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Saturday, Nov 01, 2014

Ms. Wheelchair Florida embraces advocacy

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It takes plenty of gumption to say you want to be queen.

But that’s exactly what Laura-Lee Minutello conjured up inside herself a year ago, when she entered and won the title of Ms. Wheelchair Florida.

The 25-year-old college student believed she could handle the role of public speaker and advocate for people who use wheelchairs. Minutello’s motivation: to get people to stop staring at her and the wheelchair and to start asking questions.

“I don't want people to ever feel uncomfortable and not ask,” she says of her yearlong opportunity to provide perspective to people without disabilities.

In the past year, the Valrico resident has thrown out the first pitch at a Tampa Bay Rays game and met the governor. She completed an 8K wheelchair race and took a boxing lesson. One of her last official duties before handing over the title April 6 in St. Petersburg will be to visit her alma mater, Manatee High School.

The biggest thrill, she says, was competing at the Ms. Wheelchair America contest in Rhode Island. Both the state and national pageant focus on advocacy, achievement and communication. And meeting the 28 women in the competition – mothers, PhDs, professionals – was inspiring.

“I’ve never been around so many people who use chairs and are leaders in their community,” she says of the contest, which is for women ages 21 to 60 who use a wheelchair 100 percent of the time.

Somehow, this self-assured young woman says the experience of being Ms. Wheelchair Florida gave her even more confidence. She says she used to dream big. Now, she dreams bigger.

“To see so many other people out there surviving and thriving was amazing,” she says.

Minutello, born to a drug-addicted mother, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy after being adopted at the age of 2. Her adoptive mother, Marcia Minutello, says she and her husband refused suggestions to institutionalize the little girl.

Growing up, Minutello says she knew very few people who moved around the way she did in a wheelchair. As a result, she was so determined to be treated like everyone else she would gloss over her disabilities as much as possible.

Her email name summed it up: “I Am Just Laura Lee.”

But staying quiet had a tradeoff. Some people would ignore her, or they made assumptions about her abilities and intelligence, she says. Even board members of a camp for disabled children -- a group the University of Central Florida student served with when she was 19 – were guilty of underestimating her.

“Sometimes people assumed I had nothing to say,” she says.

Minutello realized she needed to embrace her own disability if she wanted attitudes to change. That meant making the most of opportunities to educate others.

She recalls meeting a UCF professor and his children one day on her way to class and answering their questions, and even giving the children a ride. That chance encounter evolved into dinner with the family and a priceless learning experience.

She’s also discovered the importance of serving as a role model. Two years ago, Minutello befriended Brooklynn Santos of Plant City. The 5-year-old girl with spinal muscular atrophy glows when she talks about Minutello, comparing her to her favorite Disney princess, Ariel.

But the little girl says she can relate more to her friend, the wheelchair princess. “I like that she drives, and I drive too,” Brooklynn says of their power wheelchairs.

That kind of role modeling won’t end when she hands over her title, Minutello says. Advocating for the disabled will always be a part of her life.

“I’ve gotten to the point where I’m confident enough,” she says. “I want to tell people that they can do whatever they want to.”

IF YOU GO

The Ms. Wheelchair Florida contest will be held April 5 and 6 at the Hilton St. Petersburg in Carillon Park, 950 Lake Carillon Drive. Tickets cost $10. For more information, visit www.mswheelchairfl.org.


mshedden@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7365

Twitter: @MaryShedden

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