Rochelle Perucca, a Fulbright Scholar, psychotherapist and a college professor for the past 35 years, was intimately aware from a very young age of the challenges faced by people with disabilities.
“My father was an invalid,” Rochelle says, “and brain surgery that was intended to help him actually made matters far worse.” With her unique perspective, Rochelle loved working with people who had disabilities. She volunteered with Abilities United matriarch Betty Wright in the 1960s, and also worked as an interpretive ranger with people who are deaf and blind in a groundbreaking program at Rocky Mountain National Park.
Then one day some thirty years ago, Rochelle, a very active athlete, went from being a supporter of people with disabilities, to having a disability herself. “I had a rock climbing accident,” she says. “In the blink of an eye, my life changed, and for seven years I couldn’t walk.”
After her accident, she returned to what is now Abilities United as a client, and for thirty years she has made aquatic therapy at the Betty Wright Swim Center a very important part of her life. “In the pool I have a freedom of movement that I don’t have on land,” she says. “The pool is the only place where I can have a full range of motion. In the pool my pain is dispersed, and I’m then calmer, more comfortable, and can sleep better.”
The joy that Rochelle gets at the pool is not only limited to the physical comfort it brings. “People at the pool are my family; when I’m there I help everyone I can. It’s a wonderful place. I love inspiring others, and helping them and seeing them progress. I like to help them find value in their own lives and stretch their own limits.”
Rochelle also has an important message for others. “I struggled as a child with the biases and limitations that people impose on those of us who have a disability. There’s a stigma, an attitude; people try to ignore you as if you’re not there. We are just like you! Please accept us, try to understand us as well as you are able. Be kind to us and treat us as you would want to be treated if you were in our shoes.”
In her lifetime, Rochelle has seen how services for people with disabilities have progressed. “The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was a game-changer; it opened doors and gave us a foothold. It opened the eyes of the rest of the world that we are here.” She adds a heartbreaking comment difficult for most of us to imagine, about the days before ADA: “I remember going to the bathroom at Macy’s and having to sit on the floor for a couple hours because nobody happened to come in to let me out. There were many things like that; it didn’t just happen once.”
It takes three hours out of Rochelle’s day to come to Abilities United, but she feels it is time very well spent. “For me, Abilities United is a lifesaver. Abilities United embraces people with disabilities in a way that I hope the world can evolve to. It brings love, generosity and understanding to people who might otherwise be thwarted by the world. It’s an oasis of hope.”
At Abilities United we are honored by Rochelle’s kind words, and we are inspired by her amazing strength and spirit.
Based on a 2013 interview with Rochelle Perucca. Written by Bob Thomas and edited by Rochelle Perucca and Wendy Kuehnl.