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Kevin Fortunato
Kevin Fortunato

Your disabilities do not mean you can’t choose what you want to do with your life.

I have made it my mission to communicate to other young people like me. I do this in part by telling them about my personal journey:

I was almost 21 and I had no idea where I was going in life. With a dual diagnosis of “mild intellectual disability” and autism, I never felt like I had a voice, a choice or any idea what the future held.

Related: Willing, able and forgotten

The meetings for my Individualized Education Program in school were run by the adults. They were focused on what they wanted done. My voice wasn’t valued. Every time I spoke up, they didn’t listen. When they asked me what my purpose was, I said: “to live a life with a disability.”

Now, I think it is very sad that I could not see my strengths. I was in a program for students aged 18 to 21 that included learning through work. I didn’t enjoy the work experience because it had nothing to do with what I was good at or interested in. I didn’t think about making a transition because I understood transitions as something everyone went through, a part of life.

Then I met Chris Coulston, a self-advocate, youth leader and also a person with a disability.

Chris had a different perspective than the adults who were working with me. He understood what I’ve gone through and he shared his message, telling me: “You are not your disability; you are so much more.”


I saw that Chris was going after his own dreams and that he was like me — and I wanted that too.

Related: The ‘forgotten’ part of special education that could lead to better outcomes for students

I changed school programs and began working to become a preschool teaching assistant.

I feel like I am a new person. My whole world has changed.

I know that life is not just one straight road. Everybody goes through transitions. There are bumps, but there is help.

I’m not afraid. I’m in control and I’m committed.

I’m not afraid.

Everyone is special and unique. Even though a person might have a disability, they want to be seen for what they are capable of doing.

You will have hurdles and bumps along the way, but self-determination will help you get through each of these.

With Cheryl Fortunato and Ellen Coulston, Chris Coulston and I have formed “Team Empowerment” to help other students like us. For more information about Team Empowerment, click here.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.

Team Empowerment presenter and founder Kevin Fortunato is a student in the early childhood education program at TCHS Brandywine in Downingtown, Pa.

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