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(Brett Beadle/Brett Beadle for The Globe and Mail)
(Brett Beadle/Brett Beadle for The Globe and Mail)

Rick Hansen, a man still in motion Add to ...

The Transformational Canadians program celebrates 25 living citizens who have made a difference by immeasurably improving the lives of others. Readers were invited to nominate Canadians who fit this description. Over the next several weeks, a panel of six judges will select 25 Transformational Canadians from among the nominees.

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Rick Hansen, Paralympian, has been selected one of 25 Transformational Canadians.

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Canadians don't get much more iconic than Rick Hansen.

The celebrated wheelchair athlete, who logged some 40,000 kilometres on his two-year Man in Motion World Tour - which began in Vancouver in 1985 - aimed to show the world that people with disabilities have vast potential.

On his self-propelled travels through 34 countries, he met that goal and also raised $26-million.

Now, heading his self-named Richmond, B.C.-based foundation, whose contributions to spinal-cord injury research, awareness programs and other projects exceed $200-million, Mr. Hansen has embarked on a new journey. This week, he's visiting Israel and Jordan as part of the tour's 25th-anniversary campaign, which will also take him to Australia, China and the U.S.

Mr. Hansen says the campaign builds on his two main dreams: To make the world more accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities, and to help find a cure for spinal-cord injury, or SCI. He's pushing for a global accessibility rating system and an international agency that connects SCI researchers.

"Now, after all this time, there's a perfect opportunity and desire for nations around the world to start collaborating more formally and to create a global institute to accelerate progress toward a cure," Mr. Hansen says.

The 53-year-old hasn't let spinal-cord injury hold him back. A native of Williams Lake, B.C., Mr. Hansen was paralyzed below the waist at age 15, riding in the back of a pickup truck that swerved off the road and crashed. He credits family and friends with helping him see that life was still worth living.

"More than that, it was a life that could be fantastic if you continued to maintain vigilance over your attitude and lived a life that you thought was important - that you valued - and expressed who you were," Mr. Hansen says. "I loved the outdoors, I was an athlete, and I was an adventurer."

Before he became the Man in Motion, Mr. Hansen distinguished himself in athletic competition, winning 19 international wheelchair marathons and six Paralympic medals in wheelchair racing. A companion of the Order of Canada, he has three daughters with Amanda Reid, who was once his physiotherapist.

A quarter century after his tour, Mr. Hansen says Canada is doing a much better job of accommodating people who have disabilities. More important, those people are now participating in society, he adds.

Then again, there's no room for complacency. "To some degree, we almost have the view that perhaps we are more accessible than we are," Mr. Hansen says. "While we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go."

For Mr. Hansen, that includes looking at people with disabilities as an economic opportunity by investing in medical research and development. "We can ensure that that not only creates direct research jobs, but the technologies and the solutions that come out of that have great market potential," he says.

Beyond SCI, Mr. Hansen argues the results could treat a variety of illnesses from Parkinson's disease to cancer.

When Mr. Hansen finished the Man in Motion tour, many scientists doubted there would ever be an SCI cure - and just 30 per cent of those afflicted had any chance of improved function.

Since then, he says, researchers have proven the spinal cord can regrow, and that it's possible to reconnect the pathway between brain and point of injury. Meanwhile, better acute care means that 70 per cent of SCI sufferers can hope to see improvement, whether it's sensation in a limb or the ability to walk again.

The next decade could bring therapies to stop the spinal cord of a newly wounded patient from dying, Mr. Hansen says. Eventually, he suggests, innovations in stem cell research or biotechnology may cure SCI.

In pursuit of such dreams, Mr. Hansen wants government, industry, scientists, NGOs, philanthropists and volunteers to pull together in Canada. "We'll get there faster, we'll be a richer and more productive nation, and ultimately we'll be able to fulfill our values," he says.

Rick Hansen on leadership

You believe in something, you stand up for it, you try to pull together a team of people who can be inspired by that same vision, and then help encourage people to add value by putting their unique talents to the task - and you treat everybody with respect, no matter what role they're playing.

On Canadian attitudes toward the disabled when he became paralyzed

If my attitude at the tender age of 15 was any reflection of the country: one, I had absolutely no knowledge of anyone in a wheelchair. My perception of somebody who had a disability was quite limited, perhaps even negative. And so my own personal perception was something I had to battle in a significant way once I realized what my circumstance was. I had to relearn and redefine that view, and through that I also recognized that there were a number of people out there who had a similar view that I had, and that things needed to change.

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