Alumni Spotlight: Kenneth Kelty

photo of Kenneth Kelty speaking at a conference.  he is holding a microphone and standing behind a lectern.

Kenneth Kelty is an award-winning motivational speaker and activist on his life with disabilities and exceeding beyond expectations. Kenneth is a proud alumni of The University Participants UP Program class of 2014 and after graduation he was recruited to represent Disability Advocacy in The Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities and Related Disorders. He was then invited to come back to be a fellow in The Maternal Child Health Bureau Leadership Consortium. He was the first Inclusive postsecondary education student to participate in a graduate level program. Kenneth is a well-respected activist and trailblazer in the higher education movement for people with disabilities. Rebecca Lazo had the privilege to interview Kenneth on September 1, 2020. 

In 2014, you wrote Belonging on Campus for Think College, and in that article you told us about your thoughts on inclusion and being included in college academics and different aspects of college life. Maybe you remember what you were feeling before you went to college and what you hoped to learn there?

We first heard about the UP program 8 years ago. My mom was looking online and found Think College website and learned about the UP program. I was very glad I was able to learn about the opportunity to really go to college. I was in a compensatory ed program for a little bit after graduating from HS maybe 10 years ago. I was very limited, with not a lot of opportunities for growth. I had to drop out and take a year off, due to some surgeries. And then I knew, and my mom knew, I was ready to go to college, and I was definitely looking forward to taking classes in criminal justice and political science and getting to have a college experience.

What made you decide about criminal justice and political science?

I took those classes because I have always loved watching the crime shows, Law & Order, SVU, and I definitely did love Legally Blonde. I know law school is very tough and I know a lawyer is not as glamorous as they make it look but I always thought the policy, that looks really cool. And I like the true crime documentaries. … I also took interior design class. That was pretty cool. And I took a pretty cool social justice and the law class. My final semester was criminal law.

What ways did you feel really included in college?

Well, definitely by living in a regular dorm with my peers and being able to choose classes of my own interest and not have it be limited (like the way the old model was). Being able to join clubs and organizations… Too, I was able to prove myself and I was able to pick and choose who I would eat with. But also being able to have control of my own schedule.

In high school, did you go to general education classes? Did you feel included in high school?

We moved to North Carolina in 2006. The high school in Florida was good [but] when I was in Florida, I could not graduate with a regular diploma. The high school here In Raleigh was great because I could earn my diploma, but I was not really included there, in some of the home ec classes and the computer apps course, but really not a whole lot of inclusion with my peers or not given a lot of opportunities for advancement.

So, you said you’re working for the Arc of the Triangle. The work that you do there, you’re mostly talking to other people with disabilities, do you talk about being included, making your own choices, what is most important for people with disabilities to know about?

I definitely think learning about self-determination, how you have a voice, how you have opportunities for growth is important to know, too. People with disabilities, they’re not given opportunities for dignity of risk. At the Arc of the Triangle, I am an administrative assistant but I also get to talk to other groups.

And do you belong to other organizations?

I am part of the AUCD network, and also a part of Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities, on their consumer advisory committee. And I’m very active with SEPSEA, and the NC one [the North Carolina Postsecondary Education Alliance]. I am also a part of, and stay very active in and follow, other places that promote self-determination.

Do you serve as a mentor to any younger students?

I wouldn’t really consider it a mentor, but I do think that I do help plant the seeds. I am part of Link 20 through the Ruderman Foundation, a group in Boston that helps promote inclusion and social justice.

Can you say how college helped you achieve your goals, or helped get you to where you are now?

It definitely helped me realize the potential and the self-determination that I have always had… and to have more opportunities for higher education. I do come from a family of lifelong learners, people who have been principals or guidance counselors, and it helped me realize more about my advocacy for doing public speaking and media, and helped me realize more about what I wanted to do. I love meeting new people, too.

Do you miss traveling and seeing people?

I miss traveling. It will be nice to travel and go to conferences in person again and see people.

Do you have any long-term goals? Are there things you hope to accomplish in the future that you haven’t done yet?

I definitely do hope to maybe try a degree program. And try to take college for credit. I am very active in the Toastmasters organization. There are chapters across the state. Because I do hope to become a more professional speaker where I can hopefully get paid, like Temple Grandin, and hopefully I can write books. I do hope to become an accredited speaker, and a certified speaking professional. And hopefully do more policy work and definitely become, maybe a media influencer. And maybe I could work with AUCD. And I just hope there will be more opportunities down the road.

Have you had a chance to meet Temple Grandin?

Yes, I actually met her in January 2016 at NC State… Her book helped my mom understand more about autism, when I was little. And the movie about her was great.

Kenneth, what advice would you give to students, say, 12-, 15-, 16-year-old students with disabilities are that in school?

Remember you continue learning throughout life. There are opportunities out there to go to college. Maybe after high school or down the road. And that you are in control of your life. And there are no limits in your potential.

How important would you say it is for a person to learn what they want or need, and then ask for that, or advocate for that?

It’s very important. What was important was being given opportunities, and being able to go to regular after-school programs, or summer camps, or being able to volunteer like I did at the Durham VA Medical Center. I know that helped a lot.

Did you do those things when you were in high school?

Well, I volunteered at the Durham VA while I was in high school. Actually, a friend was a nurse practitioner at the Durham VA, and there was a bring your kid to work day, and she loved her own kids, but she wanted to bring me. And while the other kids were talking or not doing anything, the director and the people there saw how I was interested. And that helped me to advance.

Any special message to parents of kids with disabilities?

It is important to remember that yes, that you always want (your kids_ to be safe, but don’t be too overly cautious. Remember let them fail, give them opportunities to have calculated risks in life, and let them be exposed as much as possible. Encourage them to get out of their comfort zone and look into opportunities. Nothing wrong to listening to professionals, but also know, too, there are other avenues to take.

Anything else you would like to share?

I am definitely very glad that I set a goal for postsecondary education and then go to UNC and represent disability advocacy.

I’m really glad I’ve had a chance to meet you and get to know you. I think you are a good example for professionals and parents and students to see as someone who has worked hard in college and continues to speak about how important it is for people with disabilities to use their voice and be heard, whether its to go to a college that they want to or have a job or network and work in public policy. I am grateful to have seen you as an example of what is possible.

And I’m also grateful to work with the postsecondary education journal. And I hope to get my book published someday. I just need to work on some edits. It’s about my experiences.

We’ll look forward to seeing you published someday, and then we’ll help market your book for you!

To nominate alumni for future columns, contact Rebecca Lazo at