#20: Dr. Robert D. Steadward

written by David Legg

Dr. Steadward’s impact and influence on wheelchair sport and disability sport generally, is massive. He has impacted and guided multitudes through his volunteerism, vision and passion for disability sport. I saw this first hand when I was his graduate student at the University of Alberta in the mid-1990s. I conducted my research at the Rick Hansen Centre, opened in 1978 by Dr. Steadward, which is now called the Steadward Centre in his honour. He introduced me to my wife, attended my wedding, counselled me on perhaps every major decision I have made since and is now a close friend and confidant. I am lucky to know such a great man!

Dr. Steadward was the Founder and First President of the International Paralympic Committee, a role that he held for 12 years, but, for the purposes of celebrating CWSA’s 50th Anniversary, it is his national contributions that I will now honour and focus on.

Throughout his career both as a Professor at the University of Alberta, but mostly as a volunteer, he has held several roles including those as Founder, President and Chairman (1979-1989) of the Canadian Sports Fund for the Physically Disabled, Founder and President (1971-1975) of the Alberta Wheelchair Sports Association (AWSA), several roles with the CWSA throughout the 60s & 70s and several roles with the Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC), including President. His involvement, specifically with wheelchair sport, also spans decades including hosting the 1968 National Wheelchair Games, the 1977 Canadian Games for the Physically Disabled, and the 1994 Gold Cup International World Wheelchair Basketball Championships all at the University of Alberta. Dr. Steadward also created and hosted Jasper Talks, a national conference in 1986. This national conference led to the creation of the Active Living Alliance for Canadians with a Disability. A few years later, in 1993, he created and hosted a major international congress, also in Jasper, called Vista 93. This world congress was for athletes, coaches, scientists and administrators of the International Paralympic Committee to come together to discuss common issues. This congress is still held in different parts of the world every second year, and is still known as Vista.

Dr. Robert Steadward
Robert Steadward at the 1976 Torontolympiad

The influence on organizations, however, was likely not his priority. As I alluded to in my introduction and perhaps most importantly, were the people Dr. Steadward impacted. One in particular was Gary McPherson, another icon within the Canadian wheelchair sport’s history. Gary passed away in 2010 but prior to this,  Gary helped me nominate Dr. Steadward for the Alberta Order of Excellence – which he received later that year.

In his letter, Gary described Dr. Steadward thusly:

“Dr. Steadward's curriculum vitae and biographical profile speaks for itself as it chronicles a lifetime of outstanding achievements.  However, I speak from years of observing his commitment, love, devotion and resolve that can be seen through his indefatigable efforts to help his fellow man, and in particular individuals with disability.  His life's work and passion has had an extraordinary impact on thousands of people in Alberta, in Canada and throughout the world.  When Bob Steadward takes on a task or cause, he does so with every fibre of his being.  This has been demonstrated through each and every project that he has taken on throughout his lifetime of volunteering.”

Because of these achievements, Dr. Steadward has received numerous awards and accolades. A sample of these include an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree at Leuven University, Belgium in 2001, the University of Alberta Board of Governor's Award of Distinction in 2000, the University of Oregon, Distinguished Service Award in 2000 and appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada, in 1999.  He has also been inducted into the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Provincial and Canada Sport Halls of Fame as well as the CPC Sports Hall of Fame. Queen Elizabeth II recognized him with being a recipient of both the Golden and Diamond Jubilee medals. He has also received both the International Olympic and Paralympic Orders.  In the past, Dr. Steadward has been awarded Honorary Life Memberships in the CWSA, CPC, COC and the IPC.