Shortly after Rick Hansen survived a car accident that left him paralyzed, the then 15-year-old decided not to let his disability hold him back.
50 years later, Hansen is a household name across Canada and the world for advocating for accessibility rights and competing on the world stage.
But learning to live with your physical disability isn’t always easy, Hansen told CTV National News’ Sandie Rinaldo.
“When you’re in a situation like that, you’re overwhelmed, you’re in shock, you’re in disbelief and you have this big, dark canvas of despair,” Hansen said. “The first thing you need in those early days is some level of… ‘It’s got to get better.'”
This year Hansen marked the 50th anniversary of the life-changing accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down.
On June 27, 1973, at age 15, Hansen and his friend Don Alder hitchhiked into the back of a truck after a fishing trip. The couple was on their way home to Williams Lake, B.C., when the truck turned a corner. They were thrown from the vehicle.
“We weren’t going that fast, and then we literally started to skid,” Hansen said.
Alder was able to jump from the bed of the truck before Hansen became trapped inside as it rolled into the ditch.
In this undated photo, a young Rick Hansen plays table tennis in a wheelchair.
“I must have passed out for a minute or two, then I woke up and thought, Oh, I’m alive… I was just sure that this was going to be the end,” Hansen said.
When he came to, he was sitting at a toolbox on the side of the road and found that his legs didn’t work.
“I was pretty angry at the driver…I couldn’t believe he did that,” Hansen said. “I was just struggling… Deep down inside I felt like, ‘I’m in trouble… real trouble’.”
Despite the hardships he would endure – four months in the hospital and three months in rehabilitation – Hansen decided to change his attitude.
“I started thinking, ‘There must be something I can focus on.’ And they were rubber bands. (I tied her to the side of the bed and started exercising my arms,” he said.
Hansen wanted to sit upright before his 16th birthday in August, a goal he achieved and that gave him the motivation to keep going.
“When I first came back from my accident in Williams Lake, I began to learn what kind of life was possible,” Hansen said.
With the encouragement of his volleyball coach, he began practicing accessible sports and thus launched his sporting career.
Between 1979 and 1985, Hansen won 19 wheelchair marathons, three world titles and 15 medals – six at the Paralympic Games and nine at the Parapan American Games.
He never lost focus on how he could help other people with disabilities and raise money for spinal injury research.
“Success in life doesn’t depend on being able to walk around and use my legs,” Hansen said. “It’s about my heart. It’s about passion.”
To hear Rick Hansen’s full story, watch a special episode of CTV’s W5 on December 2nd at 7pm EST.
Rick Hansen talks to a little boy on his trip around the world to raise awareness for people with disabilities.