Rick Hansen

is a disability rights advocate, Olympian, and Paralympian who captured the public imagination when he completed an international wheelchair marathon known as the Man in Motion World Tour between 1985 and 1987.

You’ll Never Walk Again


Rick Hansen discusses the monumental shift in perspective and attitude required of him after becoming paralyzed in a car accident at the age of 15.

Rick Hansen: You know, it was pretty devastating when you're 15 and you've been told you'll never walk again, and your whole construct of who you were going to be in life and what it means to be whole and... and, you know, it's all based on being independent, to be physically strong and to be mobile with your legs so you can do your activities, your hiking, your fishing, your sports. All of a sudden, that's all gone, shattered along with your spine. So, I think the biggest hurdle for me was to be able to reframe my perspective on what my life might be. It was basically a blank canvas filled with despair, and I needed some folks to really help to paint a bit of a vibrant picture of possibilities and hope. I guess what was the first challenge and biggest hurdle for me was to overcome my own sort of prejudice or stigma that I associated with not being able to use one's legs or to have a disability. I really didn't know anyone that had a profound disability that literally couldn't use their legs. And my immediate thought was that my life was over. I mean, "What could I do?" So, learning about possibilities and shifting my focus to loss and reframing to ability and possibilities was the biggest challenge during that period. I absorbed a lot of anger, a lot of resentment, a lot of depression, but I found the ability to kind of take baby steps forward. I think that combination, and then role models coming into my life to show me possibilities, to show the life that was not visible to me at the time, helped me make the shift, helped me drop a lot of the baggage that I carried, which were my personal handicaps, to be able to unleash my view and my optimism that life could still go on, that I could still be Rick, the athlete, the adventurer, and that I just had to shift and do it differently. And with that adjustment, everything was in front of me, and that was a big period of time of hard grinding, of a lot of pain and suffering, and yet, wonderful moments of triumph and great support by an amazing family and role models, and friends. People who just kind of said, "Hey, let's keep going."

Becoming an Advocate

1 min 14 s

Rick Hansen discusses how he had to overcome barriers in nearly every aspect of life, and how that l...

Rick Hansen: I think I ended up becoming a self-advocate first. You know, the system was so broken, and siloed, institutionalized, and filled with bias, that I had to fight for everything. I had to fight to get back into my school. I had to fight to get into University, I had to fight to be recognized, and to get support for being an athlete. In that, you join many other colleagues who you get to know and you become part of that movement. One, because if you don't fight for it, you know, life takes over, and you become a victim. And secondly, you understand if you do remove a barrier, it's not just about you, it's about so many others who maybe aren't as fortunate as you are. Then you become recruited to become someone who pays it forward because as a result of the good fortune you experience and feel, you want to do something to help others as well because you understand what it means when others help you.

Abled or Disabled, We’re All Athletes

4 min 3 s

Rick Hansen shares his personal experience of participating in the Paralympics and Olympics, and mak...

Rick Hansen: When people ask me about what are some of the defining athletic accomplishments in my life, there's two. It’s winning the Paralympic gold medal in the open class wheelchair marathon in '84, and it's being in Los Angeles at the Olympic Games in the first exhibition wheelchair 1500 meter event for men, and to be one of the eight being part of Olympic history. And... Since I learned about Paralympic sports, my dream was to go to the Olympic Games and to be part of the Olympic Games, even in a wheelchair athletic event, and to receive possibly a real medal and be recognized as a real athlete. And I learned myself that there is no line between abled and disabled. There's only one word if you erase that line, and it's athlete. And if we don't have sport be the mirror for which we view society and our values, then how can we expect to get the rest of society aligned as well? The stigma and this divide between abled and disabled athletes is negative if promoted and presented in the wrong way because it embeds the false belief that there are different classes of people, and that's not the Canada that we want. That's not in our DNA, it's not in our constitution, and how can we allow that perception to continue? So for me as a youngster, being at the exhibition event at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles was part of a beginning that typically when sports are introduced, they move from exhibition to demonstration and then possibly full medal status. And I was super positive about just being part of that historic moment and movement. Of course, I've realized that those movements, they don't happen overnight, and they're not necessarily linear. I was super disappointed to see the cessation of exhibition events at Olympic Games, and then the rise up and the embedding of the Paralympic Games as a separate and distinct movement because what that meant was that there was now an embedding of two different classes of athletes, if viewed incorrectly. The Paralympic Games are very important. They achieve incredible things for so many amazing athletes. It's not about taking away from the status of those games, but when there's no opportunity to create bridges and to see those athletes be recognized in a Games that already differentiates itself between men and women, between size classes in weights and different disciplines, then why wouldn't you allow a different class to be established in athletic endeavors in basketball, in swimming, in whatever? And so that movement still needs to continue. And one day I believe it will because I think more people are asking the question, "Why should they be separate?" When we see the Commonwealth Games actually include athletes with disabilities for full medal status. We see world championships do that, we see the Canada Summer and Winter Games do that, why wouldn't we see that happen all around the world?

The Inspiration of Terry Fox

2 min 40 s

Rick Hansen explains how he came up with the idea for his Man in Motion World Tour and the role Terr...

Rick Hansen: When you're 16 and you're in the rehab center and you're dreaming about possibilities in life, the first thing you do is you go back to the old dreams you had and you try to do a checklist to see, "Is that still possible?" And one of the things that I had dreamt about before my accident was going on an ultimate adventure with my buddies one day and maybe cycling around the world and being tourists and adventurers. And I was going back to that notion in my head and thinking, "Well, maybe. Maybe I could take the chair and my buddies could have the bikes, put a little trailer in the back and off we go." And, you know, just sort of stuck it in the side of my head and never really paid a lot of attention to it. But it really seemed like, physically though, "I don't think I could do that." It was really hard just trying to wheel a couple of kilometers in my wheelchair. But of course, as I became a disciplined wheelchair marathoner, then, over the years, realized, "Hey, physically, I could probably do something like that one day." Then, I ended up learning about how important it was to be able to try to be an advocate and to help out and to make a difference in sport and in my life. Then I was fortunate enough to recruit Terry Fox to the Vancouver Cable Cars when he was struggling with his loss of a limb and dealing with cancer. Like me, he was inspired by the athletes and the team that he was introduced to and stand strong. And he went on to make a difference in trying to find a cure for cancer by running across the country on one leg. It was about at that point, as I was watching his journey, I started seeing how people viewed people with disability a little differently. They weren't focused on disability, they started focusing on ability. That wasn't his intent, but it's what I saw, and I went, "You know, that could become my way to make a very significant contribution and really pay it forward and say 'thank you' to a lot of people and to wheel around the world in my wheelchair, change attitudes and remove barriers and raise some funds to make a difference." That started to form in my mind, and eventually, I finally got to the place where I decided to actually commit to it and put all my heart and all my soul into it and try to start that dream and see how far I could go.

Changing Minds and Changing Lives

1 min 36 s

Rick Hansen recalls some specific meaningful encounters during the Man in Motion World Tour that gav...

Rick Hansen: When you wheel into a little community in Poland and you're late, people have been waiting for hours, the crowd is huge, and there's a guy who has a spinal injury and he doesn't have a wheelchair. He's sitting on a piece of plywood with a pillow on it and it's being propelled on a couple of little skateboard wheels. He's pushing himself with gloves along the ground to come beside me and speak. Through an interpreter, he says, with tears running down his eyes, "Thank you." And I asked why, and he said, "Because thanks to your journey, for the first time in my life... my family and my community are seeing me with ability." And when you see that, you go, "My gosh, that's what you dreamed for." And... It's powerful and it keeps you going during the times when things aren't happening. When you come into the city of Tianjin and you come around the corner, there's a tidal wave of people, almost a quarter of a million people lining the streets and they're being exposed to something that is going to stay in their minds, and hopefully get translated into their children, and you think, "My gosh, that's what we dreamt of, is changing minds and changing lives."

Starting the Rick Hansen Foundation

2 min 42 s

Rick Hansen discusses the motivation behind starting a foundation after finishing the Man in Motion ...

Rick Hansen: When we finished the tour, we wound down everything. As a matter of fact, I was encouraged, right after the tour, by a lot of very serious people, to annualize the Man In Motion Tour nationally or globally, to continue to perpetuate a Terry Fox-like model for fundraising, awareness and moving things forward. There were two things for me that were really clear. Number one: I wouldn't want to do anything to... in any way to take away or undermine the legacy of my friend and mentor Terry Fox, who is the greatest Canadian hero. Secondly, I would never want to feel burdened to do something that I wasn't really sure that's what I wanted to do. And I still had to find my path, and I had to be free to be able to make mistakes and try new things and still be the adventurer or the innovator that I was, not to just copy things but to put my own unique stamp on solutions that I felt that I could do best. And... So that was my ultimate decision. What I realized though, as time went on, that if I was going to do that, then I needed to make sure that we had a foundation in place that would absolutely be that driving force, that I couldn't just pass it on to another organization to do what, in many ways, Canadians had been asking me and trusting me to do. So, as a volunteer, I forged a group of people to come together and create the Man In Motion Foundation, which became the Rick Hansen Foundation, reluctantly. And ultimately, that foundation was the continuation of really the two big dreams that propelled me through on the Man In Motion Tour: a world where barriers are removed, so people with disabilities could reach their full potential, and a cure for spinal cord injury. Those two big dreams continue today. And... You know, we've made a lot of progress, but like in all ultra-marathons of social change, we have a long way to go.

Two Big Dreams

3 min 56 s

Rick Hansen talks about the progress made in two areas that he has aspired to improve since he becam...

Rick Hansen: You know, when I was doing the Man In Motion tour, literally just a couple of years earlier, Canada had brought home its Constitution. I mean, you know, you think about that. This is a country that literally just brought its Constitution home and in that, the people who helped create that Constitution had the foresight to say that people with disabilities would be included as equals. And that's a really, really powerful statement of the Canada we want. And yet, I was on the ground, like millions of other people with disabilities, saying, "Well, that's a big mountain to climb. We've got a lot of work to do to build the Canada we want." So when we started on the Man In Motion Tour, Canada was really inaccessible, really, really thinking that people with disabilities were often like write-offs or charity cases. The notion of a human right base is still a huge sort of hill to climb. Thirty years later, I look back on where we've come, and now Canadians are 100% behind that Canada should be completely including people with disabilities as equals, that it should be a human right, and there's very little debate about that. That's a quantum shift in three decades, and I'm really proud of that base and that progress. And there's a larger awareness about that. If you have a disability, you can be a political leader, a business leader, a teacher. You can go to physical education or you can be an engineer. You can be a volunteer, you can have a family. So this sentiment is there and that's a huge progress. I'm super proud of that. And when I was on the Man In Motion Tour, scientists were afraid to say that a cure for spinal cord injury was possible because they were afraid that they would be ostracized and disregarded as a scientist of any credibility. But we've proven that the central spinal cord can regrow, the central nerve in a spinal cord. We've proven that you can actually stimulate regrowth, you could perhaps create, replace cells that will function again through stem cells or other neuro or biotech solutions. We've proven we can protect the spinal cord after an injury to prevent different levels of permanent paralysis, and there's all kinds of really cool new solutions in rehabilitation. So all this potentiality and all of the broader research in cell protection and cell regrowth and neuro-replacement, is going to continue to accelerate progress dramatically. And if you look at where we're at today, people with spinal cord injury, a number of people are walking away today because of the advances in medical treatment. A number of people have had less paralysis under the same injury that I had because of advances in how they're treated. And the future is bright, and people are able to say that a cure will happen one day in combination steps over many decades and that it's not an impossible dream. So I look back today and almost see that we're on the threshold of a halfway point on both of these big dreams, and in the next 30 years that there's real possibility that those two outcomes that I was chasing as a naïve young Canadian are actually possible, and that they will happen.