Hector Del Valle, president of NSCIA’s Central Florida Chapter and participant in our upcoming Roll on Capitol Hill, demonstrates that we all have the ability to overcome adversity and create positive changes in our lives and communities.
It’s been over 30 years since Del Valle was in a drinking and driving accident that changed his life forever.
After a night out partying with friends, the then 17 year-old Del Valle, a student at Dover High School in New Jersey and captain of his gymnastics team, got behind the wheel drunk and high. It’s the last thing he remembered before hearing the crunch of twisted metal as firefighters cut him from the carnage. He would never walk again.
Since age 12, Del Valle used and abused a variety of drugs. But being paralyzed wasn’t a wake-up call–it just made him more dependent. Del Valle admits the drugs let him tune out his injury and the physical and emotional baggage that came along for the ride.
He continued using during rehab. Soon after, he gave a fervid speech from his wheelchair at his high school graduation. He spoke from the heart about his accident and drug use––while still fighting his demons. President Ronald Reagan heard about Del Valle’s speech and called him the next day to express how impressed he was. In 1985, he met Reagan in person during the president’s campaign to raise the drinking age to 21. His story quickly gained national attention.
“I was like a poster child for spinal cord injury,” says Del Valle. “Nobody realized I was still an addict.”
For 5 years his addiction raged. Meanwhile, egged on by the spotlight, he developed a passion for public speaking––visiting high schools across New Jersey to persuade kids to learn from his mistakes. But one thing he could never discuss was his recovery, because he hadn’t. Del Valle decided it was time to make changes in his life.
“It took a good 10 years to get out of the fog. I felt it was time to detach from friends and family that enabled my addiction and start focusing on me,” he says.
He also had to learn to accept his disability and the personal assistance it required in order to finish his education and pursue his career objectives.
“Finding an AA or substance abuse program in an accessible facility was tough back then. It’s not like today, where help is right at your fingertips on your iPhone or iPad.”
Del Valle has been clean since 1989 and uses his experiences to help others. He got his first taste of advocacy while working for an independent living center instructing Latino families about disability services. He then moved on to become a substance abuse counselor, something he still does to this day.
Del Valle now lives in Florida, where he’s earned a Master’s degree in Social Work and met the love of his life Jo Bennett. The couple married in 2011 and is currently spearheading efforts to bring more recreational activities and resources to Central Florida for wheelchair users.
“Florida is stereotyped as a retirement community, but there is a big wheelchair population here in need of support,” Del Valle explains.
Last year, Hector and Jo decided to start up their own NSCIA chapter in Central Florida to work toward that goal.
“We had met very friendly and energetic staff from United Spinal and NSCIA at events we attended and found out there was an opportunity for us to start our own chapter. We’re thrilled to work with the organization to help people with disabilities in Central Florida.”
Del Valle’s mission at Roll on Capitol Hill is to raise awareness about the issues affecting people with disabilities in his state.
“Orlando is on the list of top 20 wheelchair friendly cities. But many people with disabilities in Central Florida are completely forgotten. We need greater access to the community and more rights.”
When it comes to changing policies Del Valle believes people with disabilities need to think outside the box.
“The most productive way we can make a difference is by sharing our personal stories and the challenges we’ve overcome. We all have a voice and it’s time to use it to our advantage.”