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Defenders for Human Rights
Rick Hansen

Rick Hansen Inclusion for All

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GRADE LEVELS = 5 to 12  /  SUGGESTED TIME = Five 60 minute class periods

“When you see something that’s not right, you have two choices. You can accept it and complain about it, or you can step up and do something.”

Rick Hansen had wheeled through 34 countries over a year and a half, propelling his chair with his hands, arms, and shoulders, when he faltered—overcome with a sense of defeat.

After support from millions in China, the silence in Florida, a state in his home continent, was deafening. It stung.

“I was done,” Rick says. “My journey was not just to say that I wheeled around the world, but to make a difference. I started to lose hope and faith that good things were going to happen.”

Amanda, the team physiotherapist and Rick’s girlfriend, wouldn’t accept his perceived failure. She looked him in the eye: “If you walk away now, you’ll never know.”

Rick got back into his wheelchair.

From that summer morning in 1986 to the spring of 1987, the Paralympian wheeled back home to British Columbia. He travelled up the east coast of the United States, and across Canada’s provinces.

The Man in Motion World Tour had been Rick’s journey around the globe to raise awareness for the potential of people with disabilities. Rick and his team had also raised $26 million for spinal cord research and programming.

“That conversation with my physio – my girlfriend and my best friend – was probably the most important support I could’ve ever received,” he says of Amanda, who he married soon after the tour. “Thank God for her, because I can’t imagine what would’ve not happened if I had given in to my sense of despair.”

Rick was 15 when his life changed.

In love with sport, Rick had dreamed as a young teenager of cycling the world with his friends and of competing in the Olympics. Eventually, he wanted to return to the classroom to be a physical education teacher.

Then, an early summer’s evening in 1973: Rick and a friend hopped in the back of a pick-up truck heading home to Williams Lake, B.C. The truck swerved off the road and into a tree, throwing Rick and his friend out.

His friend walked away. Rick never walked again.

The accident left him paralysed from the waist down, and unsure of what, if anything, was next. For a long time, dreams felt like a thing of the past.

“I would have sold everything for the use of my legs, even my soul, probably, because I had defined everything by that.”

After seven months of rehabilitation, Rick returned from Vancouver to Williams Lake. Stan Stronge, a 40-year paraplegic working as a counsellor for the Paraplegic Association, visited him there. Soon, he recruited Rick to his wheelchair basketball team.

“(Stronge) refused to surrender his soul, his love of life, his meaning and passion, and he was infectious,” Rick says. Stronge carried the advocacy bug, Rick says, and Rick has had it ever since.

For the first time, Rick realized his own resignation, to being limited because of his legs, needed to change.

“Without that personal growth, I might have been seduced into believing that it was okay to feel the same way about me and about others.”

Becoming aware of his own prejudice was the beginning. Determining how to combat it in other people began for Rick in his late teens. He wanted to help others see people with disabilities as whole people and empathize with their struggles.

It was with Stronge’s support that Rick started fresh. First, he finished his studies in education, and then he competed in the Paralympics. His next step was changing that dream of cycling the world with his friends. It became a dream of wheeling the world to raise awareness of the capabilities of people with disabilities, like or unlike his own.

“I had to really dig deep and understand that you can have pain or suffering or a physical disability and still be whole as a human being,” he says. “You can still have love and receive love and have meaning and purpose. You can still do all the things that you do in life and do it in a different way.”

Role models and teammates, Rick says, have been vital to his journey. He has needed help and inspiration as he has moved forward, in his words, “warts and all.”

Alongside Stronge was Rick’s physical education teacher who pushed him to continue to work at being an athlete and a teacher. His encouragement helped a dejected Rick fight his rejection from physical education programs because he couldn’t walk.

Another was Terry Fox, Rick’s friend, and a teammate he recruited to play wheelchair basketball. Watching Fox attempt his Marathon of Hope in 1980 motivated Rick more than ever to undertake his own, worldwide, tour in 1985.

During the tour, Rick appeared before millions of people. He propelled his wheelchair down roads across the world. Behind him was a trailer that read the “Man in Motion World Tour” with “Rick Hansen” across the top, at the trailer provider’s insistence.

“People don’t relate to slogans,” Jim Pattison told him. “They relate to people, and you’re bringing a message. People will want to relate to someone.”

Since, Rick has appeared before millions more. One of the highlights he mentioned was hosting 3,000 United Nations delegates in Vancouver to close out their Decade of the Disabled in 1992. Seeing people come from all corners of accessibility rights activism to make progress together has been inspiring.

“It makes the long journey worthwhile,” he says, “and it motivates you even though you get frustrated.”

It’s a journey that continues today, but being the Canadian face of accessibility rights has never been something that comes naturally. For Rick, It’s “what it has to be.”

“Hopefully, our global movement will continue long past my life, and keep getting stronger and move quicker as people find more innovative and powerful ways to come together.”

There are still barriers to be knocked down and challenges to be confronted. It will, he says – as in basketball and volleyball – depend entirely on teamwork.

“Currently, disability is fragmented by body part, condition or disease. For instance, maybe you have a spinal cord injury, or you're blind or you have ALS. Working in a fragmented system, it can be difficult to achieve transformation results for all people who have disabilities. However, if we work together toward a common goal of liberating potential for all by removing barriers, anything is possible.”

“According to the World Health Organization, there’s about 1.2 to 1.3 billion people living with a disability on this planet today. We’re kind of the world’s largest minority. We’d like the world to start seeing it that way.”

“There are moments of embarrassment. ‘How stupid.’ ‘How naïve.’ ‘How… whatever.’ There are moments of pride. ‘How solid.’ … As much of my progress has come through mistakes and self-reflection, self-awareness, as it has through just coming up with successes. I look back with a sense of amusement, and sometimes pride. ‘You go, guy.’”

“I’m more interested in defining some of the common barriers that are in the way of us achieving the Canada that we want, and then getting rid of the barriers. If many people can see themselves in that, the more the better, because there’s more power going forward.”