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Rick Hansen uses the rear hatch ’90 per cent of the time’ to get in to his MDX. (Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
Rick Hansen uses the rear hatch ’90 per cent of the time’ to get in to his MDX. (Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

My Car

Modified vehicle keeps Rick Hansen behind the wheel Add to ...

Rick Hansen

Profession: Paralympian, activist, president and CEO of the Rick Hansen Foundation

Age: 54

Hometown: Port Alberni, B.C.

Notable achievements

- 1985 Man in Motion tour raised awareness and $26-million for spinal cord research.

- Won three gold, two silver and one bronze medal in wheelchair racing at the 1980 and 1984 Summer Paralympics; won 19 international wheelchair marathons, including three world championships.

More related to this story

-Torchbearer at the 2010 Winter Olympics

- Author of Rick Hansen: Man in Motion, and Going the Distance: 7 steps to personal change

Currently

- The Rick Hansen Foundation, a registered charity established in 1988, has generated more than $200-million for spinal cord injury related programs

- The Rick Hansen 25th Anniversary Relay is a 12,000-kilometre journey that will take nine months and end in Vancouver on May 22.

*****

Canadian hero Rick Hansen made history with his 1985 Man In Motion World Tour, circling the globe in a wheelchair, travelling through 34 countries in 26 months. A quarter of a century later, the Rick Hansen 25th Anniversary Relay commemorates the feat, retracing the Canadian portion of the route with the help of 7,000 participants from coast to coast.

Although he was left paralyzed from the waist down at the age of 15 following a car accident, he’s still a man in motion.

On the road, he drives a 2011 Acura MDX – a vehicle from Honda, a sponsor of the Anniversary Relay, which he had modified so he can drive it.

What modifications did you have done on the MDX?

The main one for me is the hand controls, especially having a spinal cord injury and not being able to use your legs.

The ability to modify the vehicle so you can still drive is critical. Having hand controls on a vehicle is absolutely life-changing. It gives you the ability to push forward toward the dash for brake and down if you need to apply pressure on the gas. You can control the vehicle on hills or when you’re parking. It’s a phenomenal modification.

Do you have a lift to get into your SUV, too?

I get in and out of my vehicle 90 per cent of the time by going to the rear hatch, so having an automatic hatch-opening feature for me is also pretty critical.

I’m able to come to the back of the vehicle. I have braces on my legs to stabilize my legs so my knees don’t buckle and these braces allow me to leverage up out of my wheelchair and hang on the back of the vehicle. From a standing position I grab the wheel chair and throw it in the back.

Then I grab the roof rack and work my way, slide my feet one step along the side of the car and drop into the driver’s seat. Then I get in, close the hatch automatically and start driving.

Is driving accessible for people with disabilities?

The thing about accessible driving is there’s no real magic formula of one size fits all. Depending on your level of disability and your personal interest and circumstance, there’s usually a customized solution.

One time in the ’90s, I broke my hip and had surgery. For almost six months, I used the most traditional approach, slide across the driver’s seat and throw the chair in the back or disassemble it and put it across your body in the front. There are others who have more significant disabilities and they’ll have the ramp in the back or a lift from the side.

Some even have pickup trucks and the door will open and the seat will rotate. There will be a little arm like a mini crane on the back of the truck that remotely swings the chair up and back and drops it into the back of the truck.

Even high-level quadriplegics have been able to modify electronically their ability to drive the car with limited arm function. It’s a pretty exciting field because of the implications it has on freedom, dependence and mobility.

Maybe one day, the way technology and automobiles are interfacing these modifications might not be necessary because it might be more efficient for everybody to be able to drive a vehicle with their hands.

In many ways, the final discussion on automobiles is generally a discussion about society. We have come a long way, but there’s a long way to go.

But what about the price of these modifications – it must be costly and a big deterrent for some?

Yeah, it is a big issue. There has been a lot of effort over the last number of decades. Since I started my tour, a lot of different individuals and organizations have put pressure on government for policy makers and manufacturers of automobiles and mobility products to consider accessibility – making these vehicles more accessible so the baseline features are really easy and cost effective to modify or access. …

The hand controls themselves are not that expensive – they’re not thousands of dollars. Then there are the major modifications with lifts or redesigns, which get into safety and approvals and that becomes complex and expensive.

What was your first car?

The very first vehicle I ever drove was in the rehab centre preparing to go home at the age of 16.

Going home to Williams Lake, it was a pretty traumatic event. In a rural community with 5,000 people, having the ability to be mobile in extreme weather and extreme terrain was vital, so I secured a Ford Bronco. It was a four-wheel drive and it took me everywhere.

Then I graduated to a General Motors short-box pickup truck. When I went to UBC, I drove a Honda Civic because my needs had changed. I was in the city and a poor aspiring student and I needed gas mileage efficiency and reliability.

Was it difficult to get back in a car after your horrific accident?

Not so much as getting into the vehicle.

It affects you to a degree. When I am a passenger I pay a lot more attention. Occasionally I can be called a back-seat driver.

I’m pretty cautious with our three daughters. Our youngest, Rebecca, has her L and I’m taking her out to learn how to drive.

What's your best driving memory?

One of the best driving experiences, in the generic side, is all the time I've spent with my kids in the vehicle. It's one of the best ways to get to know your kids and their friends.

When you're the designated driver and the radio is on slightly, but not too loud I can hear what is being said. They forget that I'm driving and I get to hear the darnedest things.

There's times when you turn the radio off and you have great conversations and precious moments – they're just priceless.

What’s your worst driving memory?

One of the worst memories was when I was driving home with my Ford Bronco. It was only a few months after my accident. It was a pretty traumatic experience.

I just had new hand controls put on the vehicle and they weren’t exactly fit perfectly. The hand controls were sticking a bit on the application of the throttle. I was driving home with my father and it was in late January. I was in an icy area and I ended up applying too much pressure and it super-accelerated and it spun the vehicle going 45 miles down the road and we went into the ditch. We were fortunate no one was hurt.

I got back in the driver’s seat and managed to overcome that situation and finish the drive, with my dad’s encouragement.

If I can bring you the keys to any vehicle what would it be?

You can take the boy out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the boy. I’ve always wondered just how those Hummers perform. I think I’d love to take one of those puppies out on an old 4WD route in Williams Lake countryside.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

pgentile@globeandmail.com

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