Sarnia’s Rob Hughes knows a thing or two about challenges.
For 18 years he was a full-time para-athlete, training and travelling the world to compete in the Paralympics, Para PanAmerican games and Cerebral Palsy World Championships.
He won medals in shut putt, discus and javelin and set Canadian records that still stand.
But nothing in the sporting world prepared him for the challenges and disappointments of searching for a meaningful job after he left sport.
“I put 200 resumes out since college and only had a few interviews,” he said. “And I knew as soon as I met the employer at those interviews that they weren’t going to hire me.
“You just know. They look at you in your wheelchair and can’t see that you’re smart and competent.”
Hughes, 34, retired from athletics in August of 2016. By that time he’d earned college diplomas in e-commerce at Sheridan and in sports and rec administration at Lambton College.
He had work experience as a summer student at Lambton College in customer service, and as a 10-year volunteer statistical analyst for the Sarnia Sting.
Hughes, who has cerebral palsy, has strong computer skills, great interpersonal skills and, thankfully, an athlete’s perseverance.
Despite 200 potential employers turning him down he kept on trying.
Then he heard about a job opening at Lambton Elderly Outreach (LEO), the same agency that has provided him with transportation the past several years.
“Rob reached out to me on Facebook to say he was interested in a customer service position with us,” says Bill Yurchuk, CEO at Lambton Elderly Outreach.
“His timing was ideal as we were going through some restructuring.
“My first priority was his competence because it can be a stressful job. When I met Rob I could see he is competent and a very positive person,” Yurchuk said.
“Then, on hearing his story, I immediately knew this was a man who deserved a chance in the professional world. He has a very strong work ethic.”
On April 19, Hughes started as LEO’s transportation co-ordinator, scheduling 70 to 100 rides a day with 30 drivers for the organization’s 2,000 clients.
“I cried when Bill called to say I was hired,” admitted Hughes.
“I hung up the phone and I cried. I literally couldn’t believe that I’d caught my break.
“Yes, it’s a lot at first but I’ve never been so happy to have my mind stimulated and I’m not living in poverty anymore.”
He said he knows many people who collect disability and want to work but there’s too much stigma related to disabled persons.
He urges them to keep trying.
“Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there because eventually someone is going to see you for what you are,” Hughes said.
“In my opinion, there needs to be government standards that encourage hiring of people with physical and mental disabilities. Everyone should have the opportunity to work.”
Often all that’s required are small accommodations in the workplace, said Yurchuk.
“I believe it’s my social responsibility to provide Rob this opportunity. He learned the computer system in one day and proved he could do the job.”
LEO’s headquarters on London Line is an older building that isn’t ideal for a large wheelchair but a few small changes are making it possible. A fire extinguisher was relocated, a table moved and a coatrack lowered.
“It’s just the right thing to do,” said Yurchuk.