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A spinal injury ended his career. Now he has a degree from U of T

When a 2018 diving accident left Beau Hayward an incomplete quadriplegic, the 28-year-old ironworker’s life was upended.

“My life before was super physical, playing sports and doing rebar,” he told CBC News in an interview this week. “After my accident, you know, everything changed.”

The first year and a half involved lots of physical therapy and thoughts about the future. Hayward was able to recover some of his upper body function, but he was never going to go back to physical labour.

“This injury kind of takes everything from you,” he said.

After some thought, he said he decided to pursue an interest he’d always had in history.

Now, at 34, Hayward is receiving his honours degree in history and archaeology from the University of Toronto.

Hayward will cross the convocation stage on Wednesday, cheered on by his parents, his partner and his daughter.

A life-changing injury

In 2018, Hayward was at a cottage with friends in Sudbury, when he dove into a lake and hit the bottom. The impact cracked multiple vertebrae in his spine and knocked him out.

He nearly drowned, but his friends found him face down in the water and revived him.

Hayward was taken to the hospital where he learned his legs were paralyzed and he’d lost the use of parts of his upper body. 

A man in a mobility scooter poses for a photo outside a university building
In 2018, Beau Hayward lost the use of his legs and part of his upper body in a diving accident. Now, he’s graduating with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Toronto. (Matthew Volpe/University of Toronto)

The past five years at school, he said, taught him how to live again. Going to class got him out and socializing, he said, exercising as he could and setting goals for a new career.

“School has been so tightly intertwined with that recovery process and finding independence,” he said.

But it took a lot of help, he said.

Lots of support along the way

Unable to physically write or study in the field, he said his instructors and administrators helped accommodate him in his studies. Instead of fieldwork, professors tailored his studies to the lab. Instead of typing on a laptop, administrators helped him get access to dictation software.

“I’ve had so many incredible people that have pushed me and helped me get here,” he said.

One of those people is Michelle Morgani, his university accessibility adviser. She helped Hayward obtain many academic accommodations and navigate campus life.

That help ranged from finding him an educational assistant to helping him take off his coat in class.

A smiling man in a backwards cap and hoodie sits in a wheelchair in a gymnasium
Hayward says he played sports as a hobby before his spinal injury. At the University of Toronto, he was able to organize accessible sporting events. Here, he’s pictured at a bocce tournament he helped orchestrate. (Submitted by University of Toronto)

Morgani said Hayward’s time at school has helped administrators make campus more accessible in general.

“Every time we’ve met, we talk about his accommodations and the next part is, how can I help support other students in the school?” she said. “We’ve done some walkthroughs on campus to ensure accessibility.”

Hayward also found a way to get back into sports, Morgani said, developing accessible bocce and ski events.

Now, at the end of his undergrad, Morgani says he’s left a legacy that future students will feel.

Hayward isn’t done with school yet though. He’ll return to U of T this fall to pursue a master’s degree in history.

“After that, I’m still trying to figure it out,” Hayward said. “It went really fast and I really loved every minute.”

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