Rick Hansen

Paralympian and disability activist

Rick Hansen is one of Canada’s best-known athletes. A disability activist and former Paralympian, Hansen is best known as the “Man in Motion.” He has dedicated his life to changing attitudes and removing barriers for people with disabilities.

What does belonging mean to you?
For me, belonging means a sense of feeling welcome and respected and being able to fully participate in society, or in communities or entities that are in full play in today’s society. That would at home, at work in the nation, or within global society.

I believe inclusivity isn’t just a word—it’s an outcome. And it results in a feeling and a sense of being welcome and being included and having worth. Therefore, belonging is a deep-seated core value that we aspire to. One of the only ways to know if we are there is to ask people how they feel.

Why does belonging matter in today’s world?
The world today is no longer comprised of very homogenous subsets of society or levels of participation. It’s very pluralistic and it’s very multi-dimensional. It’s very diverse. It’s also smaller and more connected. We need to evolve our thinking and our sense of core values to really understand what inclusivity means, what equality means, and the ability to respect all people in spite of their differences and recognize that together we’re stronger. And it’s our diversity that actually creates common contributions that are unique and that add value.

Ultimately we need to build bridges to inclusivity to actually go beyond the cliché statement that “diversity is a strength,” to remind people that we may be diverse in many ways but it’s our core values and our behaviours and the way we act and the way we enable that sense of belonging that really makes the difference. Without a real strong culture that fosters and creates a sense of belonging, then we are just a society where people are diverse. That’s just tolerance and cohabitating as opposed to truly being inclusive.

When have you most felt like you belonged? Or not belonged?
One of the unique privileges I’ve had is, first of all, is learning from and being part of a community of people who happen to have a disability. I had an accident when I was 15, and so perhaps the greatest learning is that disability—whether it be visual, hearing, mobility, cognitive and other forms—knows no boundary. It happens to men, women, rich, poor, Black or white, Muslims, Catholics or atheists. At the end of the day, it happens to Canadians, Chinese, Israelis, Arabs. I really believe that disability is really truly a common, unifying force in a diverse society.

Therefore, the more we recognize and appreciate and respond to and move the dial on attitudes and stigmas related to disability—from old models of pity and lack of worth or meaning to a sense of normalized view that what really matters is ability—we remove barriers to full society and full participation. So, I’m privileged to be able to actually work through those core understandings through learning how to live with a disability, learning how to work with others to help make a difference, and pay it forward to our community as a whole both nationally and globally.

I’m also surrounded by really close family with parents and my two siblings, but also cousins and uncles and aunts and grandparents. I really valued that early experience growing up and a sense of belonging was incredibly powerful with family. Also, when I had my injury and I was struggling through those feelings of lack of self-worth, lack of belonging, I was very fortunate to have been recruited to participate in wheelchair basketball by a fellow named Stan Strong. He was a team manager and a peer counsellor for the paraplegic association. He was the manager of the Vancouver Cable Cars wheelchair basketball team.

When I joined that team (and I eventually recruited Terry Fox, to join), there were so many diverse people on that team. Diverse First Nations, African Canadians, rich and poor, varying abilities. They were all bonded together by some things they experienced, some of the values that they held, the activity they were participating in—sport and wheelchair basketball. In order to achieve goals and dreams, they had to be the best they could be. They had to work together as a team and be a community and have a sense of family. That was a very powerful experience for me as a youth growing up and trying to cross over the threshold from moving from one state to another–from a state of feeling like I was a victim or I was hopelessly on disability to feeling like I was an agent of change, I was empowered, I was filled with ability and I really did belong.

What is the single biggest threat to building a belonging society?
I think perhaps number one is an ignorance, or a lack of awareness or understanding or framework to discuss and experience and recognize diversity—to realize that human beings are human beings and everyone on this planet needs to be respected and to be included and welcomed.

I also believe that there are deep-seated fears and emotions that are often misplaced. They come from social conditioning, or they come from deep roots and history. Fears are often driving forces to different behaviours and, ultimately, getting down to those fears and misunderstandings and reframing is super important. Being narrow-minded and deeply conditioned can only create walls that create dysfunction and tension and negativity. Ultimately, the more we can shine a light on these old models and stereotypes and fears, hopefully we can replace them with positive modern realities that show how human beings are mostly loving, caring and interdependent, and that there is a tremendous amount of respect and collaboration that makes up a modern and sophisticated society.

What one change could we make as a society to improve belonging?
I think collectively we need to check our values and our social constructs to ensure that while we talk about an inclusive and equal and just society and a respectful society, does that match our constitution, our law? Does it match our social construct and framework to line up those values? Because without that congruency I think there’s confusion and inconsistency.

Secondly, I think what we need to do within that is really identify and promote and build off of these core “convening platforms” where diverse societies can opt-in to unified beliefs in barriers or solutions that make our world better. And by participating in the things that continue to move us forward, we recognize that we build relations, we build friendships, we recognize in spite of differences we have more in common than we would imagine. The more we can unify our societies to common endeavor—whether it be in St. John’s or Halifax or Victoria or Nunavut—there’s nothing like working together to build trust, respect and push past the sometimes polarizing elements of why we’re different.

What one thing can each of us do, right now, to foster belonging?
At the end of the day it’s what we do in our daily lives to support a belonging society.

From my point of view, in my story, when I was first injured I really had a lot of deeply held intrinsic biases against people with disabilities. Now, I was a person with a disability. My view of myself and my work was severely handicapped, and I had to reframe that through education and learning and some significant hard work in the support of others. I had to feel that I loved myself and could embrace myself and strengths and weaknesses. That really gave me a tremendous gift. It took a lot of support and a lot of hard work.

Secondly, I think that the challenge that we can respond to immediately is we can really check our value sets and check our attitudes and continue to examine through self-awareness. If we examine deep-seated stereotypes, urban myths or fears that can create ripples of tension between people, we can bring them out of the dark and into the light and they no longer drive us. They become illuminated and we can shrink them and basically transform as we achieve progress towards the ultimate values we hold.