Rick Hansen: Envisioning a barrier-free world

A smiling Rick Hansen wearing a blue shirt and black jacket

All photography credited to the Rick Hansen Foundation

“I think we need a more sophisticated version of what I did, something to connect the world . . . to create a movement that would capture attention and imagination with global participation, connectivity and sustainability to accelerate progress and grab the interest of the more socially conscious next generation to bring them into the conversation . . .

Founder of the Vancouver, Canada-based Rick Hansen Foundation, Rick is passionate in his pursuit of a better life for people with disabilities. He is well-known for his 1985-1987 Man in Motion World Tour, a 40,000 km wheelchair marathon that covered 34 countries, raising $26 million for Spinal Cord Injury research and to create an accessible, inclusive world..

Mélange sat down with Rick to speak about his Foundation and vision for a world with no barriers.

What was your inspiration for the Man in Motion World Tour?

From my early years, I had no reference to disability. All my life was defined by physical ability as an athlete dreaming of one day being able to represent my country at the Olympic Games. Then, suddenly in 1973, I found myself paralyzed after a car accident and told I’d never walk again. That challenged my internal barriers, attitudes, perceptions and stereotypes. I was handicapped more than I was disabled, by my medical condition, and I had to really fight against that. Role models, mentors and people who have been there before showed me that people can actually still live whole, full lives, in spite of not having the ability to use their legs, or have another type of disability. That internal process made me realize that people with disabilities faced a lot of attitudinal barriers. I was also facing social barriers by family, friends and the community which made it even harder to struggle against. And then, there were the physical barriers. Those were interesting journeys as I went through my life.

Later, travelling the world, representing my country as a Paralympic athlete, everywhere I went I met incredible people. Some had visual, hearing, mobility challenges and they all said the same thing – that they have struggled with their own internal conditions, they fought upstream against attitudinal barriers and when they tried to perform, they had to go through physical barriers, so that experience made me realize that I wanted to not complain about my reality, instead I wanted to take some of the lessons that I learned in sports and from the role models that had impacted me on my life’s journey, and try to pay it forward. I thought about my athletic challenge, which was at that time a wheelchair marathoner, and then I looked for solutions that might hopefully change attitudes. When I left for my Man in Motion World Tour at the naïve, young age of 27, I thought that maybe I could create a beginning, a global movement. However, I soon realized how large and disconnected the world was, and what a struggle it would be just to try to accomplish the Tour itself, let alone try to build awareness, raise funds and ultimately create a movement.

But there were milestones created on the Tour. Being accepted into China was an incredible one considering that it was an insular country. The warm reception I received was in part due to Deng Pufang, the son of the then Chairman, Deng Xiaoping having received life-saving medical treatment in Canada for his spinal cord injury. He was inspired by the Canadian aspiration of our Charter and Constitution and the shifts of our attitude to people with disabilities. When he returned to China, he wanted to start something significant for their over 70 million people with disabilities. So, he welcomed us into their country.

The idea of people with disabilities being able to not just move out from being a ward of the state, a shut-in or a burden to family but to actually lead and champion a concept that was a radical departure from the status quo, was significant and worthy to be pursued.

Rick Hansen wheeling along the Great Wall of China

Rick at the Great Wall of China

How did society perceive disabilities at the time of your injury?

Back in 1973 when I had my injury, if you had a disability, there were not a lot of expectations. I was even told during my rehabilitation that I should not set my sights too high so as not be disappointed. That opinion permeated throughout the entire planet in so many ways. Early pioneers who pushed out in front of me did the heavy lifting, breaking the threshold of possibilities, because at that time, human rights did not really exist. Charters or legislative declarations and the Americans with Disabilities Act was still a fantasy in the seventies. Even when I left on my Man in Motion World Tour, there were still a lot of champions fighting upstream for that, and it wasn’t until the 1990’s that it happened. In the early 1980’s Canada had an incredible constitutional commitment in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but the translation of those beautiful words of the Canada that we wanted, and the legislative framework that existed, was still a major mountain to climb.

Very significant levels of progress have happened in the decades since that original, early, crazy start of my Man in Motion World Tour. When you look at the way in which the United Nations has now embedded elements of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, challenging countries around the world to sign in to the convention, to measure up and report back, this is the result of amazing champions, generations of people who just didn’t accept the status quo but believed in equality and found opportunities to fully participate and contribute. They continue to chisel away, breaking down barriers one at a time. We’re not fully there yet but I think a tremendous amount has been accomplished.

I believe the digital age has also helped immensely because the world is more connected and stories of ability, potential and examples of a world that we all strive for I think are more easily accessible. It’s becoming more commonplace to expect that it is possible and I believe that, plus actual tangible progress is creating an accelerating opportunity, and it is really an exciting time to be involved in this movement because there’s tremendous hope for the future.

What do you think can be done to combat the lack of awareness?

It is a large uphill battle for many countries – in Africa, the Caribbean and even in places like the United States or in Canada. There are still very entrenched pockets of resistance and part of it is fundamental, cultural beliefs and old paradigms that have been passed down and they remain rigid until such time as someone shatters that perception. These beliefs are perpetuated by lack of awareness, and the only way we can actually address this, in my mind, is by constantly sharing stories that counteract that ignorance.

 

A man in a wheelchair, exercising at a gym
A visually impaired lady reading the braille on the wall
A man in a wheelchair at a swimming pool

How can progress be accelerated?

One of the biggest diseases of our world is that there is a community of 1.3 plus billion people with disabilities, boomers and their parents on the planet today – the world’s largest minority – yet this community continually hits below its weight. This ‘disease’ is being fragmented by body parts, by clinical diagnosis and different points of emphasis of all these wonderful organizations working in their very specific purpose-driven missions, but very rarely do we converge on the largest barriers together to create a more powerful case, not just for human rights, which are critical, not just for charity, which is very important, but for the cultural, social and economic imperative that is absolutely vital for the ability of any leader of an organization, business or a country – to serve its citizens well. The cost of confinement is unsustainable, the human, social, cultural and financial costs are fundamentally unsustainable and any leader who doesn’t understand that is being irresponsible and they’re not serving their citizens well. It is critical for our communities to start to move together and elevate the case to which transformation seems difficult, and oh so costly to make. They are completely unaware of the fact that there’s this incredible wellspring of opportunity when people who have disabling conditions come in and contribute their ability, to increase the fabric of society and drive innovation, products, services and customers, really changing the whole dynamic of a society. I think it’s time that we actually turned it around and upped our game and put all of our logic points together in a convenient place and have leaders feel the weight of the community and the weight of the case. I think that will accelerate our progress. Anything we can do to come together at that level is fundamental because we’re becoming more and more of a globally connected civil society. We also have to understand the incredible power and opportunity of this digital revolution that’s sweeping our globe and be able to reframe and reorganize the way we function.

What part is your Foundation playing to address barriers to people with disabilities?

Our Foundation is like a social entrepreneurial organization where we look at big barriers and then we try to focus and find solutions. We bring experts and resources together, incubate pilots that are tested and then we start to roll them out. We have a vision of these solutions being globally relevant and portable. Ultimately, we work hard as best we can to add value. What we saw in the world of people with disabilities is that there are lots of barriers that are fundamental, but we’re a small group so we asked ourselves where can we put our precious energy and try to move the bar? We then felt that the built environment was an area that needed a lot of attention, for two reasons:

(1) there has been progress in the built environment, but the progress was based largely on pockets of legislation and code which were very limited in terms of their viewpoints at the time, and very prescriptive. They did not take into consideration the functionality of a building, after all, buildings are meant for people.
(2) Secondly, there was a heavy focus on relying on people with disabilities and advocates to somehow parachute in on the backend to vote in their perspective, which was by then already too late, and so there was disappointment, human rights lawsuits, compliance-based issues, costly tax on very valuable investment of money and ultimately energy, and conflict to try to fix what should have been done at the beginning.

We researched groups out there to find out if there were any that operated in other sectors that impacted change and yes, there were – energy efficient buildings. They leaped way ahead. Energy-efficient, ‘green’ buildings are now being constructed and their sustainability benchmark is top of the mark for incentives and accolades – way ahead of accessibility in their buildings, built for people. They took the knowledge that was embedded in the energy advocacy groups and created a universal standard and a curriculum, and then they started getting the curriculum out of just the hands of the advocates and they pushed it upstream into the industry, government and policy. They normalized it and then every architect, engineer or planner that’s coming through universities, or is in a big company must be designated in these fields otherwise, they’re not relevant.

But if you look at the schools of architecture, there are very few architects being certified in universal inclusive design, and this is a disconnect. As a result, there are systemic barriers due to big misses. It works both ways because when are so prescriptive on code, you can ask for bells and whistles and very specific modifications, but it may sit there and not be utilized because there is no use or market for it at the time. Observing the back and forth between industry, government and advocates, we wanted to change that, so we started this little pilot in Vancouver which got support from the Government of British Columbia and Government. We rolled that out to the entire Province, with over 1,100 buildings being rated vs tested, formed an Advisory Group with industry at the table – all the technical experts from the adapted side were also at the table. We created The Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification which is rolling out across Canada. There are entities in the United States that are starting to look at this, airport authorities internationally and networks of professionals.

Our training is online and global so anyone in the world with the prerequisites can take the course and be designated. It is available at seven universities and colleges in Canada, one of them is the global online Athabasca University. The idea is to get it out there, train and designate thousands of professionals in the field, and advocates too, using the same language, measuring the same things and then get that knowledge upstream until this becomes normal and moves into policy with governments, private sector and agencies. In the bidding process, somebody has to be designated on the design team, there must be a provisional rating before you starting construction and then people who touch a project all the way through will actually have that same level of knowledge, so that by the time advocates come together, they’re actually able to do what they should, which is look at whatever unique gaps there may be, based on local circumstances and innovation. That’s where advocates can provide the best value.

That’s our vision and we’re just at the baby steps right now with a tremendous team of hard-working people. Lots of challenges exist because this field is very fragmented. There are different levels of legislation and different views about codes, today’s standards may become tomorrow’s handicaps, but this exists everywhere so the question is, can we move towards a more global standard in this field? Can we consolidate the curriculum and designate people who do business in multiple nations and jurisdictions and give them tools and consistency? Can we give consumers that same level of comfort? Can we measure then start to create an index? That’s up to us. I think we could, but we’ll see.

. . . why don’t we actually get Elon Musk to help someone in a wheelchair go into space, leave their chair at the space station, circumnavigate the world multiple times a day, speaking digitally to billions of people about there being no barriers, and that the future of space is for everyone? This will help to power up a conversation with the youth . . .

Do you think it’s time for the next generation to be groomed to step in?

Yes, by an ultimate marathon of social change. I think we do need something, a more sophisticated version of what I did, something to connect the world, to create a movement-based derivative. A combination of something that would capture attention and imagination with global participation, connectivity and sustainability to accelerate progress and capture the interest of the more socially conscious next generation to bring them into the conversation. But within the conversation of diversity and inclusivity, it is still very easy to drop the issue of disability out of the conversation. So, to keep it in there we can inspire ideas that look at the ways barriers can be transformed. For instance, the Nepalese have been so involved in the service of helping people achieve glory on Mount Everest. Wouldn’t it be incredible to come together to create the opportunity for a Sherpa, who perhaps has had a spinal cord injury, to summit Mount Everest, leaving a legacy that will help change the world to show that there were no barriers on this earth that could not be crossed? Right now, people may think that’s completely impossible, but I believe it is possible. And you could say, why don’t we actually get Elon Musk to help someone in a wheelchair go into space, leave their chair at the space station, circumnavigate the world multiple times a day, speaking digitally to billions of people about there being no barriers, and that the future of space is for everyone? This will help to power up a conversation with the youth and every school on the planet, about what this really represents. The world needs imagination and we need to keep breaking barriers in a fundamental way.

How can we get children engaged in the process?

My dream was to be a Physical Education teacher and coach. I went to University and graduated but I didn’t go that route because I was distracted by the Tour. The Foundation, however, always had a school program as part of our journey. It is now in about over 5,300 schools with over 12,000 educators registered to use our resources. We have a curriculum that’s no charge online and it can be adapted into the curriculum of each jurisdiction. Nova Scotia’s Ministry of Education is one of those that has formally endorsed our curriculum for K to Grade 12. Accessibility and inclusion are the contents. Lesson plans have been specifically crafted for their learning outcomes. Then, we have ambassadors that visit, in-person and digitally, to tell their stories and to bring students real life examples, experiences and other resources they can draw from. This school concept is valuable so I think that’s got to be the end game. Schools are a microcosm of communities and we’re building attitudes, values and future champions. This is a way for kids to get engaged in the process and normalizing it on the curriculum is a good path to take.

It keeps evolving. We listen to teachers, administrators and the kids and also keep opening up the envelope before various groups and individuals that represent people with disabilities so they feel that it’s as much their programs as it is ours. We are only the facilitator of it now.