March is Disability Awareness Month. In honor of this, our guest blogger is self-advocate, Kenneth Kelty.
Guest Blogger: Kenneth Kelty, award winning motivational speaker and activist on his life with disabilities and self determination. Kenneth is very passionate about disability activism and inclusive higher educational opportunities for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
I am Kenneth Kelty and I live in Orange County, NC. I am a professional speaker and disability advocate both on a local and national level. I am a person with autism, intellectual and developmental disability (I/DD) and other disabilities.
During my school years I was aware of people making decisions for me.
Before entering the 5th grade, I knew I wanted to be on safety patrol and go to Washington DC with my friends and explore DC. I knew it was a goal and I wasn’t asking for any special favors. What made me start wanting to be on safety patrol was that I had older friends who did it and they went to DC. I wanted that same experience.
Without considering my thoughts as a person with disabilities the school decided that I would not benefit by being able to go to Washington, DC or gain meaningful experiences by being with same age peers. They really didn’t think I would be able to benefit or learn from the trip by going to the museums.
As I did get older and into high school, even though my reading and academic skills were nowhere like they are today, I wanted to be able to advance my learning by being able to take some more advanced courses. But because of how the OCS (Occupational Course of Study) program was, I was only able to take OCS classes. I was only exposed to the basic (level 1) classes like home economics, computer, and other basic courses. There was no real ladder to being able to advance to level two classes. I wanted to take an advanced theater course and learn more about sewing and fashion design; I wanted to take a class that was more advanced about the holocaust and WWII.
Also, the OCS program is more about work, and the only work experience I was given was around washing dishes, wiping down tables, and working in a grocery store.
In April of 2007 a family friend who worked at the Veteran’s Administration (VA), during a bring your kid to work day, she brought me to work. The director of the voluntary services noticed I was asking questions and that I was interested, and I wanted to be there. That opened the door for me at the Durham VA medical center, where I learned how I could do more office work, like answering telephones, the patient call bell and transporting patients around to their different appointments.
During my middle and high school years, going to college was never talked about in any individualized education program (IEP) meetings. Fortunately my mom was able to learn about higher education opportunities for people with IDD. I decided to apply to the inclusive post-secondary, UP Program at Western Carolina University (WCU) and I got in.
If you don’t know about it, then you don’t know how to think about it.
I didn’t think about how there were others who might want to have their own control until I went to the University Participant (UP) Program. When I was in UP, I thought more about advocating for decision making. My second semester at WCU I was able to participate in a participatory evaluation project with the UP faculty to see about making the campus membership more inclusive and about self-determination by taking more control of our own schedules and life.
During my time in the UP Program, I was able to take classes of interest in criminal justice and political science. I knew I wanted to continue to take classes of interest and work towards higher education after graduation. I went into the Leadership Education in Neuro-developmental and Related Disorders (LEND) Program at UNC Chapel Hill.
Until The UP Program or LEND I never would have imagined becoming a motivational speaker and disability advocate. By being given meaningful educational and career opportunities through the UP and LEND programs I knew that I did not want to return to the traditional path of nowhere.
Five weeks before the pandemic I moved into my first apartment in Chapel Hill after five years of being on the waitlist. I was really excited to say that I would be closer to UNC and to get more involved with the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at UNC.
After I moved back to be with my family during the pandemic, I knew that when I returned that I wanted to have a dog with me since I have always grown up with a rescue dog. I am proud to say that I have had two different dogs with me in my apartment who I have named Holly and Archie.
Because of the support and opportunities, I am now working for The Arc, and at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities as a Disability Advocate. By working with people I have gotten opportunities to expand and advance.
As I get older instead of decisions being made for me, my family and community are working with me to achieve my goals.
One day my mentor Anna Ward and I were talking about creating a podcast that is focused around people with I/DD who are “Exceeding Expectations” and who are trailblazers on a local or national level, very much like the “Tuesdays with Liz” series through the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD). Starting this podcast, called “Exceeding Expectations, with Kenneth Kelty,” has helped with expanding my audience and platform to be able to talk more about disability advocacy. It has given me professional connections, speaking opportunities, and further expanded my creativity and knowledge.
I see the podcast as an accessible way to share important information about disability advocacy, rights, and representation that ties into the theme, “Nothing about us without us!”