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Rick Hansen waves to fans at Cape Spear, Nfld., before the start of the 25th anniversary Rick Hansen Relay on Aug. 24, 2011. (Keith Gosse/The Canadian Press)
Rick Hansen waves to fans at Cape Spear, Nfld., before the start of the 25th anniversary Rick Hansen Relay on Aug. 24, 2011. (Keith Gosse/The Canadian Press)

Rick Hansen is back in motion - 25 years later Add to ...

On Aug. 26, 1986, Leslie Tomblin got on her bike and followed a man in a wheelchair as he rolled from Cape Spear to St. John’s.

She had strapped two empty ice-cream buckets behind her seat, and a sign that read “donations.”

The young girl collected $4,700.90 that day from people who cheered on Rick Hansen as he began the Canadian leg of his around-the-world Man in Motion odyssey.

Twenty-five years later, almost to the day, Mr. Hansen returned to Cape Spear Wednesday to launch his latest adventure, a cross-Canada relay that will involve 7,000 “everyday heroes” like Leslie Tomblin.

This time around, the fundraising will be more sophisticated, but the goal will be the same: Raise awareness of and dollars for spinal-cord research and initiatives that promote inclusiveness.

“It sure brought back some memories,” Mr. Hansen said shortly after dipping his wheels into the chilly Atlantic. But more importantly, it provided an occasion to look back at how things have changed for people with disabilities over the past quarter-century.

“We’re doing this to celebrate progress,” Mr. Hansen said in an interview. “I have big dreams, like finding a cure for spinal-cord injury and making the world accessible for all. But I realize that won’t happen all at once: There will have to be small victories along the way.”

Mr. Hansen, 53, suffered a spinal-cord injury at age 15 when the pickup truck in which he was riding crashed. He was paralyzed from the waist down.

Reflecting back on the progress made, his first observation is that “an accident like mine would have a very different outcome. There would have been partial or full recovery.”

Consider that the then-teenaged Mr. Hansen did not have surgery until three days after the crash. He then spent four months confined to a bed in hospital, and the expectation was that he would spend his life “crippled” and likely on social assistance.

Today, there are specialized spinal treatment units and a recognition that surgical repairs need to be done urgently and that rehabilitation must be swift and intense.

Much of the research that resulted in these advances was funded by the Rick Hansen Foundation, which has raised more than $200-million. (The goal is to raise that much again during the anniversary tour. The relay will pass through more than 600 communities during the nine-month, 12,000-kilometre journey, which will culminate in Vancouver on May 22, 2012.)

Mr. Hansen’s latest research initiative is to link, virtually, all 70 spinal centres in the world. He also financed a groundbreaking census that revealed that more than 85,000 Canadians are living with spinal injury. People are surviving like never before.

The technology is strikingly different now, too – wheelchairs are lighter, stronger and adapted to individual needs. Mr. Hansen estimates that with today’s chairs he could have wheeled around the world in less than a year, not the 26 months it took him.

And as striking as the medical and technological advances are the social and attitudinal changes in recent years. When Mr. Hansen rolled into Newfoundland 25 years ago, designated parking spots did not exist; nor did ramps or accessible buildings. People with disabilities were pitied and patronized.

“It’s a whole new world that’s emerging,” Mr. Hansen said. “I look forward to the day where all buildings are built with inclusion in mind.”

But the change that makes him happiest and proudest is that people with disabilities are no longer hidden away. “They just get on with life: They’re teachers, nurses, athletes and McDonald’s employees, you name it. They go for dinner with their families and they go for hikes. That was a foreign concept when I did the tour.”

Mr. Hansen was a powerful force in bringing about this new reality. After his tour captured the public imagination and he became an iconic figure, he was much in demand. Invited to meet the B.C. Premier, he found arrangements had been made to bring him in via the parking garage ramp.

“No thanks,” he said. “I’ll go in the front door like everyone else.” Then he sat at the bottom of the stairs as the media snapped photos. A message was sent; ramps were built.

“Listen, it’s not 100 per cent yet for people with disabilities – far from it,” he said. “But that’s why it’s important to celebrate the progress we’ve made.”

Mr. Hansen recognizes his dreams will take time to achieve: “Twenty-five years is probably the halfway point to full social inclusion and a cure for spinal-cord injury. And I’m really looking forward to the second half of the journey.”

Follow on Twitter: @picardonhealth

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