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Rick Hansen, photographed in Richmond, B.C., in 2011. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Rick Hansen, photographed in Richmond, B.C., in 2011. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Rick Hansen

To persons with disabilities, perception is everything Add to ...

This year’s theme for the UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities is “Sustainable Development: The Promise of Technology.”

Looking back, technology has revolutionized our lives in so many ways. Whether it’s driving my adaptable car, looking at my daughters’ Instagram photos, or seeing a paralyzed person walk again using an Ekso skeleton, I can’t imagine life without it.

Looking forward, I am excited to see how it will improve health outcomes, accelerate business and make our lives more vibrant.

For people who have a disability – whether it’s visible or invisible – technology has been able to give the gift of ability and freedom. From all-terrain wheelchairs, to communication aids, to something as seemingly simple as an automatic door, these innovations are making a difference.

But judging by the fact that many people with disabilities can’t even get in the door to many buildings, much more needs to be done.

Today, there are more than 1.3 billion people living in the world with some form of a disability, and the numbers are growing. Around the world, people with disabilities not only face physical barriers but also social, economic and attitudinal barriers.

Recently, I met a teenager who is doing great things to prevent bullying in schools by sharing his story and educating others. He has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair, which means he undoubtedly faces barriers every day. When asked about a barrier he would like removed, I was expecting him to say something physical, but instead he answered, “how people look at disabled people.”

This struck a chord with me, (and not one of the spinal variety). It got me thinking about visible and invisible barriers as well as the disabilities you can see, versus those you can’t.

In order to remove invisible barriers, we need to change the way we think and talk about people with disabilities. We need to close the employment gap and teach businesses that being accessible makes economic, as well as social sense. We need to show how inclusion can foster hope, inspiration and acceptance.

In order to remove visible barriers, inclusivity and accessibility need to be at the core of our laws, building codes, company policies, education systems and innovations. Both are vital to ensure that people with disabilities reach their full potential and live the life they want and deserve.

In light of this, I am proposing two challenges:

First, I challenge builders, decision makers, corporations and government leaders to join with the charitable and social sector to make accessibility a human right. Only by working together can we realize real change. Only by working together can we show the world that accessibility benefits people of all abilities. Ramps, as one example, aren’t just for people who use wheelchairs, they are for parents pushing strollers, or the elderly who find stairs a challenge. Furthermore, creating accessible infrastructure has no downside. “I sure wish this wheelchair ramp didn’t exist and this doorway wasn’t so wide,” said no one ever.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, I encourage every one of all abilities to challenge the way people with disabilities are perceived. Do you look at people in wheelchairs differently? Do you think someone with visibility issues would be less competent at their job? Do you focus on physical differences instead of the person inside?

By reflecting on our own actions and beliefs, we can challenge existing standards and dream up new ones. If we can learn to perceive differently, we can learn new behaviours that benefit everyone. Together, we can change the world, but it starts with each and every one of us.

Help create a world that everyone can access, barrier-free. It’s possible.

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