By Savanna Peterson
Laura-Lee Minutello of Valrico isn’t your average 24-year-old. Minutello is an advocate for Americans with disabilities, a public speaker and was crowned Miss Wheelchair Florida on June 30.
Miss Wheelchair Florida is not a beauty pageant, but an opportunity for women in wheelchairs to advocate for the 54 million Americans with disabilities. The winner is chosen based on her level of achievement and then becomes a spokeswoman.
Minutello’s platform for Miss Wheelchair Florida is “Dare to be Different.” She hopes to inspire others to accept and embrace differences that exist in all people. This is her second year participating and first year winning.
“Since she won, she has really taken the bull by the horns,” said Marcia Minutello, Laura Lee’s mother.
Since crowning, Laura-Lee has volunteered as a “Special Angle” for Give Kids the World (Located near Orlando’s attractions and gives sick kids and families free vacations), she also met with Mike Hansen, director of agency for Persons with Disabilities- Florida and Kareem Dale, Special Advisor to the President of the United States of Disability policy. On Monday, August 6 through Sunday, August 12 she will travel to Providence, Rhode Island to compete against 30 other states for the Miss Wheelchair America title.
Laura-Lee started her life of advocacy at a young age. She was born in Brooklyn, New York to a substance abusing mother. As a result, she had cerebral palsy and was adopted by the age of 2.
“She started advocated at age 4 when she was a poster child for cerebral palsy (of Soffolk County), she would go to high schools and get up in the room and tell them don’t do drugs, this is what happens when you are pregnant and do drugs,” said Marcia Minutello.
By the age of seven Laura-Lee was living in Florida and her and her family helped make drastic changes at Busch Gardens. The park was already Americans for Disabilities compliant, (ADA); however, Laura Lee had a hard time finding activities to do, especially in Land of the Dragons.
“There was nothing for Laura to do (Land of the Dragons), she could just sit and watch the show,” said Marcia.
The family met with Donnie Mills, now the chief operating officer for Busch Gardens and Sesame Place in Orlando. He walked through the park with Laura Lee and she gave him ideas on improvements for the park. Thanks to Laura Lee, Busch Gardens re-designed their train and added a lift. They also changed the seating policy for disabled visitors and their families and made a play area with toys that were handicap accessible.
“He made changes and did way more than needed,” said Marcia.
Laura Lee also volunteers with the Easter Seals, United Cerebral Palsy and Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. At the age of 19 she served as the youngest (and sole disabled) member of the board of directors for the Florida Lions camp for the disabled.
Laura Lee and Marcia are also co-founders of a nonprofit support organization for families with disabled members.
“We started with youngsters and we got to a point where we started to address older kids and adults,” said Marcia.
In her free time Laura Lee enjoys reading, playing guitar and training for a 15K run. Due to an injury she took time off from school but will finish her degree at the University of South Florida in the fall.