The War Veterans

Many thought of a World War One “crippled” soldier as an inmate in a Veterans’ Affairs hospital—pitiful but also invisible, the original “basket case.” The mobility impaired veterans of World War Two were different. They were visible and raising their voices. One such veteran, John Counsel, founded the Canadian Paraplegic Association (now Spinal Cord Injury Canada) but he was not alone. Other veterans with impairments were working as hard to change the opportunities open to themselves and others.

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Illustrations from “A Challenge: Will You Help?”, pamphlet (Halifax, N.S.: W.H. Macnab and Son, 1946). Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation Library, special collections.

During World War Two, Walter Callow had few resources to make change happen but was determined to give paralyzed veterans and civilians mobility. Callow had become paralyzed and blind in the 1930s from the aftereffects of World War One injuries. But this did not stop him. He set up and staffed an office, raised funds and brought into production his design for a wheelchair carrier bus. His design is still used today in Halifax.

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Callow bus in operation in 2014 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Photo by permission of Callow Wheelchair Bus Foundation,

Kenneth Langford and the Canadian Paraplegic Association

Kenneth Langford was a co-founder of the Canadian Paraplegic Association along with John Counsel. Like many others who headed the campaign for independent living for individuals with spinal cord injuries he was a lawyer. He led the Association for many years and helped form its ethos of self-help. At the same time, as an ex-soldier, he believed in the power of a team to accomplish a goal.

Kenneth Langford, Lawyer, Co-founder and first Managing Director of the Canadian Paraplegic Association.
Extracts from Interview by Mary Tremblay, November 20, 1991, 6.22 minutes.
Tremblay Fonds, McMaster University HCM T-006-91.
Interview quoted with Permission of Medical Services Library Special Collections.

Interview Extracts - Transcript
Transcription extracts from the original transcription by Mary Tremblay.

Kenneth Langford (KL): Well initially, certainly when I got back to Canada, it was made quite clear that there was no cure for paralysis as such. The most they could hope to do was minimize it and try to develop the use of what muscles were left to accomplish whatever was necessary. Most of the patients initially objected to the idea of not being able to walk again. Quite rightly Dr. Jousse gave all of them a chance to try with leg braces, crutches or with walking some of them just in parallel bars without the crutches. While it could be done it soon became pretty evident that the energy expended in trying to walk with crutches was so much greater than the energy covering the same distance in a wheelchair that it wasn’t practical for most people unless they had some use of their legs.

Mary Tremblay (MT): Did you try that?

KL: I tried it yes. I was able to walk, I’m not sure of the distance, probably a hundred feet or so but then I was ready to collapse. It didn’t really make too much sense spending all that energy covering a short distance on a perfectly smooth floor or sidewalk when you could do it quickly and easily with a wheelchair and use your energy for more important things. It didn’t take long for people to get over the idea that walking was that essential.

MT: Then they started to rethink the idea of using a wheelchair?

KL: Yes, the question was how to get from A to B, it was a matter of mobility. If it could be accomplished more easily with a wheelchair than with crutches, then use the wheelchair. …

MT: You worked with John Counsel and what was his role do you think in setting up CPA? You mentioned that you had met him.

KL: Well John was injured in the Dieppe raid quite early, came back to Canada, hospitalized. He got most of his retraining, I think, at the Montreal Neurological. He was a Hamilton boy but he came back to Toronto. His sister was Liz Gordon, Walter Gordon’s wife. He lived with them for a while. They were very supportive. He really through sheer determination rehabilitated himself. Solved most of his own problems. Financial problems he didn’t have. He and his wife, for instance, lived quite independently for many years at the Park Plaza hotel, had a suite there. And from there they moved to a house that they adapted by adding an elevator and a few minor structural changes. But he was a very strong personality. At the time he was trying to sort out his own life, he became acquainted, I think it was with a bridge crony of his mother’s Lew Wood. It was Lew Wood who had established after WW I with Eddie Baker, the CNIB. Lew’s attitude was that nothing is impossible. If we need help we’ll get it. He encouraged John to try and copy what the CNIB had done for the blind twenty years before. He and John, through John’s determination and Lew’s advice, got the Paraplegic Association going to help initially the original veterans group to take a positive attitude toward solving their own problems. It was a self-help sort of thing. In the earlier days we had an established paraplegic or so, for example in Sarnia or Peterborough or wherever and another patient was going home to that town, we would expect the one who had established himself to lend a hand in terms of advice and help, and help the new people along, and they did that very freely.

MT: So you built a network.

KL: And that was more and more supplemented by professional counselors, vocational placement people. But the network was never completely abandoned. You could always take someone who was thinking of a particular type of career and perhaps introduce them to somebody who was already in that career in a wheelchair for advice and as much as anything encouragement.

Don Curren and the Canadian Paraplegic Association

The Canadian Paraplegic Association quickly moved to establish regional networks across Canada. Don Curren was the founding member of the Association’s Maritime Division. In 1995 his wife, Joan Curren, told interviewer Mary Tremblay about his work. As a returning veteran he had gone to university for a law degree. As a person with a spinal cord injury he then agreed to an temporary job with the Paraplegic Association. It became a life long career of advocating for equal accessibility to mainstream opportunities.


Joan and Don Curren on their wedding day. Photograph courtesy of Archives of Nova Scotia.

Joan Curren, wife of Don Curren, Founding Member of the Maritime Division of the Canadian Paraplegic Association.
Extracts from Interview by Mary Tremblay, October 25, 1995, 7:18 minutes.
Tremblay Fonds, McMaster University HCM T-061-95.
Interview quoted with Permission of Medical Services Library Special Collections.

Interview Extracts - Transcript
Transcription extracts from the original transcription by Mary Tremblay.

Mary Tremblay (MT): So after graduation [from law school] John Counsel asked [Don] to think about setting up a division [of the CPA] here in the Maritimes, what was that like?

Joan Curren (JC): When I stop to think there was so much that he [Don] was involved in. It’s really hard. He was starting promoting sports for the people in wheelchairs. It was primarily basketball. He was visiting the provinces of New Brunswick, Newfoundland and PEI, and in that order I think, trying to bring them in – I’m sorry PEI came ahead of Newfoundland - because it was the Maritimes CPA and then they changed it to the Atlantic when they brought in Newfoundland. And then I think New Brunswick managed to become emancipated and have their own organization and then Newfoundland and PEI.

Mary Tremblay (MT): And there was a lot of organization work?

JC: Tremendous. And Don did a lot of lobbying work with the government. One of his other big priorities was to organize accessibility. He was instrumental in getting the legislation for having accessible buildings, changing the building code.

MT: And how did that come about because when he was at Dal [Dalhousie University) he would have been carried up and down stairs and when he was going places in Halifax in the late forties. I imagine that often happened. Do you remember how he began to talk about bringing about changes.

JC: Oh Don wasn’t talking. He was a doer. No, he managed to - I think there was an elevator in the law building or else they established one and he finally managed to get a key for that maybe in the last year of his. It’s hard to imagine what it was like because in those early years people were not accustomed to seeing people in wheelchairs or that disabled. I can recall on one occasion we drove along Barrington Street, which is the main street here in Halifax. Don was getting out of the car for something and I jumped out and I pulled his wheelchair out. Don flipped himself out in the chair. A by-stander was just standing there staring with her mouth open. It was an incredible thing to see. It was so new for everybody. They didn’t expect anybody to be - if they were in a wheelchair, they were probably sick or dying. They weren’t expected to be another vibrant human being that could be their own master.

MT: So in a lot of ways it sounds like you were very much, the two of you, both pioneers.

JC: Oh, indeed. I think anybody that was disabled in those years were pioneers. Because as I say until 1943, I suppose, anybody that was a paraplegic did not live. There were very few people that managed to survive their initial trauma because of the kidney infection. That was the thing that carried people off.

MT: Don would have had an Everest & Jennings wheelchair?

JC: Well, initially he was in an old fashioned steel chair. That was an interesting thing with the Callow Coach, because when they designed that coach, it was for holding down those old, ancient-styled chairs. A few years later , of course, everybody was into the Everest and Jennings chairs which were much more mobile. So that when the patients went on the Callow Coach, they had to transfer from their chairs into the old ones to get in.

MT: If I go back, to talk about accessibility, what were the key things that happened there and in roughly what sort of time periods?

JC: Time periods, you mean when did we first start to get the ramps on the sidewalks?

MT: Those kind of things, yes.

JC: Well it must have been in the fifties, I would say. But those things came little by little. I suppose it was just a gradual education process. I can remember anytime we went anywhere, Don was always having to take pictures of things. Then he’d send them to the city and say look at this, it needs fixing and the steps had to be changed. If we went to stay at a hotel, he’d be calling the management. The door isn’t wide enough to get through here.

MT: So he was doing that all the time?

JC: All the time.

MT: And what kind of response would he get to that?

JC: Well Don had a marvelous way approaching people. He was always positive. If it was otherwise, he’d just quietly back away and have a thrust from another direction at the same thing. I don’t recall him ever being defeated.

MT: In the late fifties, in Caliper, the newsletter, there are a number of articles that are starting to appear. He announces a campaign to do away with steps. This was I think 1959. He talks in that article that it should only take a couple of years with some rational discussion with builders and engineers. Did he talk about that at that time?

JC: Well Don had contacted the School of Architecture here at Halifax and he had the architects on his side. They were teaching the students about accessibility. As I say, he was instrumental in getting the [Nova Scotia] building code changed which was a big thing. Because once the government buildings were required to be accessible, then other things fell into place.