Rick Hansen 20 Years Later

Rick Hansen 20 Years Later

The man's got charisma. Rick Hansen, who turns 50 in August this year, rolls forward to speak into the microphone, sending the crowd into cheers. The crowd is as loud as any this Man in Motion heard at the peak of his round-the-world wheelchair tour 20 years ago.

The man’s got charisma. Rick Hansen, who turns 50 in August this year, rolls forward to speak into the microphone, sending the crowd into cheers. The crowd is as loud as any this Man in Motion heard at the peak of his round-the-world wheelchair tour 20 years ago.

Since then, Hansen has done much to overcome incredible shyness and personal frustration in order to challenge society’s perception of what is possible for someone with spinal cord injury. He is an incredibly positive role model.

“Rick Hansen is not only an icon, he is a true hero,” says Jordan, a grade 10 student in Delta, BC, who heard Hansen speak recently. “He showed me that anything is possible.”

Hansen has led a lifetime campaign to inspire us to believe in the possibility of a fully accessible, inclusive society and a cure for spinal cord injury. As head of the Rick Hansen Foundation, he has helped raise awareness of the potential of people with disabilities, advanced spinal cord research, and established International Collaboration on Repair Discoveries (ICORD), the largest spinal cord injury research facility in the world. He has also established an annual Wheels In Motion event, which has funded more than 500 quality-of-life projects to date.

Life-Changing Moment

He’s come a long way from Williams Lake and the injury in 1973 that left him paralyzed from the waist down–at age 15. Tossed from the box of an out-of-control pickup truck while hitchhiking, Hansen spent months in the Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster. This was followed by even more months in rehab at the GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre in Vancouver, where he began to accept the physical and emotional realities of his injury. It took a long time for Hansen to accept the wheelchair, though.

Road to Acceptance

Hansen used crutches and leg braces throughout most of his first year at university and while living in Haida House at the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Totem Park residence. As a student living in the same residence, I’d see Hansen swinging his braced legs through the cafeteria, maneuvering his tray ahead of him in line, and then walking in that herky-jerky way of a man on prostheses towards a cafeteria table to join a group of friends–mostly girls, I noted.

It was only later that I realized the determination it took for Hansen to appear upright in braces and out of the wheelchair. “The person wearing [leg braces] must be prepared to put in the work to lift and swing that essentially useless lower body forward,” Hansen said. “[Braces are] inconvenient in that you always have to have the crutches with you, and as a method of transportation they’re nowhere near as fast or as efficient as a wheelchair.

“But if I could learn to use them, I could stand up. I could tackle stairs. I could look out at the world instead of up at it,” Hansen said. “For the first six months I hardly ever used my chair outside the gym. I’d try to get between classes on my crutches and braces with a packsack on my back–10 minutes to go a mile, and me huffing and puffing down the road. The sensible thing would have been to wheel between buildings or classes with my crutches in my lap and leave the chair at the door. But in my mind, that would have heightened the perception of my being disabled.”

Road to Success

Hansen’s resistance to using a wheelchair relaxed the next year when he was accepted into the faculty of physical education at UBC, becoming the first student with a physical disability to graduate with a bachelor’s of physical education from that university.

While in university Hansen began to compete internationally in wheelchair sports and went on to win 19 international wheelchair marathons, including three world championships. He competed for Canada at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

The Long Road

Hansen conceived the idea of a round-the-world tour by wheelchair in the early 1980s, and in 1985 he brought a team and funding together to make it a reality. His legendary Man in Motion World Tour visited 34 countries during more than two years of travel over 26,000 miles (almost 42,000 kilometres), raising more than $26 million for spinal cord injury.

In the years since his personal tragedy, Hansen has inspired greater awareness of the potential of people with spinal cord injuries, leading to improved quality of life. With the Rick Hansen Foundation he has inspired a promising future of exciting advances in spinal cord research.

As he celebrates the 20th anniversary of the homecoming of the Tour on May 22, 2007, Rick Hansen remains, to many Canadians–especially those with disabilities–a true living hero.

Celebrating 20 Years

On Sunday, June 10, plan to participate in one of the many Wheels In Motion events taking place across Canada. This year marks not only the fifth year of this annual event but also the 20th anniversary of Rick Hansen’s Man In Motion World Tour. Wheel, walk, run, or bike the route to raise funds to help improve the quality of life for people with spinal cord injury. Visit wheelsinmotion.org to register or to find out more.

The ICORD Initiative

Soon after establishing the Rick Hansen Legacy Fund with money raised during the Man In Motion World Tour, Hansen began working with Dr. John Steeves of the University of British Columbia to establish the research component of the Rick Hansen Foundation.

“Dr. Steeves is one of the world’s best researchers, and he is vital to leading the evolution and implementation of the research centre’s strategies,” Hansen said.

Together with UBC and the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute, Hansen and Dr. Steeves have embarked on the ICORD initiative, an interdisciplinary research centre in Vancouver. ICORD seeks to connect more than 350 researchers from around the world to promote functional recovery and improve quality of life after spinal cord injury.

In mid-2008 ICORD will assume residence in the Blusson Pavilion, a new 10,000-square-metre research and clinical facility at Vancouver General Hospital. There, spinal cord injury researchers from sciences, medicine, surgery, rehabilitation, engineering, education, and community-based humanities research will work with one common goal: discover and implement solutions for people with spinal cord injury.

“Many of the advances we are seeing and the improvements people are experiencing have come through the research that has happened here in Vancouver and through ICORD,” says Dr. Chris McBride, the facility’s managing director. “Here and elsewhere around the world, significant progress has been made over a broad spectrum of research from new neuroprotective strategies and new surgical techniques to new understanding of the importance of rehabilitation and the factors necessary for successful return to the community.”

“At ICORD our approach is to integrate research across the continuum from cells to community,” Dr. McBride goes on to say. “While continuing to pursue the long-term goal of a cure, we are also focusing on having an immediate impact by translating discoveries and knowledge that will maximize functional ability, independence, and quality of life for people with spinal cord injury today.”

ICORD researchers are working to understand how human physiology functions during actual rehabilitation, but they are also looking at how people with spinal cord injury can become full and equal participants in the communities in which they choose to live.

(with photos by Scott Yavis)

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