a person with a mental or physical challenge. He believes a transitional program for students who wish to pursue a college education is necessary.

Zero Tolerance Law for Hate Crimes: Crimes such as assault that are committed against people with developmental disabilities are rarely classified as a hate crime, even when the perpetrators targeted the victims because of their disability. Gagliardi believes this is a clear error and is taking steps to have these crimes classified as hate crimes.

Bullying Education: Gagliardi was the victim of bullying throughout his school career and doesn’t want other people with mental and physical challenges to be subjected to the same harassment. He wants to take several steps to eliminate bullying, including sponsoring an open dialogue to educate everyone about the consequences of bullying and to inform everyone that people with mental challenges are no different than anyone else.

“Christopher has a lot of ideas on legislation and he’s very well studied in the area of special needs,” Huttle said. “He is supposed to come on board in December, but he’s attended various events and is pretty much already on the job.”

A Man of Many Talents

Though Gagliardi didn’t talk until he was 12, he has gone on to become a well-respected professional speaker. He now travels to venues throughout the state to speak about autism and his views on public policy. He was recently the keynote speaker at the Planned Lifetime Assistance Network of New Jersey’s Awards Dinner. He also spoke at Bergen Community College’s second-annual Autism Summit in May.

“I used to go with him all the time when he spoke, but now he’ll go by himself. People will pick him up to have him speak for them,” Monahan-Gagliardi said. “He’s become a great speech writer and an excellent speaker.”

Gagliardi works part-time at the Starbucks in Englewood. It’s a job he enjoys, as he likes the interaction with people, but his heart is in his political work. He is also considering going back to college to pursue a career in journalism.

“I like my job, but I want to be more active in other areas,” Gagliardi said. “I believe this political life is really going to be something for me over the next couple of years.”

Gagliardi is also a talented actor, who has been in nine operas in the past five years. He is currently a cast member of Un Ballo in Maschera, being put on by the New Jersey Association of Verismo Opera. His most prominent role to date was Bogdonovitch in The Merry Widow.

Acting is only part of Gagliardi’s artistic nature. He writes frequently, plays the piano and loves to cook. In his free time, he likes to play with his kitten, Kineko, who he affectionately calls “Baby Doll.” He also enjoys reading the news and surfing the internet to learn about social issues.

Gagliardi approaches each social issue with the same intensity, passion, respect and sense of fairness he approaches the one closest to his heart. He recently attended his first AIDS Walk in New York City and his thoughts on that event dovetail with his philosophy on the rights of people with mental and physical challenges.

“The real treatment is compassion,” Gagliardi said. “I think compassion is the most important tool we have to help people who are suffering from a terrible sickness, like AIDS, or who have a mental or physical challenge. Some people will treat a person with a sickness as a second class citizen, but that’s not the right thing to do. We need to have compassion now more than ever.”

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