For most Canadians, and for many around the world, Rick Hansen is a household name.
The disability advocate gained international recognition for his 1985-1987 Man In Motion World Tour, which saw him push his wheelchair 40,000 km through 34 countries and raise $26 million for spinal cord injury research. Since then he has been recognized with countless accolades for his charitable work and his tireless efforts to remove barriers worldwide for people with disabilities.
And on June 7, he will add another accolade to his list: an honorary doctorate degree from Athabasca University.
“To me it’s not a personal achievement, although I get to step into the spotlight and receive it,” Hansen said. “To me it’s a reflection of progress over all these decades on the ultra-marathon of social change.”
Injury and inspiration
When he was first injured at 15 years old after the truck he was riding in crashed, Hansen said it was a long process for him to realize what a spinal cord injury would mean for his own life and to realize he could hold on to hope and possibility rather than loss and pity.
He graduated high school, became involved with Paralympic sport, and worked with teachers and coaches who helped him to understand that life could continue.
Along the way he met many people who inspired him—including his former Paralympic teammate Terry Fox, whose own Marathon of Hope in 1980 captured national attention—and he ultimately decided to pair his athletic ability with his desire to make a difference.
“There was no magic moment, really, but by the time I had decided to wheel around the world I had already taken baby steps to reclaim my life,” Hansen said. “I had to overcome my own biases of disability, and then also re-educate, reframe, and start moving slowly forward.”
The role of education
Hansen’s own experience in post-secondary was not exactly straightforward, but he was able to break down the barriers in front of him and become the first person with a disability to earn a bachelor of physical education from the University of British Columbia (UBC).
He had been inspired by his own physical education teacher and coach, Bob Redford, to apply to the program, and wanted to be a teacher and coach himself. Unfortunately, he was initially turned down for the physical education program, and admitted into the bachelor of arts program instead. With encouragement from his coach, he convinced the physical education department that he was the right person to enter their program. He was eventually admitted and it set the precedent for others with a disability to enroll.
“My learnings in post-secondary education were incredibly powerful and transformative, and that helped shape my destiny as an athlete and as a leader, and ultimately it helped reinforce my mission to wheel around the world,” he said.
Hansen finished his degree right before leaving on his tour, and upon returning, he worked with UBC to help make the university more accessible—not just physically, but also to help create a culture where barriers were removed by default, rather than forcing students to self-advocate the way he had to.
“The key was to systematize it and create an entity at UBC who could work not just with students but with faculty and staff and try to change the culture, and also identify barriers and enable solutions,” he said. “It was wonderful on the back end of the tour to come back not as a student but as a thought leader and someone who wanted to make the university better.”
Hansen’s appreciation and respect for the lifelong process of learning has continued to this day, regardless whether that learning happens in an academic context or through experience.
“What I have learned is education is life long, and ultimately my experience with education has been much greater than the sum of the individual academic components,” he said. “It’s being able to create a discipline, the ability to self-regulate, and to follow through. To be open, to be a critical thinker, to be a collaborator, and ultimately to not just spot problems but maybe do the hard work of understanding how to be part of the solution.”
And no one could argue that he hasn’t been a huge part of the solution.
Hansen said he is proud of all the volunteer and advocacy work he has done over the years, but for him, high on that list is his work with spinal cord injury research through the Rick Hansen Institute.
“I’m really proud of the Institute, which is focused on finding cures for people with spinal cord injury,” he said. “It has essentially created a global platform with collaborators from around the world. They standardized the language of spinal cord injury research and care and they have standardized the measurement in a global platform.”
And while the work on the research side is important, the work done through the Rick Hansen Foundation to support people with disabilities has also made a big difference in countless people’s lives through its various initiatives.
Most recently, the foundation has been working to improve accessibility for people with disabilities affecting their mobility, vision and hearing through the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification™ (RHFAC) program. RHFAC is a rating system that uses trained professionals to evaluate the meaningful access of commercial, institutional, and multi-unit residential buildings and sites. By getting engineers, architects, planners, and advocates all trained using the same standardized language, metrics, and approach, a national measurement is created and universal design principles becomes the standard rather than an afterthought.
“Then you don’t end up with the incredible complexity, subjectivity and back-end consideration on compliance, seeing it as an inconvenience instead of something that’s so vital to our culture and economy: including everyone to get maximum value out of our customers, our employees, or our society,” Hansen said.
While he already has accomplished a great deal, by anyone’s standards, he said he is still focused on what more he can do rather than what he has already done.
“I think the key for me is to pass on the gratitude and essentially the inspiration that this is to me, and to the work we do,” he said. “I just feel as a result of this kind of recognition, that hopefully it will inspire others, but I know it has inspired me and helps me to believe my best work is still in front of me.”