'Incredible gratitude': U of T grad on his journey from spinal cord injury to convocation

A picture of U of T student Beau Hayward in the Athletic Centre field house
A picture of U of T student Beau Hayward in the Athletic Centre field house
05/06/2024

In the summer of 2018, Beau Hayward dived off the dock of a friend’s cottage in Sudbury, Ont., and unexpectedly struck the bottom. Face down in the water and unable to turn over, he was luckily found by a friend who was able to revive him on shore.

But the accident changed Hayward's life. He sustained a spinal cord injury that caused him to become an incomplete quadriplegic, which means he has limited function in his upper body.

A period of profound adjustment followed that involved tirelessly working towards regaining his independence and developing a mindset to focus on what was truly important and worthy of his time and energy – which, he decided, was studying history and archaeology at the University of Toronto.

Hayward graduated this spring with an honours bachelor of arts degree as a member of Woodsworth College. He spoke to Faculty of Arts & Science writer Sean McNeely about his experiences at U of T, including how students and staff who work at the Athletic Centre supported his journey towards regaining physical strength and how working on the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education Sport & Rec Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging team led to the development of new programs for students with disabilities. 


What did you enjoy most about the history and archaeology programs?

When I began, my interest in history was very broad, albeit somewhat focused on North American and European history. The way the undergrad program is designed, you’re exposed to historical research from across the world, but there was always something about American history that held a grip on me.
The professors and TAs made all the difference throughout my undergraduate degree. I had the opportunity to take several courses taught by Assistant Professor Max Mishler who has been an inspiration and supported me throughout the past four years.

The archaeology undergraduate major is an incredible program that has so many avenues for growth. There are field schools around the world, field schools in Toronto, and opportunities to get hands-on experience inside laboratories at the university. As a student with a physical disability, there are a lot of challenges in pursuing archaeological research, but that never stopped my U of T professors and TAs who always worked with me to make sure that I was getting the most out of my experience.

Professor Michael Chazan and Hilary Duke, a postdoctoral fellow, worked with me to build my experience working with archaeological materials in the lab – that was a highlight of my university experience.
Throughout my undergrad, I’ve had the opportunity to take several courses with Hilary Duke focusing on stone tools. From early on, I felt an attachment to these artifacts. There is something special about them; they are such a tremendous part of human history and can tell us so much.

Can you share your experiences with accessibility at U of T?

When I decided to go to U of T, some friends were concerned that an old university would not be accessible. As it turns out, it’s incredibly accessible. Over my four years, I can think of only two instances where classrooms proved difficult for accessibility, and those issues were resolved quickly.

Additionally, the Office of Facilities & Services has a deep commitment to accessibility. I had the pleasure of providing consultations for upcoming construction projects involving accessibility.

Outside of the physical aspects of accessibility on campus, I’ve had incredible support from the university’s Accessibility Services team. Michelle Morgani has been my accessibility adviser since the beginning at Woodsworth and has been critical in my success at the university.

Everything from accommodated formats for research materials to accommodated testing services made my experience as a student with a disability seamless.

Looking back, what advice would you give your first-year self?

Spinal cord injuries take everything from you, and the journey of recovery is about regaining as much as possible. My time at the university has been completely intertwined with my recovery, and what I’ve learned is that it really wasn’t as much about regaining anything [as] it was about building something completely new.

My advice to my first-year self would be to trust the process and enjoy every minute because it really does fly by.

What have been some of your most memorable experiences at U of T?

As I reflect on the past five years, I cannot help but feel incredible gratitude towards the massive group of people who have helped me along the way.

I will be forever grateful for all the students and staff who work at the Athletic Centre. With their incredible support, I have been able to regain so much physical strength that has shaped my independence.

I also had the pleasure of working on the [Faculty of] Kinesiology & Physical Education’s Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging team and developed a few programs for students with disabilities. These programs were both big and small, and created some incredible experiences that I will cherish.

What’s next for you after graduation?

I will be beginning my master’s in history [at U of T] this September which I’m thrilled about. My research will be focused on the United States. I’ll be researching early 20th-century labour history, with my project specifically focused on Appalachia.

What would you say to someone considering U of T and Woodsworth College?

The staff and faculty at Woodsworth College are incredible. They are committed to their students’ success. The Academic Bridging Program was my ticket into the university and to a new life. It sounds dramatic, but it’s absolutely true. I cannot emphasize enough how fantastic the community at the college really is.
Not only are the staff and faculty members amazing and driven to provide every opportunity for success, but there is tremendous peer support and community at Woodsworth. To someone considering U of T, and especially the Academic Bridging Program at Woodsworth College, there is a life-changing opportunity available here. Don’t let it pass you by.