Quadriplegic Trailblazer Moves Mountains

There’s a joke going around the city of Vancouver, Canada. It goes: “Why would Vancouver send its worst skier to accept the Olympic flag?”

The quip isn’t meant to be so much funny as ironic. And would you believe that it was the city’s mayor himself who actually came up with the joke to begin with?

“My introduction to disability,” Sam Sullivan explains, “came as a consequence of an overestimation of my skiing ability, and a resulting broken neck.”

You see, Mr. Sullivan, mayor of Canada’s third largest city, has been a quadriplegic since 1979, with limited mobility in his arms and none in his fingers. And, as is characteristic of his attitude, the joke is always at his own expense. You’ll get the same thing if you confuse him for a paraplegic.

“My goal is to be a paraplegic when I grow up,” he quips nonchalantly. “But right now I’m a quadriplegic.” Now age 46, the mayor recently represented Vancouver at the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. There, the former skier received the Olympic flag on behalf of his city. He admits he thought little of his role in the ceremony—tradition dictated he should wave the flag eight times. Using a special holder he and a friend built into his wheelchair, Sullivan held the flag high and waved it eight times by circling left, then right and back again. It’s a scene he repeated one month later when performing the same duties at the Paralympic Games in Turin. By that time, Sullivan seemed to have gained somewhat of an international following. People who remembered him from the previous month’s ceremony would greet him on the street, calling him by name and asking for his autograph. “I wasn’t really aware that so many people knew who I was.”

But Sullivan’s fame comes as no surprise to anyone who knows his accomplishments. He was elected to the Vancouver City Council in 1993, where he held office until 2005, at which point he campaigned for and won the city’s mayoral office. Just the year before he became mayor he was awarded membership in the Order of Canada, the country’s highest honor, for his tireless efforts within the disability community. Those efforts include inventing several assistive devices, including a one-wheeled hiking vehicle called TrailRider, as well as founding several nonprofit groups dedicated to the betterment of life for people with disabilities. If all that sounds a little daunting, Sullivan wasn’t always so accomplished. In fact, he admits that in the years soon after becoming paralyzed, “my life spun into a full-blown crisis.”

Three years after his accident, government disincentives to give up his welfare benefits and re-enter the workforce caused a sort of personal rebellion against his own self-pity. He decided to take up flying, a brief but illuminating flirtation that was to also launch his voyage to self-sufficiency. His defining moment came mid-flight when his ultra-light lost lift and began to crumple in on itself. His instinctive reaction was to pull back on the flight stick to maintain altitude. To his shock, his instructor shoved the stick forward and throttled up, pitching the aircraft down into what seemed in that moment a reckless dive. Naturally, the instructor’s timely maneuver increased their air speed, leveling out the ultra-light and averting disaster.

As he later confessed in Abilities magazine, “I was convinced that pulling up on the controls would save me when, in fact, just the opposite was true. If I could be that wrong about something so important, what else was I wrong about in my life?”

The experience still serves him as a metaphor for taking responsibility for his disability and pursuing his own needs. “Flying was the first major goal I had after I began to take control over my life.”

But flying would only be the start of his challenges. He battled serious depression before earning his bachelor’s degree in business administration from Simon Fraser University. During that time, unable to open his own apartment door or give himself a shower, Sullivan gathered some friends and some local engineers to address citywide accessibility issues. It was a momentous step for Sullivan, who in the ensuing years would tackle one project after another. The result, he is proud to say, was that he “created, with the help of many others, several organizations dedicated to improving our quality of life.” His efforts to increase access for people with disabilities in Vancouver blossomed into the Tetra Society, a group he and some friends started in a basement. The organization now has 44 branches in North America and in India. All told, the Sam Sullivan Disability Foundation now includes six affiliates: the BC Mobility Opportunities Society, Connec-Tra Society, Disabled Independent Gardeners Association, Disabled Sailing Association, Tetra Society of North America and Vancouver Adapted Music Society.

When you first meet him, it might seem like Mayor Sullivan can’t take himself seriously. But his disarming charm belies his underlying determination. In a recent television interview with CBC’s Rick Mercer, Sullivan showed off his TrailRider by hiking through the wilds of Ontario’s Grenville Park. He pilots the contraption reclining, using people he affectionately calls “Sherpas” to pull the sled along the trails and through the brush. Looking like a one-wheeled luge, the device carries him anywhere his fellow hikers care to roam. One other person, presumably the “musher,” stabilizes Sullivan’s ride from the rear.

At one point during the interview, when asked yet another question about politics, Sullivan joked that “you can’t get anywhere in politics these days unless you’re quadriplegic.” Coming from the man who once also said, “Any society in which needs are not rights has no basis to claim for itself morality,” the intentional irony speaks volumes about this man’s remarkable will.

Those interested in learning more about the inspiring Mr. Sullivan are encouraged to visit www.samsullivan.ca.

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