'Our best work is still to come': Rick Hansen on 30 years of advocacy

Canada's Man in Motion, Rick Hansen, is in Calgary this week marking the United Nation’s International Day of Disabled Persons.

Too much discussion and not enough action, iconic activist says of the road ahead

Rick Hansen is in Calgary this week marking the United Nation’s International Day of Disabled Persons. He talked with CBC's The Homestretch on progress made since the start of his advocacy foundation 30 years ago. (Ellis Choe/CBC)

Canada's Man in Motion, Rick Hansen, is in Calgary this week marking the United Nation's International Day of Disabled Persons.

It's been 30 years since the athlete and accessibility advocate founded his namesake organization. It all began after an international wheelchair tour three years earlier in 1985, spanning 34 countries and covering more than 40,000 kilometres.

Hansen talked to The Homestretch about progress made but also about the work that remains to be done in Canada and globally.

This interview has been edited and paraphrased for clarity and length. You can listen to the complete interview here.

Q: Please talk about the 1985 tour and what's happened since that time.

A: The tour was an incredible experience. It was a difficult journey but one that was super rewarding because people from all around the world joined together on a common dream to make the world accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities and also maybe to find a cure for spinal injury.

That the tour was accomplished was in itself almost a miracle. It wasn't about my determination, is just a miracle how in the heck it happened.

It did and it ended and then it was the beginning of the formation of our foundation and the work that we've continued.

It was a source of pride of accomplishment to date, but, more importantly, inspiration that we think our best work is still to come. So we've got to keep going because there's a long way to go.

Q: It's been 30 years since the foundation was formed. What are some things you are most proud of?

A: On finding a cure for spinal injury, the world was fragmented and spinal injury was on the corner of everybody's desk. So we created a global institute where everyone could speak the same language, measure the same things and work together on a digital platform.

No one wanted to do it but we spent 15 years doing that and now it's an independent entity. It's connecting the world as it accelerates progress and we want to do the same thing now here, which is to take all the wonderful progress that's happened but consolidate it and build a global standard for accessibility, and actually train and accredit professionals so they can do the assessment and then the rating so that people can compare Calgary to Medicine Hat or St. John's or maybe Tokyo or wherever, anywhere in the world and people get that consistent view.

So I'm most proud of this next generation strategy we have with our foundation.

Q: We've come a long way but we've had guests in the past saying there's more work to be done, in terms of accessibility in Calgary.

A: The stigma is that it's just accessibility for people in wheelchairs but it's people with mobility challenges, some that are not so visible.

From Parkinson's, stroke, low-vision and blindness, deafness, hard of hearing and cognitive, there's lots of need to bring it all together rather than have all these independent solutions for so many different individuals.

We need to consolidate it. The problem is it's fragmented.

It depends on which municipality uses what committee to advise them on what building code in what province and what's being enforced and what's not.

And now there's national legislation coming into force and what standard will they use?

People get confused and overwhelmed and what we really want to do is go to an expert who can get the job done.… I don't think there are many Canadians that don't want to make things accessible, but they're often shocked when they start something to find out that it never happened.

Q: Bill C-81, the Accessible Canada Act, is still being considered. What are some of the barriers there? Do you think that is going to get done?

A: It was passed unanimously and so now it's been submitted to the Senate.

I'm sure it will be passed. It's never perfect, there's lots of issues, concerns.

The timeline to get to accessibility, the words are easy. What about enforcement? What about the quality of standards? It's important and yet I think we've got to get going.

There's been too much discussion in Ottawa about accessibility over the last 30 years and not enough action. But once we start, it's not the end and we've got to keep improving it.

Q: How does Canada compare to other countries?

A: I can't tell you with any authority because there's no metrics, no one's using the same standard, and we need to have that.

That's a big, big outcome that has to take place.

In my view, the United States has leapfrogged ahead of Canada because they implemented legislation in the 1990s and they took a really aggressive litigative approach to becoming accessible. But they've topped out now, and because they've thought about just getting accessible but not inclusion: The return to employment and to actually see accessibility as an economic opportunity rather than a burden.

That's the biggest red herring in Canada today.

Most people think it's just about ability to afford but the costs of not doing something and keeping people unemployed or the economic benefit on the other side, they're often not considered.

We've got to change the conversation.

Q: You became a strong advocate for people with disabilities. Would you like to see the next generation embrace that responsibility and move this forward?

A: Yes. This is going to be a multigenerational journey — the ultra, ultra marathon of social change, and it's going to take many in motion and we need champions.

Most people involved in sport realize they don't get there on their own and they end up being inspired and obligated in many ways to pay it forward.

Q: For someone with a physical limitation, maybe something new, what is your advice to help them get through this?

A: Accept the reality. Everybody has something. Michael J. Fox says everybody's got their bag of hammers. Let's normalize the conversation about disability so we can speak openly about it but not let it define you.

You're a whole person in spite of the disability. The disability is relevant when there's a medical treatment and or a barrier in the way. So let's open up the conversation about where the barrier is because what we want is people to be a good family member, a neighbour, a colleague, a contributor to society or to just be engaged and be human.

That's the key.

And lastly it's attitude. You can't take away what's happened to you, but 90 per cent of your ability is the space between what happened and what you think about and how you perceive it.

Attitude is everything. Stay positive.

Man in Motion Rick Hansen is in Calgary marking the UN's International Day of Persons with Disabilities. It's been 30 years since he founded his namesake foundation. It all began, of course, after an unforgettable international wheelchair tour, spanning 34 countries and covering more than 40-thousand kilometres. Rick joins Doug in studio. 7:59

With files from Ellis Choe and The Homestretch.