Vevay’s Ralph Oliver seeks a ‘hand up’, not a ‘hand out’ when looking for work

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It’s a difficult economic time for everyone, but for Vevay’s Ralph Oliver, looking for work is made more difficult by the physical issues that he has. Still, each day he works hard – trying to find work.

“I’m just trying to stay busy,” Ralph Oliver says. “I’ve belonged to Vocational Rehabilitation for quite a few years. They’ve provided me with equipment and things like that; and I also work with River Valley Resources, who are trying to help me find a job. Things are tight out there.”

People around Vevay have seen Ralph Oliver – even if they don’t know his name. He moves around the community in a motorized wheelchair; and is a regular at the Switzerland County Public Library and other places around Vevay.

Ralph Oliver worked at the U.S. Shoe Factory for 15 years; but that all changed on April 14th, 1991.

On that day, he was wrestling with a friend when he was thrown over the friend’s shoulder. Landing on the back of his neck, Ralph Oliver, shoving his C3 and C4 vertebrae into his spinal column, paralyzing him.

“We were just wrestling hard,” Ralph Oliver says. “It was just being bone headed, just fouling around.”

He was 35 when the accident happened, and since that time he has worked hard to maintain his independence and earn his own way.

“It took me a long time to come back after the accident,” Ralph Olive said. “It took a long time. It takes several years for your body to adjust to a spinal cord injury. I’ve had surgeries on top of surgeries.”

But even with his physical issues, he’s continued to try and market himself for work.

“I went to college,” he says. “It went to Ivy Tech for two years and got a technical certificate in medical assistance. It hasn’t been very fruitful there.”

Making the job search even more difficult – as it is for everyone – is that rising gas prices make it more difficult to justify leaving the community and traveling to another city for employment, so he’s hoping to find work here in the county.

“I’m just trying to get a local job,” He says. “Anything I can get.”

Ralph Oliver has heard all sorts of reasons and issues during his job search, but he looks you right in the eye and is very clear about his abilities.

“Sometimes people see the wheelchair and they think I can’t do the job,” He says. “How do they know what I can do? I’m not helpless. I know I have my limitations, but I can work on a computer. I drive. I can write. There are so many things I can do. I know my limitations, but I want people to focus on what I can do.”

If he could speak directly to those hiring for positions when it comes to considering people with disabilities, Ralph Oliver says that when employers see those with disabilities, first and foremost they need to see a person who wants to work, just like everyone else.

“I worked at the sheriff’s department for a month through the ‘Experience Works’ program,” Ralph Oliver said. “It was just four weeks and gave me some experience. I was handling non-emergency phone calls; and at times I did some other things, one step at a time.”

Ralph Oliver said that budget cuts have kept him from getting a part-time job with the sheriff’s department; and he noted that Kevin Hayes at the Communications Department has helped him contact organizations such as the Christopher Reeves Foundation to check on the availability of funds that could help underwrite hiring someone with a disability.

Even in government programs, such as the ‘Experience Works’ program that helped him work at the sheriff’s office, are experiencing budget cuts. He said that he’s been told that cuts in the program will mean 100 people being let go from the program, making it even more difficult for him to keep the contacts that he has developed to help him find work.

So when he goes out to look for a job, not only is he competing with others who are also looking for a job, but he’s also competing against the misconception that his disability may put in the minds of those doing the hiring.

“I’m not looking for anyone to give me anything, other than a job,” Ralph Oliver says. “I just want a chance to show people that I can work and I want to work and that I’ll work hard. I don’t want them to focus on the wheelchair. I want them to focus on what I can do for them.”