It’s been 30 years since Rick Hansen’s riveting journey -- one that spanned 40,000 kilometres and 34 countries over the course of two years -- during which he raised $26 million for spinal cord research.
The Canadian Paralympian’s latest book, “Man in Motion” details his journey and celebrates strength, courage, and community.
Hansen spoke with CTV National News Chief Anchor and Senior Editor Lisa LaFlamme to talk about his renowned Man in Motion tour and the social and political progress made in building a more accessible world.
LaFlamme: I can’t believe it’s 30 years, can you?
Hansen: Hard to believe, Lisa. It’s gone by so fast, and yet looking back it’s still such a special memory, and it’s actually a little bit of a different perspective as well and that’s why we decided to do this book is to pay tribute to the amazing team and the power of community to help a young kid from Williams Lake or anyone who has a dream.
See for us, people like me and most people watching this, it was about being on a curb in some city or town across this country and cheering you on, but the book conveys the hell that unfolded -- how many times you wanted to quit because of the wind and the rain and the struggle.
Yeah there were some really dark times. You know, you have this dream of how it’s going to be and then off you go, and then the first brick wall hits you like, all of a sudden the winds are in your face, and it’s zero degrees and raining, and you’re injured with tendonitis and you can barely think of the end of the day, let alone the tour. Then comes just in front of you the Siskiyou Mountain range, which is a 5,000-foot summit and you need desperate help and in comes the cavalry and Amanda, the physiotherapist, who changed the outcome of the tour and, of course, my life, becoming my wife.
The Amanda story is so beautiful -- that this is the woman who was your physiotherapist when you were an athlete, a wheelchair athlete. People may not remember though, and I want you to take us back to the 15-year-old boy and the day this all started.
I was hitchhiking home from a fishing trip -- wide-eyed, bushy-tail, filled with optimism, wanted to represent my country one day at the Olympic games, hopefully. I got a ride in the back of a pick-up truck and the guy crashed and rolled over, shattered my spine, damaged my spinal cord, and I was told I’d never walk again.
Would that boy have ever envisioned the man today, and what you’ve accomplished?
You know Lisa, I probably would’ve sold my soul for the use of my legs. I thought my whole life had been washed up, hopes and dreams shattered, and couldn’t see anything except loss, despair. Really, I had all these built-in, intrinsic biases about what it was like to have a disability, and so I thought it was about something and someone to be pitied, no hope or possibilities to lead a meaningful life. So I needed to literally start from ground zero, and needed role models to come in to show me the way, I needed family, friends, and community to support me during tough times. I realized that ultimately it’s not what happens to you, it’s what you do with it that counts. And nowhere in the definition of being an athlete does it say you have to use your legs in order to be one.
We are all blessed this week in Toronto to be watching exactly that unfold, with the wounded warriors and Invictus Games, and I know you’re an ambassador for the games, but you are also a role model for all those men and women competing this week.
Well it comes full circle because as a kid, the Paralympic sport movement was actually formed by returning veterans from WWII, and it gave me this hope and possibility. Now I’m able to come back and to encourage that next generation of service men and women who’ve paid the ultimate price and encourage them to keep going, and they’re encouraging each other, and they’re also pushing forward on social change and that’s the spirit that you love to see. And it’s what my mission is for my whole life, which is to help people see that when barriers are removed, anything is possible.
I can’t help but think when we watch these athletes from around the world coming to Invictus Games, airports today, pretty much everywhere, there is wheelchair accessibility. But for you–
When we started, yeah, the world was very large, disconnected, and inaccessible. And that was the reason why I started the Man in Motion tour. As a Paralympic athlete, everything was a struggle: the attitude of others; the physical barriers; taxis wouldn’t stop for you; you could barely get into an airplane if you were lucky; Hotels? Forget it – gymnasiums or tracks. And so, expressing that with my colleagues, we had this level of frustration but rather than complain about it, it was like, well do something about it. And pay it forward. Take your talent, get a dream, do something that would make a difference. And that’s how the Man in Motion tour was formed and it was a naive attempt to create a movement but at least we did our best to make a baby step forward. Yeah, we’re really proud of the community that’s continued since the end of the tour to keep pushing forward one change at a time and when an airport is accessible for the next generation, you feel a sense of motivation and accomplishment that we’re getting there.
I know that for you growing up in Williams Lake, you were the only kid in a wheelchair. Today, you look at our population now, the aging Baby Boomers, it is very familiar -- one in seven, or something like that.
That’s right, well over 4 million adults with disabilities, and by 2035 it’ll be one in five with aging Boomers., and it’s not just people in wheelchairs. It’s people with varying disabilities – visual, hearing, mobility -- those invisible disabilities that you can’t see but are equally or even more devastating. And what we need to do is reframe our view of what we think accessibility for all is -- maybe even our symbols of disability are no longer the stick man in a wheelchair -- a person in motion that anyone could be expressive if barriers were removed. That’s the evolution that’s taking place. And I think that with that comes more attention, more responsibility, because it’s not just a charitable issue or a human rights issue, it’s an economic and cultural imperative, and Canada has to stay sustainable and we need everybody on board playing their role, doing their part.
And politically, where do you think we are in this country as far as measuring up in change.
You know that’s the key, isn’t it? I mean, we have great words, beautiful words in our constitution -- the most progressive constitution in the world about including people with disabilities as equals. But we’re relatively light in translating that to bedrock legislation and law as a social safety net.
Where does it fall short?
It fell short because what you don’t see is, you don’t see every province in the country with progressive legislation. Every municipality anchored, every element of the federal government -- although the good news is, the federal government is committed to bring that forward this year. This year, that’s 35 years post the declaration of our constitution. So, we need that in place, so that there’s that security that this is the cost of the values that we state, and they have meaning. And then, we can’t be caught in today’s minimum standards because they become tomorrow’s handicaps. So let’s drive forward. And measuring up, allows us to make a statement like this: “In 30 years, Canada will be completely accessible.” So let’s measure up and find out objectively where we are, and then let’s drive forward and incent the whole nation to be able to do that. And the minimal cost of doing that will be completely offset by the amazing infusion of capacity financial, cultural, and human wealth. And so, that’s my vision.
You are absolutely the man we know from the last 30 years, you are the man to carry that message forward, and I thank you so much for joining us today. It’s always an honour.