If Rick Hansen could go back in time and prevent the motor vehicle crash which damaged his spinal cord and lost him the use of his legs, he wouldn’t do it.
The single vehicle crash along Highway 20, on June 27, 1973, threw the young teenager and his friend, Don Alder, from the bed of the pickup truck.
Leading up to that exact moment in time, Rick and Don had been in Bella Coola on a fishing trip, and had helped the driver and his girlfriend when they were broken down in the valley. Rick and Don had decided to hitchhike back to Williams Lake before a planned ride the next day, because they did not want to miss the Williams Lake Stampede.
The driver had recognized them from having helped him out and decided to pick them up. On the way back on Highway 20, the driver then lost control of the vehicle on a corner near Riske Creek, and both Don and Rick were thrown from the back of the truck, Don was on the high side and was thrown clear, while Rick was seriously injured.
This series of events then put Hansen on a road which forever changed the course of his life, and history itself. He has since become a world-renowned advocate for both spinal cord research and accessibility for those with disabilities.
“Something really special happened,” said Hansen, of the way his life turned out. Hansen was speaking to Black Press Media as he prepared to return to Williams Lake, which he still refers to as his hometown.
“I loved my time up in Williams Lake,” he recalls of the community and the many adventures he had in the area as a young man.
Now, 50 years later, he will return to Williams Lake as the honorary parade marshal for the Williams Lake Stampede Parade, which he said is a big deal for him personally and a tremendous honour for which he feels gratitude and reverence for all those who helped him get to where he now is a half-century later.
After the injury, the life of the athletic, outgoing Hansen was forever altered, but he looks back with gratitude at all the support he was given, and the love he received along the way.
“So many members of the Williams Lake community got behind me, and encouraged me as a young kid whose hopes and dreams had been shattered, along with his spine.”
He said he returned after months in hospital and rehab to a world filled with barriers, where the dominant perception of people with disabilities was to look on them with pity and consider their life practically over.
He encountered barriers in his own mind, in how others viewed him, and barriers in terms of the physical environment. Williams Lake was not in any way an “accessible” community in those days.
Hansen said the attitudes and stigma around someone in a wheelchair or with mobility issues was high.
But when he returned to high school, his friends and teachers welcomed him and supported him in returning to his passions for sport and education.
He recalls his family and many of his teachers: Bob Redford, Jack Burgar, Charlie Wyse, Harvey Glanville, Ron Scheck,and more all supporting him through his return to school. They helped him shift his perspective to see he was still the same person and still capable of so much.
He was encouraged to become the assistant coach of the girls volleyball team and trained one friend for the national team.
“It was a huge new beginning,” Hansen said of his return to his second semester at the high school. “Bob made me realize that nowhere in the definition of an athlete does it say you need to be able to use your legs in order to be one.”
He then became involved in Paralympic sports, thanks to Redford’s encouragement, and was a highly successful athlete for many years, winning 19 wheelchair marathons, three world titles and 15 medals, six at the Paralympic Games and nine at the Pan Am Games.
He said his parents and siblings helped him return to many of the outdoor pursuits he loved, including fishing, and camping, just with a little help.
Hansen also applied and then graduated from UBC as the first person in a wheelchair to earn a bachelor’s degree in physical education , thanks to the encouragement of Bob Redford.
“Those formative times were huge,” he said. “All those things helped shape my destiny.”
Then, in 1985, Hansen began his Man In Motion World Tour, in which he wheeled around the world, over two years. The project was aimed at raising awareness of the potential of people with disabilities, the need for accessibility and to raise funds for spinal cord injury research.
While he imagined returning to his planned life as a teacher and coach once he finished, instead, the tour took him in a new direction.
“After I finished the tour, I realized the world was huge and it was disconnected,” he said, noting the end of the tour turned out to be just the beginning.
Since then, Hansen has witnessed huge strides in spinal cord treatment and therapies, he has spearheaded the creation of an international network sharing spinal cord research and treatment. He has seen the attitude and awareness of the value of persons with disabilities change completely as well.
“That’s powerful, and I’m super happy that we’ve evolved to that place as a country and as a province,” said Hansen, who has a sense of pride for the work he has done over these 50 years.
“I might have thought it was going to be a Man in Motion world tour over two years, two months and two days, but it’s actually turned out to be an ultra marathon of social change and a lifelong mission.”
“I’m just honoured that Williams Lake has been there with me through all that time.”
Hansen has now passed the baton of leading the Rick Hansen Foundation on to Doramy Ehling as CEO. He is now the founder of the foundation, continuing work as an advocate to provide sustainability.
“The vision and the mission is bigger than any one person,” said Hansen.