In 1985, Rick Hansen wheeled around the world to raise awareness and funds for his life's mission: to build a world where people with disabilities can live to their full potential.
The history of Hansen's success as an athlete competing on the world stage is well-documented. But this career, which includes six medals won between 1980 and 1984 as a Paralympian and a coveted spot in Canada's Sports Hall of Fame, came after Hansen became the first person with a disability to obtain a degree in Physical Education from the University of British Columbia. Point being, Hansen's status as a forerunner in the world of competitive sports has never been motivated by a simple goal to win; it stems from an attitude of anything is possible.
Surrounded by friends and mentors encouraging him to see that every person on earth has a right to dream big—and the potential to turn these dreams into real-life achievements—Hansen set out to change the narrative around people living with disabilities.
Today, Hansen is the proud leader of his own foundation. His goal? Make Canada fully accessible by 2050.
To realize his dream, Hansen is empowering others to identify issues in their communities, followed by finding innovative solutions. “Whether it's visible or invisible, find an accessibility barrier in your community,” Hansen insists. “Take the initiative to set a goal—be it joining a team, volunteering your time or raising money.”
A foundation dedicated to increasing public dialogue around disability issues (which includes awarding municipalities grant money to improve on its accessible spaces), the Rick Hansen Foundation seizes every opportunity to stir up conversation.
"We need every citizen to believe that they are champions and difference makers, with a responsibility to play small or large roles in making Canada and the world a better place."
The public's response has Hansen feeling optimistic. “I’m encouraged to see Canadians identifying projects that include additions such as ramps to make schools, playgrounds and libraries more accessible; installing lifts to the aquatic centre in their community and adding sensory features to public parks to enhance the experience and wayfinding for people who are blind and deaf.”
Out to transform the world’s perception on disabilities, Hansen opens up about his mission in life.
Q&A with Rick Hansen
You're a long-time WE Day speaker; given your experience with all the young change-makers in the WE community, why would you say "we" is stronger than "me?"
We are all interconnected, relying on each other as a global society, as a family and a community.
And within that collective, everyone is different, which is a strength, no?
Yes. "We" reflects and respects our diversity as human beings and implies that together we are stronger. "We" bring different points of views and perspectives that exceed individual talents manifested in isolation. "We" also implies a responsibility to help each other—to be collaborative and compassionate.
You're a role model to all the students in the WE Day audience. Is mentorship important to you? Mentorship has been a huge gift in my life. My mentor, Stan Stronge, took me under his wing and helped me shift my attitude to see possibilities at a very challenging time after my injury. He changed my life by encouraging me to be a part of wheelchair basketball, helping me find affordable housing in Vancouver when I went to school and showed me how to access grants to fund my wheelchair equipment. He even helped me get a summer job at the B.C. Wheelchair Sports Association. He was always kind and compassionate. Stan inspired me to develop a sense of social responsibility and encouraged me to pay it forward.
How can the rest of us take a page from your book and pay it forward?
Be difference makers. We need every citizen to believe that they are champions and difference makers with a responsibility to play small or large roles in making Canada and the world a better place. Inclusivity is key, and we need more people committed to respect and honour the diversity of our country.
You've dedicated your life to teaching others why accessibility matters. What are the core values of an ideal Canada where this is clear?
My ideal Canada is a country where people are healthy, and we can all live in an inclusive, respectful society, within a clean environment.
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