Laura-Lee Minutello, Ms. Wheelchair Florida 2012, said the Brandon area is a fairly comfortable and accommodating place.
“The biggest struggle here and in any suburban area is transportation,” said the Valrico resident.
Restaurants, too, can be problematic.
But most businesses are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, “or try to be,” said the 24-year-old. “ADA is the minimum standard. It doesn’t always work.”
She finds the best approach is to be open and positive, letting business owners know what is needed and why.
“Most people just need to be educated, and once they understand, they’re willing to make changes,” she said. “If you have an honest conversation with them, most area businesses will do anything they can to help.”
It surprised her to discover that local gyms – particularly Brandon Sports and Aquatics Center, the Campo Family YMCA and Title Boxing Club – are some of the most accessible places in town.
This especially benefits people with challenges, she said. A sedentary lifestyle can lead to problems for anyone, and exercise is imperative for people with limited mobility.
But not many people with disabilities use the facilities, said Minutello.
There’s “a lot of fear about things we don’t understand,” she said. “Fear goes both ways: those of us with extra challenges are afraid to ask; we may meet resistance; the answer may be no,” and individuals and businesses may be hesitant to work with people with challenges.
People’s disabilities need to be more visible, she said.
“To get rid of the fear, you just have to put yourself out there and be willing to be the voice for others,” she said. “It starts with saying, I want to do this, and I have to do it in a different way. Sometimes it’s asking for help; sometimes it’s just showing people it can be done.”
She recommended people first determine their interests, strengths and limitations.
For instance, she said if you like tennis, go to a tennis court and ask if they will work with someone in a chair.
“I’m not aware of many local programs specifically designed for adults with disabilities,” she said, “but maybe those things could be started if more people in the area asked those questions.”
Change comes one person at a time, not through laws and big movements, but in hearts and attitudes, she said.
Minutello, as Ms. Wheelchair Florida, stepped out of college this year to advocate for people with disabilities. After passing the tiara to the 2013 winner April 6, she plans to finish school and become a policymaker, perhaps in a capital city, to help people with disabilities, homeless individuals and others.
“If I can change one person and their attitude toward somebody with a disability, then I’ll have done my job,” she said.