VANCOUVER — More than 25 years ago, when Rick Hansen was beginning the tour that would ultimately lead him through 34 countries and four continents, waiters would look to Hansen’s friends for the athlete’s meal order.
Waiters don’t do that any more to Hansen, and nor does the experience happen as often to anyone else with a disability, says Don Alder, Hansen’s longtime friend and touring buddy.
“Nowadays, you have people with disabilities who are hang gliding, doing amazing world-class flips on skis. It just never ends,” said Alder, who was at the finish Thursday of Hansen’s 25th anniversary tour, along the same Man in Motion route through Canada.
“It shows that the barriers have been removed that way for sure.”
Alder has had a particularly close window on Hansen’s effect on attitudes towards disabilities.
He was there throughout the original tour, which started in March 1985 in Vancouver and eventually took 26 months to go around the world.
Now, just months from Hansen’s 55th birthday, the Man in Motion foundation has raised more than $250 million and continues to investigate advances in research and improvements in quality of life initiatives for the disabled.
Alder was also there that day when he and his 15-year-old friend hitched a ride in a pickup truck after a day of fishing. The truck flipped, throwing Alder clear and crushing Hansen’s spine, paralyzing him from the waist down.
“It was interesting growing up with a kid with a disability back then because at that point in time, there wasn’t ramps, there wasn’t curb cuts. Nobody knew anything about a person with a disability,” Alder recalled.
“But all of us, his regular buddies, didn’t really see the disability. At that point, Rick did.”
Before the accident, Hansen dreamed of an athletic career. After the accident, he maintained the dream.
It was during a stint in the hospital, where Hansen was being treated for a dislocated shoulder and was “on some sort of hospital cocktail for the pain, not making much sense” that Alder said Hansen first floated the Man in Motion tour idea.
Alder said his response was to suggest to Hansen’s nurse that Hansen be enrolled in a straight-jacket program. On Tuesday, Hansen was quiet about his role in the Man in Motion legacy, preferring instead to pay tribute to his own hero, Terry Fox, whose name adorns the plaza where Hansen’s anniversary tour wrapped.
Hansen said when his original tour began, Fox’s parents gave him a small statue of Terry, which Hansen said he looked at frequently for inspiration and for a boost to keep going when the rigours of the tour got to be too much.
“Thanks to him, I took the first step forward,” Hansen said.
“You go back to the days of a 15-year-old kid in a hospital bed with a shattered spine and told you’ll never walk again, thinking your hopes and dreams were gone and not to have too much hope because there wouldn’t be much out there. And to be able to compare that to this moment knowing that I’m one of the luckiest guys on the planet and I’d never, ever trade my life for the use of my legs.”
Hansen said if he had known before how difficult it would be to reach his goal of a cure for spinal chord injuries, he may never have set off in his wheelchair.
But while that ultimate goal is yet to be realized, he said enormous strides have been made in the everyday lives of those with disabilities, from simple curb cuts, ramps and audible crosswalks for those with visual impairments.
“More importantly, you see people with disabilities engaged in our society,” he said, noting it was a proud moment for Canada when Vancouver’s wheelchair bound former mayor, Sam Sullivan, accepted the Olympic flag and Paralympic flags on behalf of Vancouver.
“When I came through on the original tour, it was one man in motion. Now, it’s a nation in motion.”
The anniversary tour, which retraced Hansen’s original route across Canada, passed through 600 communities in relay style.