Judge of his own court

From the Paralympic Games to corporate success, Justin Govender’s journey has been one of overcoming setbacks and embracing growth and inspiration. JEAN-LUC HARDY explains.

At the young age of 17, Justin found himself facing an entirely new world after having his ability to walk stripped from him. In 1995, he was shot in the back and was paralysed from the chest down. Now, 22 years later, he is able to reflect on the experiences that moulded him into the person he is today and all the achievements that have come with it.

Justin, now 39, is fully integrated into South Africa’s corporate world at E for Exec Recruitment as a specialist consultant. Long before he found himself in this position, he had made a name for himself hurtling down many a wheelchair basketball court. Today, having represented the country in two Paralympic Games, in addition to being an all-African gold medallist, he has contributed significantly to the sport that helped him through many of his own trials.

After his injury, Justin had to adapt to a way of life that was dramatically different to his previous lifestyle. Suddenly, now in a wheelchair, he had to go through a strenuous rehabilitation process – a “trial by fire” – to get used to the new body he found himself in.

“I was forced to grow up in a short space of time; I become a baby all over again and at the age of 17 had to face all the changes my body went through; every day was different and presented a challenge,” says Justin. Relationships, too, were bound to be put under strain.

“I didn’t want to accept the fact that I had a disability. I believed I was going to walk again. But I was scared to leave the house and I was more embarrassed than anything to be in a wheelchair,” he explains. He lost a few relationships along the way, because he was now on a different path.

Another trial awaited him – how would he deal with his working future, given his new physical limits? As anyone with a physical impairment knows, integrating oneself efficiently into any working environment can present a challenge. South Africa was going through many changes at this time and the integration of people with disabilities into the workplace was only a secondary concern.

For Justin, although having a job was necessary, he soon had greater things in mind…

He was invited to watch a game of wheelchair basketball by a friend who also had a physical disability. Coming from a sporting background, he was immediately interested – and astonished at what he saw. He watched these individuals move in a way he never thought possible. Fascination turned into an excitement to get involved himself.

“A player collided with someone and went flying off his chair onto the court. My father and I looked at each other in shock. I thought: ‘Gosh, I don’t think I’d ever be able to handle that.’ What he did next, though, was to pick himself up, get back in his chair and recover the ball. I think, for me, that was the biggest moment in my life: it taught me the lesson that it’s not how many times you fall down, but how many times you get up,” Justin says.

He worked hard and persevered to create opportunities for himself, and his achievements through sport were beyond his wildest dreams.

Things change, of course, and after a celebrated sporting career he still had to find a full-time job. This time around, though, he had a more positive attitude towards searching for a suitable career.

“There are many characteristics that I learned I could take from the sports field into the workplace – the skills are transferable,” Justin explains. After working for a bank, he became a specialist consultant. He now has the ability to give other people with disabilities a great career opportunity.

“It’s time corporate South Africa changed its perceptions, because a contribution in the workplace can be made by both abled athletes and those with disabilities,” he says.

Plans for the future? He wants to assist in establishing the specialist division, E for Enabled, to promote the employment of people with disabilities in positions where they can make active contributions.

His aim is also to instil a sense of self-confidence in people with physical disabilities, so they can realise that there is nothing to stop them from succeeding in the workplace.

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