Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Rick Hansen: Inspiring Leadership Beyond the Canadian Border

Contributed by Juliana Davies:

 A visitor to downtown Vancouver, British Columbia might have been surprised by the crowds, cheers, and general jubilance that overtook the central Terry Fox Plaza May 22. What might have been mistaken for a national celebration or massive block party was in fact a celebration of resilience and the triumph of the human spirit. It was the end point of Rick Hansen’s 25th Anniversary Man in Motion tour, a relay that rallied disabled athletes and their friends in a cross-country tour from the northeastern coast of Quebec to the Pacific shores of British Columbia.

Rick Hansen became a household name in his native Canada and throughout the world back  in 1985 when he set out to travel the world in his wheelchair. Hansen suffered a severe spinal cord injury in his mid-teens, which caused him to lose the use of both legs. Once recovered and graduated from high school, he Hansen could have studied in one of the many distance learning MBAs for disabled students.

, instead the former All-star athlete went to University of British Columbia, where he became the first disabled student to graduate with a physical education degree.

From that point onward he has devoted his adult life to advocating for the disabled. He set out to prove that a disability, even one as severe as paralysis, is not the end of a life of purpose and adventure. He got busy showing the world that even with paralysis, one can be an inspiring athlete.

Hansen has won dozens of medals for Canada in the Paralympic games, but by far his biggest achievement was the Man in Motion tour. That tour lasted 2 years, and covered 34 countries on 4 continents. Hansen covered nearly 25,000 miles with no greater technology than his wheelchair and the strength of his arms.

The goals of the tour were two-fold: first, to prove that a life in a wheelchair is not a life without adventure; and second, to raise awareness of spinal cord injury, equal rights for the disabled, and accessibility in society. “Everywhere he went, he saw people with disabilities being marginalized. He knew that someone had to do something to show the world that people of all abilities could participate and contribute as productive members of their communities,” the Rick Hansen Foundation says of the tour’s motivations. “He decided to be that someone.”

The tour generated significant buzz, and raised considerable sums of money for research. It was arguably only the beginning of Hansen’s mission, however. “I honestly believe that my best work is in front, not behind me,” Hansen says on his site.  “I am driven by a deep passion and need to make a difference and leave this world a little better than when I arrived. That’s what keeps me going.”

Today,the Rick Hansen Foundation, a Canadian nonprofit organization, is one of Canada’s  biggest advocates of handicap awareness, accessibility for all, and equal access. The Foundation partners with a range of government agencies, private sector corporations, and other nonprofits to raise awareness and lobby for key interests. Just days before the Anniversary Relay Tour ended, for instance, the foundation announced plans to partner with the Canadian Assembly of First Nations, an organization which represents indigenous Canadians, to promote leadership in the areas of accessibility, inclusion, and overall health.

“This collaboration with the AFN is yet another example of Canadians coming together to achieve a common goal,” Hansen said shortly after the announcement. “Through this key partnership, we will work together to empower the next generation and ensure that youth in all communities have an opportunity to live active and healthy lifestyles. I believe young people have the power to change the world and build stronger, healthier communities.”

The Hansen Foundation’s influence may be strongest in Canada, but its reach is truly global. Hansen’s passion, influence, and drive have touched the lives of people throughout the world. Those who have never seen Hansen, did not witness the tour, and are not directly touched by the foundation’s work can nevertheless draw tremendous strength from Hansen’s overarching mission and advocacy activities.

As was confirmed at the event marking the end of the 2012 relay, the public’s passion for Hansen and his work is all but unquenchable, both inside and outside of the disabled community. Business leaders, politicians, and educators have been just as influenced and inspired as those with mobility limitations.

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