A Vision for Accessible Design at Expo 67
By Stephanie Chipeur
Edited by Brian Sholis
Neil Compton, a prominent academic in Montréal and mentor to renowned novelist Mordecai Richler, became a wheelchair user in his adulthood after contracting polio in 1955. Twelve years later, Compton attended the 1967 International and Universal Exposition in Montreal, known as Expo 67. That summer he published an extensive review of its architecture and other visual experiences for the American magazine Commentary. In a brief aside, Compton acknowledged the unique design of the Expo 67 grounds and pavilions:
Since I am confined to a wheelchair, and have often had reason to curse the thoughtlessness with which some buildings are designed, I must mention the great care that has been taken to ensure that the overwhelming majority of the exhibits are accessible to the handicapped. There are no curbs and, almost everywhere, ramps replace or supplement stairways. Getting around Expo is much easier than negotiating any normal urban district of comparable size. (1)
Veterans returning with permanent injuries from World War Two had helped create the political will to improve infrastructure and services for persons with disabilities in Canada. New technologies enhanced the independence of persons with disabilities, including the motorized wheelchair, which was invented by Canadian George Klein in 1953. In keeping with these changes, Expo 67 was the first world fair accessible to and enjoyable for persons with disabilities. Its vision of the future modelled an urban space designed to be accessible to a broad range of embodied human experience. It was also the first time that any government-funded project in Canada implemented techniques known today as barrier-free or universal design.
In 1922 the federal government debated the idea of a national building code to assist municipalities in drafting standards and to improve building conditions across the country. However, leaders in Ottawa did not begin taking action to standardize building regulation across the country until the late 1930s. Construction was the largest industry in Canada at that time and the federal government’s forays into housing policy, particularly its role in funding mortgages, made the safety and financial success of housing construction a priority. Leaders argued that improving housing conditions would save public money on expenses related to fire damage, police services, and hospitalizations. The federal government tasked the National Research Council (NRC) with drafting a national building code in December 1937, and the NRC began distributing Canada’s first National Building Code in 1941. It was a model for provinces and municipalities to adopt as law.
In 1963, British architect and wheelchair user Selwyn Goldsmith published Designing for the Disabled. Goldsmith’s book was the first manual for creating buildings accessible to persons with disabilities and it became a sourcebook for government-sponsored research in Britain, Canada, and the United States. The Canadian Rehabilitation Council, an organization of health professionals, lobbied the federal government to add accessibility standards based on Goldsmith’s work to the National Building Code. As a result, the NRC began research in 1963 and then published Supplement 7: Building Standards for the Handicapped with the 1965 edition of the code. This supplement represented a significant departure from the types of standards that had been included in the previous editions because it was based on the value of social inclusion, rather than concerns about safety and market efficiency.
The governments of Canada and Quebec, along with the city of Montréal, jointly funded the construction and planning of the Expo 67 experience. These three levels of government created the jointly owned Canadian Corporation for the 1967 World Exhibition (CCWE) in January 1963. Less than two years later, the CCWE started planning for visitors with disabilities because the federal Department of Labour had advised that there were 533,000 “severely and totally disabled persons of all ages” in Canada. (2) To aid in this planning, the CCWE provided every participating country with a copy of Canada’s recently published Building Standards for the Handicapped and they were encouraged to adhere to them. Any buildings constructed by the CCWE itself incorporated elevators, ramps, wide doorways, wheelchair-accessible toilet stalls, lower water fountains, designated spaces in theatres and auditoriums, and other accessible features.
In March 1966, representatives of Expo’s Visitors’ Services and officials representing associations for persons with disabilities met to discuss potential problems and solutions. This meeting led to the creation of the Special Services for Handicapped Visitors, which would be “devoted to the aid of the mentally and physically handicapped, the aged, disabled, infirm, as well as persons with audio and visual limitations.” (3) The CCWE obtained two hundred wheelchairs that visitors could rent.
One aspect of accessibility at Expo that the CCWE did not consider until shortly before the event was on-site transportation. The Expo-Express, an above-ground train with five stations throughout the Expo grounds, was only useable for visitors who could manage stairs or escalators. The CCWE decided it would be too expensive to retrofit the stations with ramps, so, in December 1966, it commissioned a separate form of transportation for those who could not get to the Expo Express stations. The alternative transportation—La Balade—was a fleet of free “trailer-trains” that included a guided tour from hostesses trained to assist people with disabilities. Each trailer, identifiable because of its blue canopy and wheelchair symbol, had a ramp and eight hook-up spots for wheelchair users.
Because the CCWE recorded the number of La Balade users, we know roughly how many people with disabilities attended Expo 67. Approximately 55,000 visitors used La Balade during Expo 67; the CCWE estimated fifty percent would be persons with disabilities because each person usually brought an able-bodied attendant. CCWE records also tell us that attendance at Expo 67 by persons with disabilities exceeded expectations. In June 1967 the CCWE doubled designated parking for persons with disabilities from twenty to forty spots, and on July 1, 1967 the CCWE doubled the frequency of La Balade tours and extended its hours.
Signage guiding persons with disabilities was another accessibility achievement at Expo 67. The international symbol we are familiar with today to indicate accessible entrances, bathrooms, and parking spots—among many other uses—was not selected until 1968. The signs directing visitors at Expo 67 were original pictographs designed by Canadian Paul Arthur, who pioneered the concept of wayfinding. Arthur created a symbol depicting a wheelchair to guide visitors with disabilities throughout the site. CCWE staff were so proud of Arthur’s accessibility symbol that in June 1966 its leaders pitched it to the NRC for use across Canada and to replace the graphic on the cover of the Building Standards for the Handicapped. (4)
A common theme in Expo 67 memories and histories is how much time visitors spent waiting in line because of the crowds. Yet those with visible markings of disability or a medical note could skip the lines entirely. Some wily visitors would fake a disability by renting a wheelchair for the day to avoid interminable wait times.(5)
While many popular accounts of Expo 67 do not include the experiences of persons with disabilities, there are some accounts from that summer (including Neil Compton’s). Newspapers, both local and international, reported both on the accessibility of Expo 67 and the experiences of visitors with disabilities. In May 1967 the New York Times lauded the Canadian pavilion for being “architecturally faithful” to Canada’s “National Code for the Handicapped.” (6) Apparently, each pavilion’s accessibility information had been provided to the CCWE prior to construction, and that information was included in an official Expo guidebook for persons with disabilities. The New York Times, in a bit of patriotic Cold War scrupulousness, emphasized that though the guidebook was accurate about the complete inaccessibility of the Soviet pavilion, the American pavilion had been mischaracterized as only ten-percent accessible. Rather, a United States marine had been posted on the main floor to guide visitors to a special ramp and elevator to access its upper floors.
During the final weekend of the fair, October 28 and 29, Expo officials “warned handicapped people to stay away . . . because it was feared that in the crush they might get hurt.” Despite the warning, The Globe and Mail reported that “there were plenty of wheelchairs on the site . . . and they seemed quite able to navigate.” (7)
In the years immediately before and after Expo 67 there was hope in Montréal that part of its legacy would be a more inclusive city infrastructure. In a November 1964 article encouraging Expo 67 organizers to implement the new Building Standards for the Handicapped, Le Devoir described the transformation of people with disabilities from “back-door citizens” to “front-door citizens today, tomorrow, and always.” (8) In 1971, a journalist writing in La Presse looked back fondly on the Expo 67 site as “a beautiful place not to walk” and bemoaned that Montréal had not become any more accessible in the years following the world fair. (9)
Outside Montréal, however, Expo 67 was referred to as “[o]ne of the biggest boosts for the project” of implementing the Building Standards for the Handicapped throughout Canada. Expo 67 was a successful experiment with inclusive design. The Building Standards were used by an international group of builders and planners and publicized both nationally and internationally. (10)
Design standards based on the 1965 Building Standards began to achieve legal status in each of the provinces ten to fifteen years after they were first published by the federal government. (11) However, there are vast exemptions to universal design standards in provincial building codes, particularly in Quebec.
To this day Montréal stubbornly remains Canada’s most inaccessible major city. Eighty percent of the Metro, which was built contemporaneously with Expo 67, has no elevator access; the Quebec Building Code specifically excludes all Metro stations from minimum requirements for accessibility. In 2017, a Quebec judge certified a class action brought by disability activists against the city of Montréal and the Société de transport de Montréal (STM) based on the failure to build an accessible transit system. One of the inaccessible stations, Jean-Drapeau, is located at the Expo site. The STM claims it will finally be equipped with an elevator by fall 2019.
One common misconception about inaccessibility in Montréal is that its architecture is much older than other Canadian cities and it would be too expensive to renovate. However, many of the restaurants, cafes, bars, boutiques, and other sites of urban life in Montréal are not inaccessible because they are located in old buildings. They are inaccessible and will remain so indefinitely because of technicalities in building codes. For example, the Quebec Building Code exempts all commercial establishments from being accessible if their total area is less than 300m2. (12)
Throughout 2017 the city of Montréal commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of Expo 67 by investing in a series of cultural events in museums, galleries, theatres, parks, and other public spaces. Yet these anniversary celebrations neglected the opportunity to acknowledge the inclusive vision of Expo 67 and the imperative to create public spaces that offer dignity to all.
(1) Neil Compton, “Expo 67” Commentary (July 1967), 34.
(2) Throughout I rely on the “Operations” section of Canadian Corporation for the World Exhibition, General Report on the 1967 World Exhibition Vol. IV (1969).
(4) Both the Expo 67 design and the Supplement No. 7 design were among 6 finalists considered in a design competition for an international accessibility symbol that was commissioned by Rehabilitation International, with support from the United Nations and the International Standards Organization. However, the winning graphic, and the one we know today, was created by Suzanne Koefoed, a Danish design student: Liat Ben-Moshe & Justin J.W. Powell, “Sign of Our Times? Revis(it)ing the International Symbol of Access,” Disability & Society 22 (2007), 489.
(5) John Lownsborough, The Best Place To Be: Expo 67 and Its Time (Toronto: Penguin, 2012).
(6) Louise and Lloyd Francke, “The Handicapped at Expo,” The New York Times, May 28, 1967, 22.
(7) Leslie Millin, “Singing, laughter and some tears accompany Expo into history,” The Globe and Mail, October 30, 1967, 1.
(8) “Les édifices publics sont des obstacles pour les handicapés,” Le Devoir, November 17, 1964, 22.
(9) Jeanne Desrochers, “Les paraplégiques cherchent leur place à Montréal,” La Presse, March 8, 1971
(10) A.T. Mann, Architectural Barriers Project Progress Report (Winnipeg: Canadian Paraplegic Association, 1968).
(11) Jean-Rémi Champagne, “Canadian action on handicapping environments,” Health Promotion International 2, 3 (1988): 305-311.
(12) Régie du bâtiment du Québec, “Normes de conception sans obstacles: Guide d’utilisation” (Gouvernement du Québec: 2010), 7.
Stephanie Chipeur is a doctoral candidate at McGill University’s Faculty of Law. She holds a J.D. from the University of Toronto and an LL.M. from McGill University. She was called to the bar in Ontario in 2010. Stephanie researches the history of building codes and physical inaccessibility in Canada.