King of the road

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 April, 2011, 12:00am


Few able-bodied people can claim to have won Olympic gold medals, travelled the world and raised hundreds of millions of dollars for charity. Canadian Rick Hansen has done it all in a wheelchair. A keen sportsman before his spinal cord was injured in a road accident at the age of 15, Hansen went on to win 19 international wheelchair marathons and six Paralympic medals. But equally challenging has been his goal to make the world a more inclusive place for disabled people.

In 1985, Hansen embarked on his global Man in Motion World Tour to raise awareness and funds for research into a cure for spinal cord injury. It was a more than two-year journey across 34 countries and covering a distance of nearly 23,000 kilometres, the second leg of which he began in Hong Kong.

He will be back in Hong Kong this week as part of the tour's 25th anniversary celebrations, during which he will bestow awards, on behalf of his eponymous foundation, on Hong Kong residents who have worked to further the causes close to his heart.

Hansen says the other aim of his Man in Motion tour was to bring attention to the potential of people with disabilities, and inspire others in a similar situation to remove barriers in their communities and live meaningful lives.

'After I won a Paralympics gold medal in Los Angeles [in 1984], I felt incredibly privileged to have been supported by so many people,' Hansen says. 'It was then that I was inspired to give something back; to try to make a difference to others in the situation I'd experienced, and help others along the way.

'At the time, the world was a large and inaccessible place, and it was going to be a long and gruelling journey. But like all big dreams, it was about overcoming your own self-doubt and fear, and taking the first step is the most important part.'

While he was in Hong Kong in 1986, he took part in a youth rally in Sha Tin and met district officer Lam Woon-kwong, whom he is happy to point out is now chairman of the city's Equal Opportunities Commission.

On his Beijing stop back then, he fulfilled his 'ultimate challenge' by scaling the steep gradient of the Badaling section of the Great Wall, and was greeted by another man in a wheelchair with similar aims - Deng Pufang, the son of then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. Hansen says he was greeted graciously by Deng and has met him a number of times over the years.

'He was able to go to Canada to have some significant medical treatment after his spinal injury, and he was also inspired to start a journey to make a difference for people with disabilities, in China,' Hansen says. 'So my arrival coincided with the beginning of Pufang's journey, and together we were able to complete the Chinese version of the Man in Motion tour.'

Deng, who was crippled when he was thrown from the window of a three-storey building by Red Guards in the 60s, went on to head the China Disabled Persons' Federation. In 2003, he was awarded the UN Human Rights prize for his advocation of equal rights for the disabled in China.

Hansen returned from his world tour with renewed vigour and set up his foundation. It has now raised more than US$250 million towards research into finding a cure for spinal cord injuries, but also seeks to influence policy in areas of inclusivity and accessibility, and support quality of life and community engagement programmes in his native Canada.

Last year, he was a torch-bearer at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, and a film of his life's work was shown on a screen at the opening of the Paralympics.

Now is a good time for an anniversary celebration, he says, because: 'It's only since the late 90s that most countries have enacted legislation, and you've seen individuals and organisations forming their own areas of expertise. The social medium and base connectivity are now in place to unify the world, so the timing is absolutely perfect.

'Part of the celebration of the 25th anniversary is not just to remember the original tour, but to recognise programmes that have taken place in 25 years and to give out significant awards to individuals or organisations that have made fundamental change' in helping those with disabilities.

Hansen's Hong Kong visit starts on Wednesday when he hands out his foundation's 'Difference Makers Awards' to three residents for their leadership initiative. The recipients are Suzanne Poon, the chairwoman of the Hong Kong Spinal Cord Injury Fund; businessman Ajmal Samuel; and Kwok Fai-so, chair professor and head of the department of anatomy at University of Hong Kong.

On Thursday, Spinal Cord Awareness Day, he will attend a rally at Sha Tin racecourse during which 'life warriors' will tell of how they overcame their difficulties to make a difference and live a meaningful life. The trio are Christine Leung, vice-chairwoman of the Direction Association for the Handicapped; So Wa-wai, a six-times Paralympic gold medallist; and Sang Lan, previously a Beijing star athlete before she injured her spine.

'The other message for the 25th anniversary is that by no means are we a global society yet. We have a long way to go,' Hansen says. 'The message is also one of looking forward, to create a global network of collaborators on accessibility and curing spinal cord injury to magnify our collective efforts, to unify our language and measurements of how we view these vital areas.'

When he began his tour, Hansen says, scientists didn't believe it was possible to find a cure for spinal cord injury. It's only in recent years that research has found that stem cells in the brain and spinal cord are capable of making new nerve cells.

'There was a 30 per cent chance of any kind of recovery for the newly injured when I first started the tour. Now, there's a 70 per cent chance that if people are treated effectively, soon after an injury, they can be cured. This gives tremendous hope.'

Attitudes also have changed towards the disabled, he says. 'At that time, [equality for the disabled] was just the beginning of the conversation socially. In most countries, people with disabilities were still pretty shut out and not accepted as readily in society.'

There is now more accessibility, too, he says, citing parking spaces and ramps for disabled people, but also more aids for people who are sight and hearing challenged.

'The other thing that is happening is that, because of that accessibility, you're starting to see more awareness. You're seeing more people who have disabilities who are going out to events, leading a much more normal life. These are the more tangible things that I'm witnessing as I talk to more advocates and champions who deal with people with disabilities.'

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