#7: Dr. Robert W. Jackson

Written by Dr. Bob Steadward and Marilyn Jackson

Bob and Marilyn Jackson married on June 14, 1961. The very next day they flew to England, where Bob was continuing his Orthopaedic training at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore and London, as well as at the British Royal Infirmary in Bristol, England.

While at his placement, Bob heard about the Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Games, and he and Marilyn decided to attend. It was a fantastic experience, however they were both disappointed that Canada was not represented. Following the conclusion of the Games, Bob met and spoke with Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, founder of the Stoke Mandeville Games, who explained to Bob that Stoke had been trying to get Canada involved, but so far, no one had taken on the task to organize a team. It was here, for the first time, Bob promised Dr. Guttmann that upon his arrival back in Canada, and after completing his studies, he would organize a national team.

In the summer of 1964, Bob and Marilyn found themselves in Japan where Bob was working with Dr. Watanabe, a Japanese doctor who worked with an arthroscope, an instrument used for diagnosing knee problems. The two of them would meet a few times a week, with Bob teaching Dr. Watanabe English, and Dr. Watanabe showing Bob what he was doing with his arthroscope. Upon returning to Canada, Bob became engrossed in the arthroscope and went on to design new scopes; eventually, the scope was used not only for diagnosing knee problems, but also for correcting knee problems directly in surgery. Bob received the Order of Canada for his work with the arthroscope and for his work with people with disabilities.

Dr. Robert W. Jackson using the arthroscope on a patient

During his time in Japan, Bob also offered his services to the Canadian Olympic Organization as their Orthopaedic Consultant during the Tokyo Olympic Games. Following the Olympic Games, the Paralympic Games were held, and Bob and Marilyn decided to attend. Once again, Bob sat down with Dr. Guttmann and reaffirmed his promise to organize a Canadian Paralympic Team for the 1968 Tel Aviv Paralympics.

Bob had always been active in sports, and had worked with a number of persons with a disability in his medical practice, but he was an unlikely choice to become the pioneer of wheelchair sports in Canada. He had no contact with the sports community, had never worked with an athlete with a disability, nor had he worked as a coach. His sole qualification for the task at hand was a personal history of determination.

Bob resurrected his promise in early 1967 as a personal centennial project. Bob, along with a physical education consultant and Marilyn asked a few patients with disabilities to participate in a workout. In response, 14 patients in wheelchairs arrived at the Varsity Stadium at the University of Toronto on a bright Saturday afternoon in May. Marilyn timed some races, the consultant organized calisthenics drills, and Bob tried his hand at coaching. At the end of the day, Bob invited everyone back for the next weekend, and everyone said, “Great! Can we bring others?” And so, the next Saturday, there were about 30 athletes, and the week after that, 45.

That same summer, Bob heard of other sports clubs for athletes with a disability forming in Winnipeg, Vancouver, Edmonton, Halifax, and Montreal; and it did not take long for the organizers from all six centres to start communicating illegally through ham radio hookup. Through static and interference, half a dozen Canadians, thousands of kilometres apart, planned the first Pan-Am Paraplegic Games, which took place after the able-bodied Pan-Am Games in Winnipeg, in August 1967.  The event was a heavy success, and led to the weeklong 1967 Centennial Paraplegic Games in Montreal. There, the Saturday ham radio gang officially became the Canadian Wheelchair Sports Association, with Bob elected as the founding President.

Dr. Robert W. Jackson (back row, center) with Canadian Athletes at the 1967 Pan Am Games

Bob managed the 1968 team that went to the Tel Aviv Games, as well as the 1972 Paralympic Team that competed in the 21st International Stoke Mandeville Games held in Heidelberg before the Munich Olympics. He then took on the task of coordinator and host of the 1976 Paralympics in Toronto, which followed the Montreal Olympic Games. Dubbed the Torontolympiad, the event brought in 1,600 athletes and 900 coaches and officials from 44 countries. As Chairman of the organizing committee, Bob gave up his medical practice for six months to plan the sporting event. For Bob, the 1976 Torontolympiad was “The Breakthrough.” It was the first time that paralyzed, blind, and amputee athletes – not just paraplegics – competed side by side.

Following Dr. Guttmann’s death in 1980, Bob was elected President of the International Stoke Mandeville Games Federation; his goal now was to establish a federation of sports for all disabilities and all countries in time for the 1984 Paralympics.

Bob’s motivation was never solely athletic. It was a belief, that through sport, people with disabilities could raise their self-esteem while breaking down barriers – ability, not disability was his motto.