Robert Pio Hajjar was born on December 3 – the International Day for People with Disabilities. This holds special significance for Robert, because he was also born as someone who has Down Syndrome.
At 35 years old, Robert has already lived a life fuller than most, despite early predictions from doctors that he wouldn’t even be able to so much as walk or talk. But walk and talk he does.
As the founder of a charity that raises awareness for people with developmental disabilities, Robert is a voice for his peers.
“I’m sending a very important message for people with disabilities,” he explains. “We are just like you.”
Robert started his charity over 10 years ago with his entire life savings of $62.05. That money now sits in a frame as a reminder of how far he’s come. Robert speaks regularly at venues across North America – to elementary schools and high schools, colleges and universities, and a variety of corporate functions. He is in constant demand, and it’s easy to see why.
Full of personality and vibrancy, people are naturally drawn to Robert and his story. Tears can usually be seen in the crowd when Robert explains how doctors told his parents to put him away and forget about him.
“They said I would not do what other kids do. They painted a very sad picture of my life and my future.”
But Robert’s life has been anything but sad. And that’s thanks to amazing family, friends and community that have supported, included and believed in him from day one.
“I took a little longer to do things,” he explains, “but each step was a victory for me and everyone around me.”
Robert learned how to swim when he was young, going on to break a Special Olympics record in freestyle swimming as a teenager. He continues to swim every day at his local Canada Games Aquatic Centre, where just about everyone knows him by name.
“We had a swim meet at the aquatic centre this month and I was just so fast,” he says proudly. “And I said to one of my coaches that, ‘I’m not going to leave here until I get the first place,’ so I got the first place.”
Robert also goes bowling regularly with friends at Fleetway Bowling, where he is known to get several strikes per game and is a fierce competitor, when he’s not preoccupied practicing his dance moves.
“Every time they put songs on, I just get down. I dance and boogie all the time,” he says. “And then after that I just get right at it – get the ball and throw it.”
Robert’s fun-loving attitude has allowed him to overcome many challenges over the years and not take life or himself too seriously. He often tells people that if he can do it, they can do it. And with all that he’s accomplished, that’s a message that resonates.
“I’m so proud of who I am,” he says. “And that’s one of the things I always say in my speech every time. See me first and then my disability. Or just see me.”
For those that have chosen to just see Robert, the person, the benefits speak for themselves. They’ve gained a lifelong friend who is vivacious, funny and full of ability, and most of all, they’ve gained some valuable insight into the importance of inclusion.
“Being a friend to someone like me is a life-changing experience,” Robert says. “People like me will help you grow. We will help you become better people. You will learn so much about yourself.”