Meet the inspiring man who didn’t let tetraplegia define his life

This article was originally published on the Disability Foundation’s website.

Sam Sullivan, founder of Tetra Society of North America, faced the greatest challenge of his life. At just 19 years of age, he broke his neck in a 1978 skiing accident, and found himself with tetraplegia, unable to dress or feed himself, let alone continue playing active sports.

Over the following few years, Sam sunk ever deeper into depression, feeling he’d never get a job or lead any kind of meaningful life.

“It was so traumatic for me, it actually made me think ‘This is my life, what do I have, and what do I need?’”, said Sam. “From that, I figured out what I wanted from life and what I could do.”

From this watershed moment, Sam set out to redefine what he was capable of. For a time, he played wheelchair rugby, but his disability was a barrier even in this accessible sport.

“I just could not compete with the people with arm function. What I could do was go up to these great players and get right in their spokes, so they’d basically be tied up in the corner, and our guys could go and score. I could not catch or hold the ball, but I figured the thing that I could do so that I could keep on in the team was go out and raise money.”

Sam Sullivan, a former Vancouver mayor with tetraplegia, cheering on marathon runners while a dog sits in his lap.

He took a similar approach to finding employment, approaching Doug Mowat, a legendary Vancouver figure – a tetraplegic himself – who had helped found the B.C. Paraplegic Association in 1957 (later re-named Spinal Cord Injury BC). Sam offered to produce newsletter stories about people with disabilities “that were in control of their lives” – so he could understand how they achieved success.

“I’d assumed these people started out with money or advantages but was shocked to find none had.”

“Each person gave me a different lesson, but what seemed common to all was that they expected more from their life.”

“So far, I’d learned not to expect too much so I wouldn’t be disappointed. The hardest thing for me was to learn to tell myself a different story.”

Sam Sullivan kayaking on a bay.

Armed with “$100 per month and a business card,” not to mention a renewed self-belief, Sam entered a new period in his life. He describes this as enlightened self-interest, finding leisure pursuits he’d like to follow, but soon realizing the real joy lay in turning these into initiatives that improve the quality of life of other people with disabilities.

Over an intensive 20-year period, Sam built a succession of non-profit groups offering opportunities to people with physical disabilities in Vancouver and across Canada, including Tetra Society of North America, British Columbia Mobility Opportunities Society, the Disabled Sailing Association, Vancouver Adapted Music Society, ConnecTra, the Disabled Independent Gardeners Association and the Disability Foundation. As much as anything, he formed the groups because of the years of depression – to send a message of hope to people in despair.

Sam Sullivan on a city sidewalk.

Photo credit: Kris Krug

Realizing a dream

Sam found that his greatest strength was in bringing people together to create self-maintaining groups: the people with disabilities who want to do more, and volunteers and other supporters who want to make a difference. “I curated relationships and started to raise money and set out to find allies. It was totally different to thinking about marches and protests and sit-ins. We had to be conscious of people that had resources, and what they would want to support. There are people in society that can identify with the plight of people with disabilities.”

Reflecting on his journey and the formation of these societies, Sam affirms what he’s learned along the way:

“We have to improve our own lives from within by finding interests and making connections. Accessible outdoor activities might sound like leisure, but in reality, they help people who have experienced despair to move on and find value in their lives, realizing their own potential.”

Sam went on to become mayor of Vancouver in 2005, subsequently founded the Global Civic Policy Society and is currently a Member of the Legislative Assembly.

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