When Rick Hansen found out that he’d be receiving an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he didn’t quite believe it.
“I went, ‘Really? That’s me? Are you sure? Can you verify that?’” said Hansen, founder of the Rick Hansen Foundation and an advocate for those with spinal cord injuries.
Having verified the information, Hansen not only received his doctorate on June 10 with fellow Canadian, international relations expert Janice Gross Stein, he also delivered the convocation address to the university’s PhD graduates.
“I was asked to speak on behalf of all the other honorary doctorate and award recipients,” he said. “We were all on our journey. I wanted to identify this. There are some elements on our journey where we have to work hard, struggle and emerge through.”
This is especially true for Hansen, who lost the ability to walk when he was 15 years old. In 1973, Hansen was involved in a car crash that paralyzed him from the waist down.
Since then, he’s become a well-known Paralympic athlete and, most famously, wheeled around the world on his Man in Motion World Tour in 1985.
The athlete travelled 40,000 kilometres through 34 countries to raise awareness and funds for spinal-cord injury research and treatments.
Still determined to do more for those with spinal-cord injuries, Hansen started the Rick Hansen Foundation, which promotes inclusivity for those with disabilities, and continued raising funds and awareness for his cause.
Hansen first got involved with Hebrew University last year, when he signed an agreement with the university’s Institute for Medical Research Israel Canada, an initiative that encourages interdisciplinary partnerships between Israeli and Canadian scientists.
The agreement broadened the Rick Hansen Spinal Cord Injury Registry, an international database that collects spinal-cord injury information that may be useful to further clinical treatments. For Hansen, who’s looking to work with other Israeli universities, partnering with Israel made sense.
“I think Canada and Israel have so much in common,” he said. “Despite our geographic or cultural differences, we can build planks that will connect us and continue to help forge a global society where people are healthy and can live in an inclusive [community].”
Hansen was also impressed with the country’s medical researchers and professionals.
“Israel is number 1. It’s a tremendous place of learning. They hit way above their weight in their ability to come up with new discoveries in research,” he said.
For those with spinal-cord injuries, quality of life could depend on this research.
“Our goal is to encourage research to happen. We want to see that translate to practical interventions,” he said.
To reach this goal, it’s crucial to involve younger generations, including the PhD students Hansen addressed, he added.
“The graduating students that were there, they’ve not only achieved their undergrad [degrees], but their doctorates. They’ve accumulated a significant amount of knowledge and are ready to launch into advanced research,” he said.
“Each one of them will need to have that sense of inspiration and that sense of not just finding a job… but finding a meaningful job.”
These meaningful jobs could lead to significant changes in all areas of medical research.
“The hope is… there’s a chance to be able to make a difference,” Hansen said.
For Hansen, the ultimate goal is to reverse injuries like the one he suffered as a teenager.
“[I] talked about one of my greatest hopes. Through the evolution of knowledge and human advancement in places like Hebrew University, perhaps [new research will] lead to a cure for spinal-cord injury, so people could walk again. Or [lead to the] advancement of new technology so a wheelchair would be something you see in a museum,” he said.
But even without a cure, Hansen is determined to lead a full and happy life.
“I can’t use my legs, but I can still focus on my ability, pursue my hopes and dreams and realize I don’t need to be cured in order to be whole as a human being.”