What does it mean to be kind? For some, it’s a warm smile. For others, it’s listening to a friend. For Rick Hansen Foundation (RHF) Ambassador Bean Gill, being kind means creating a more inclusive and welcoming world for all, one action at a time.
Leading the afternoon’s conversation was a smiley Gill, signing in from a quiet office at ReYu Paralysis Recovery Centre — a rehabilitation centre for people with spinal cord injuries in Edmonton, Alberta. Gill is the facility’s co-founder, as well as a model, keynote speaker, and star of CBC’s new show, Push. She also happens to use a wheelchair.
As viewers settle into the Zoom call, Gill motions toward the text on her shirt. “I didn’t realize my shirt said, ‘Be Kind,’” she laughs. “I didn’t do that on purpose.”
It’s a funny coincidence, given the topic of the conversation is Be Kind. It breaks the digital ice and foreshadows today’s powerful takeaways.
Being Kind to Yourself
Gill shares how her life changed in 2012. While on vacation in Las Vegas, she felt severe pain in her spine while relaxing in her hotel room. She then went numb from the waist down.
“I was paralyzed within 10 minutes,” she explains.
A virus caused Gill’s spinal cord injury (SCI). It resulted in transverse myelitis — a neurological condition caused by inflammation of the spinal cord. She was told she would likely never walk again. Gill openly shares her struggles navigating her new reality with a disability.
“You can’t stay positive all the time. I had to go through the negative of this life-changing event,” she explains.
After battles with self-esteem and self-love, Gill’s mentality shifted over time.
“I was faced with a decision, ‘what are you going to do?’” she explains. “In order to be kind, you have to be gracious. I became very grateful for what I have. I don’t take my hands for granted now.” Gill flashes the palms of her hands to the screen before continuing, “so much good has come from my paralysis. Even though it was really difficult when it happened.”
She continues by sharing the importance of loving who you are, no matter where life takes you. When we choose to be kind to ourselves, we become open to its powerful ripple effect.
Being Kind to Others
“The ripple effect of being kind is how we are going to change the world. It only takes one person. Look at what Rick did! You can do it, too!” Gill says enthusiastically.
Gill is referring to “one of [her] favourite people in the world,” Rick Hansen.
“The amount of courage and bravery and patience he had...it blew my mind,” she shares, referring to his Man In Motion World Tour. “The day I saw him speak in Edmonton, that’s when I decided to become a speaker, too. I became an RHF Ambassador.”
Through being kind, could we, as audience members, become allies and create change for people with disabilities, too? The energy in Gill’s voice declares a resounding YES!
“When you’re kind, you bring out the kindness in others,” she says. “My family and friends helped me. And through my experience, my family became allies for so many people with disabilities. Rick has allies all around the world!”
Being Kind to Become an Ally
To become an ally, Gill teaches that we must practice the elevated level of kindness: empathy.
“Empathy just means to care. Care about others and care about yourself,” she explains. “Empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and recognizing the emotions of others. Paralysis doesn’t happen to everyone, but some type of adversity does.”
Gill continues by explaining that meaningful disability allyship is all about being intentional. “Listen to what the person with a disability wants and needs,” she says.
“Everyone just wants to be loved, seen and heard. Look at people with disabilities, make eye contact. Too many times, people feel ignored and it’s often because people don’t know how to interact with people with disabilities. Always be open to learning.”
Being Kind to Create Change
Gill’s passion is infectious, sparking questions from the audience during the question-and-answer portion of her presentation.
“How can I be a good ally?” One audience member asks through Zoom’s chat function.
“What can I do to make a difference?” Pops up next.
“Smile, be kind, advocate, don’t park in the accessible stall,” Gill responds. “Don’t use the accessible [bathroom] stall. Advocate to make every stall accessible.”
Questions continue to grow in the chat function, a testament to the energy and thoughtfulness growing among the hundreds of young people in attendance. Allyship and kindness take courage, no doubt, but as the hour comes to an end Gill’s words begin to initiate a ripple effect.
“All of us have bravery and courage inside us.”
You can teach your students the importance of kindness and inclusion, too! Book an RHF Ambassador presentation today to spark meaningful conversations around disability allyship.
RHFSP’s next theme is Be Bold. Prepare your classroom by checking out VPL’s Be Bold inspired reading list!