Diagnosed with cerebral palsy as an infant, Laura-Lee Minutello learned early on in life what it meant to be a disabled person in an able-bodied world.
The 24-year-old Valrico resident, who uses a wheelchair, was just 7 years old when her mother, Marcia, took her to Busch Gardens the first time, intending to give the little girl a day of carefree fun.
The mother and daughter soon discovered, however, that the theme park wasn’t designed for children in wheelchairs. There was no way for her to access the theme park’s train; many of the thrill rides required riders to mount steps; and the magical Land of the Dragons she looked forward to playing in was virtually inaccessible to a child in a wheelchair.
Marcia Minutello remembers placing her daughter in the middle of the splash pad so she could enjoy the sensation of the water bubbling up from the ground. However, she was reprimanded by a park employee who said the little girl wasn’t permitted to just sit there while other children ran through the water.
“There was nothing for Laura to do but sit and watch the other kids,” said her mother.
Appalled by the theme park’s failure to embrace the disabled community, the Minutellos sent a letter to Busch Gardens’ management.
“To our surprise, we got a call from Donnie Mills (now chief operating officer for Busch Gardens), asking us to come out and show him the problems,” said Laura-Lee Minutello. “We walked through the park with him and I gave him ideas on improvements. They were already in compliance with ADA policies, but, as a result of our recommendations, they made a number of changes including adding a hydraulic lift to the train and building companion restrooms.”
Today, Minutello continues to spread her message of inclusivity. But now she has a much bigger platform.
In June, Minutello was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Florida, part of the nonprofit Ms. Wheelchair America organization whose mission is to educate and advocate for the more than 54 million Americans living with disabilities.
It’s not a traditional beauty pageant, Minutello is quick to point out.
“You won’t see me strutting around in a bikini,” she joked. “But the crown and sash has opened the door for me to not only advocate for those with disabilities but to spread my message that we are all one community. We all have challenges, whether they’re visible or not. I hope that by going out to speak to groups that I can help eliminate the barriers that exist between people with disabilities and those who are able bodied.”
Growing Up Disabled
They are barriers Minutello has had to struggle with her entire life.
Born to a drug-addicted mother in Brooklyn, N.Y., she was adopted by Bob and Marcia Minutello at the age of 10 months.
“Doctors told us she would never walk or talk, that she’d end up in an institution,” recalled Bob Minutello. “The adoption agency said we could give her back and they’d give us another child.”
But the Minutellos weren’t about to give up on the little girl with the contagious smile.
And little Laura-Lee soon proved the medical experts wrong. She not only learned to talk but ended up getting placed in mainstream public schools.
However, it wasn't easy to be a disabled child amongst able-bodied children.
“Middle school was very difficult,” Minutello said. “I really felt isolated from the other kids. It wasn’t as if they were bullying me, per se, but I was ignored from the day I stepped into the classroom. I withdrew into myself as a protection mechanism. I was quiet, shy and introverted.”
As the students matured in high school, things improved for Minutello.
“I started to emerge as a person. I was taking AP classes and had more confidence,” she said. “I began reaching out more to my fellow students.”
By the time she reached the University of Central Florida, she said she felt more comfortable with her disability and the reaction from those around her. When people stared, she wasn’t offended. Instead, she took the time to explain her disability to those around her.
“I see it as an educational opportunity, especially with kids,” she said. “I reach out to curious kids and encourage them to ask questions. I’m visibly different and a lot of people just don’t know how to handle it. “
A psychology major at UCF, Minutello was able to live independently in a wheelchair-accessible dormitory.
“I had a great group of friends and my college experience was fairly normal,” she said.
Breaking Down Barriers
Outside of school, Minutello became involved with organizations such as the Family Care Council. Established in 1993 by the Florida Legislature, the council advocates on behalf of those with disabilities and makes recommendations for changes in state laws.
It was a member of the council that first urged Minutello to enter the Ms. Wheelchair Florida pageant.
The pageant, for women age 21 and older, attracts those who have recently become disabled as well as those who have struggled with lifelong disabilities.
Minutello emphasizes that it is not a contest to select the most attractive individual. Instead, the pageant aims to select the most accomplished and articulate spokeswoman for persons with disabilities based on advocacy, achievement, communication and presentation.
Already accustomed to speaking to groups, Minutello had no problem facing a panel of judges.
“The judges present several rounds of questions dealing with your perception of yourself, your knowledge of disability issues, etc…,” she said. “Then the contestants give a two-minute platform speech.”
Minutello's platform encourages all people, no matter what their abilities, to cherish their individuality.
“I want to inspire others to accept and embrace differences that exist in all people,” she said. “I hope to help change people’s attitudes and encourage them to get to know people before labeling or judging them. My disability is only part of who I am.”
She entered the pageant in 2011 and was named first runner-up. But this year, at the 2012 pageant on June 30, she said she was thrilled to receive the crown from state Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview.
Attending the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant in Rhode Island Aug. 6-12 was equally exciting, said Minutello.
“It was a weeklong competition with three days of judging and all kinds of workshops including one on self-defense,” she said. “It was fun as well as educational. And it was the first time I’d been around so many women with disabilities. There were 28 contestants, all making a difference in their communities. It was so inspiring. Since the pageant, we’ve developed a Facebook group and keep in contact.”
Ms. Wheelchair Texas Mariah Kilbourne was named Ms. Wheelchair America at the finale.
Making a Difference
Since returning from the national pageant, hardly a week has gone by when Minutello isn’t making an appearance or volunteering on behalf of the Ms. Wheelchair America organization.
“I was recently leading a Saturday workshop in Orlando when a man came up to talk to me,” she said. “He’d been out of work for awhile and said that when he heard me talk he realized he needed to keep at it and keep going. It was such a poignant and touching moment, and I realized I could make an impact on all people."
Minutello also had the opportunity to throw out the first pitch at a Tampa Bay Rays game, a pitch caught by first baseman Carlos Pena who promptly signed the ball for her.
But the activity most near and dear to her heart has been volunteering at Give Kids the World Village in Orlando, a 70-acre storybook resort that provides weeklong family vacations for children with life-threatening illnesses.
“I didn’t even know it existed before but it’s the most amazing place,” said Minutello. “It’s designed to be a dream trip for these families struggling with illnesses. While they are there, they have no worries, just fun activities like an ice cream party for breakfast. It's so rewarding working with the children there."
Minutello is often accompanied on her appearances by 4-year-old Brooklyn Santos of Plant City, who has spinal muscular atrophy.
“I met her when she was just 2,” said Minutello. “She’s quite amazing. Even at that young age, she told me that we needed to persevere.”
Although her summer has been busy, Minutello’s fall schedule looks to be equally demanding.
In October, she will attend Disability Week at the University of West Florida in Pensacola where, among other things, she will participate in her first game of wheelchair basketball.
On Nov. 10, she will be at the nonprofit Disability Wellness Center in Sanford for the Karting with the Stars Fundraiser, driving one of the organization’s handicapped accessible go-karts along with celebrity participants. Funds raised go to the Greater Orlando Spinal Cord Injury Network and the Disability Wellness Center.
Advocating for the Disabled
Although there have been tremendous strides in accommodating people with disabilities, Minutello said the nation has a long way to go, and she hopes to play a role in making changes.
“We’ve come a long way but there’s still a lot that needs to be done. For instance, after age 21, it’s a fight to get necessary therapies,” said Minutello who frequents the gym to supplement her regular therapy sessions.
“I still encounter restrooms with no hand rails, doors that open the wrong way and buildings that don’t meet ADA requirements,” she said.
Minutello would like to have a hand in changing legislation on behalf of those with disabilities.
But, she said, if she accomplishes nothing else, she’ll be satisfied if she’s able to change the attitude of just one person.
“People need to be open to us. We’re one society but diversity is all around us. It’s one of the founding principles of America,” she said. “My disability is only part of who I am. I hope I’ve been able to turn my disability into a positive and serve as an example, not just as a person with a disability, but as a human being.”
For more information on Minutello’s activities or the Ms. Wheelchair Florida pageant, visit her website.