“I think we need a more sophisticated version of what I did, something to connect the world . . . to create a movement that would capture attention and imagination with global participation, connectivity and sustainability to accelerate progress and grab the interest of the more socially conscious next generation to bring them into the conversation . . .”
Founder of the Vancouver, Canada-based Rick Hansen Foundation, Rick is passionate in his pursuit of a better life for people with disabilities. He is well-known for his 1985-1987 Man in Motion World Tour, a 40,000 km wheelchair marathon that covered 34 countries, raising $26 million for Spinal Cord Injury research and to create an accessible, inclusive world..
Mélange sat down with Rick to speak about his Foundation and vision for a world with no barriers.
Love for the beach is inevitable if you live on the island of Anguilla. It beckons invitingly every day, luring both tourists and locals. The warmth of its powdery white sand and aquamarine waters can be enjoyed any day of the year, as Anguilla usually enjoys good weather, year-round. Being on the water is the favourite past-time of many residents and understandably so, because its picturesque beauty is irresistible.
With the beach being such an integral part of Anguillan life, swimwear is an important item of clothing, and it won’t be surprising to find that many people will have a few in the closet, as visits to the beach are frequent. The swimsuits that are likely to emerge on any given day, however, are far from ordinary. Anguillan Fashion Designer, Donilia Reid, turns fabric into swimsuit masterpieces that adorn female bodies of all ages on the island. Her love for the beach is skillfully reflected in the unique pieces she creates which are proudly worn by her clients.
Donilia is just 23 years old, but her keen beach-fashion sense and resulting works of art belies her tender age. A lot of thought goes into her pieces, but she does admit that her inspiration is based solely on the ideas of what she herself will like to wear. Her creativity flows freely and clients embrace it, with each piece she presents, gladly accepted. For her, creating swimwear is a natural process and her style is unmatched.
“Creating swimwear is fun,” she said. “I love to make playful pieces.”
You can certainly have a swimsuit to match your every mood and being an avid-beachgoer herself, this aids the creativity.
Growing up, sports was her main interest but Donilia also experimented occasionally with sewing. She remembers watching keenly as her mother adjusted outfits for work. The spark grew and at eleven years old she was already sewing clothes for her dolls by hand. Everything changed for her one day while she was playing the usual photoshoot game with her sister – her sister was the model and she produced the clothing and did their ‘photoshoots.’ Her selected clothing for her sister to model that day was a swimsuit, which she made. When her mom got home from work, she was so impressed with what she saw that she immediately telephoned Donilia’s school to ask whether there were any sewing programs she can attend. There was indeed a summer sewing program, she attended, learnt the basics of sewing and today she is changing the swimwear landscape in Anguilla.
Back in 1973 when I had my injury, if you had a disability, there were not a lot of expectations. I was even told during my rehabilitation that I should not set my sights too high so as not be disappointed. That opinion permeated throughout the entire planet in so many ways. Early pioneers who pushed out in front of me did the heavy lifting, breaking the threshold of possibilities, because at that time, human rights did not really exist. Charters or legislative declarations and the Americans with Disabilities Act was still a fantasy in the seventies. Even when I left on my Man in Motion World Tour, there were still a lot of champions fighting upstream for that, and it wasn’t until the 1990’s that it happened. In the early 1980’s Canada had an incredible constitutional commitment in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but the translation of those beautiful words of the Canada that we wanted, and the legislative framework that existed, was still a major mountain to climb.
Very significant levels of progress have happened in the decades since that original, early, crazy start of my Man in Motion World Tour. When you look at the way in which the United Nations has now embedded elements of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, challenging countries around the world to sign in to the convention, to measure up and report back, this is the result of amazing champions, generations of people who just didn’t accept the status quo but believed in equality and found opportunities to fully participate and contribute. They continue to chisel away, breaking down barriers one at a time. We’re not fully there yet but I think a tremendous amount has been accomplished.
I believe the digital age has also helped immensely because the world is more connected and stories of ability, potential and examples of a world that we all strive for I think are more easily accessible. It’s becoming more commonplace to expect that it is possible and I believe that, plus actual tangible progress is creating an accelerating opportunity, and it is really an exciting time to be involved in this movement because there’s tremendous hope for the future.
Our Foundation is like a social entrepreneurial organization where we look at big barriers and then we try to focus and find solutions. We bring experts and resources together, incubate pilots that are tested and then we start to roll them out. We have a vision of these solutions being globally relevant and portable. Ultimately, we work hard as best we can to add value. What we saw in the world of people with disabilities is that there are lots of barriers that are fundamental, but we’re a small group so we asked ourselves where can we put our precious energy and try to move the bar? We then felt that the built environment was an area that needed a lot of attention, for two reasons:
(1) there has been progress in the built environment, but the progress was based largely on pockets of legislation and code which were very limited in terms of their viewpoints at the time, and very prescriptive. They did not take into consideration the functionality of a building, after all, buildings are meant for people.
(2) Secondly, there was a heavy focus on relying on people with disabilities and advocates to somehow parachute in on the backend to vote in their perspective, which was by then already too late, and so there was disappointment, human rights lawsuits, compliance-based issues, costly tax on very valuable investment of money and ultimately energy, and conflict to try to fix what should have been done at the beginning.
We researched groups out there to find out if there were any that operated in other sectors that impacted change and yes, there were – energy efficient buildings. They leaped way ahead. Energy-efficient, ‘green’ buildings are now being constructed and their sustainability benchmark is top of the mark for incentives and accolades – way ahead of accessibility in their buildings, built for people. They took the knowledge that was embedded in the energy advocacy groups and created a universal standard and a curriculum, and then they started getting the curriculum out of just the hands of the advocates and they pushed it upstream into the industry, government and policy. They normalized it and then every architect, engineer or planner that’s coming through universities, or is in a big company must be designated in these fields otherwise, they’re not relevant.
But if you look at the schools of architecture, there are very few architects being certified in universal inclusive design, and this is a disconnect. As a result, there are systemic barriers due to big misses. It works both ways because when are so prescriptive on code, you can ask for bells and whistles and very specific modifications, but it may sit there and not be utilized because there is no use or market for it at the time. Observing the back and forth between industry, government and advocates, we wanted to change that, so we started this little pilot in Vancouver which got support from the Government of British Columbia and Government. We rolled that out to the entire Province, with over 1,100 buildings being rated vs tested, formed an Advisory Group with industry at the table – all the technical experts from the adapted side were also at the table. We created The Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification which is rolling out across Canada. There are entities in the United States that are starting to look at this, airport authorities internationally and networks of professionals.
Our training is online and global so anyone in the world with the prerequisites can take the course and be designated. It is available at seven universities and colleges in Canada, one of them is the global online Athabasca University. The idea is to get it out there, train and designate thousands of professionals in the field, and advocates too, using the same language, measuring the same things and then get that knowledge upstream until this becomes normal and moves into policy with governments, private sector and agencies. In the bidding process, somebody has to be designated on the design team, there must be a provisional rating before you starting construction and then people who touch a project all the way through will actually have that same level of knowledge, so that by the time advocates come together, they’re actually able to do what they should, which is look at whatever unique gaps there may be, based on local circumstances and innovation. That’s where advocates can provide the best value.
That’s our vision and we’re just at the baby steps right now with a tremendous team of hard-working people. Lots of challenges exist because this field is very fragmented. There are different levels of legislation and different views about codes, today’s standards may become tomorrow’s handicaps, but this exists everywhere so the question is, can we move towards a more global standard in this field? Can we consolidate the curriculum and designate people who do business in multiple nations and jurisdictions and give them tools and consistency? Can we give consumers that same level of comfort? Can we measure then start to create an index? That’s up to us. I think we could, but we’ll see.
. . . why don’t we actually get Elon Musk to help someone in a wheelchair go into space, leave their chair at the space station, circumnavigate the world multiple times a day, speaking digitally to billions of people about there being no barriers, and that the future of space is for everyone? This will help to power up a conversation with the youth . . .