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The Curb-Cut Effect

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I learned a new term this week: curb-cut effect. It’s used to describe accessibility interventions that are designed to solve one particular barrier but end up helping everyone.

The term comes from a simple but powerful design intervention: curb cuts. No one knows exactly who came up with the idea, but curb cuts first emerged in the 1960s in Berkely, California. During the time, disability rights activists across the United States were showcasing the ways in which people with disabilities were being excluded from public life.

A group of student activists at Berkeley University, called the Rolling Quads, was particularly influential. The Rolling Quads wanted people with disabilities to be seen as real people, and to have the same civil rights and those without disabilities. In an interview with 99 Percent Invisible, Rolling Quads member Deborah Kaplan explains that they were fighting against stereotypes that, “That having a disability is a fate worse than death. That we should be pitied. That if we do anything we are brave, and yet [we’re] really not real people.”

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, motorized wheelchairs hit the market, giving people with disabilities a new level of independence. There was only one problem: curbs.  “If you’re trying to get across the street and there are no curb cuts, six inches might as well be Mount Everest,” Lawrence Carter Long of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund told 99 Percent Invisible. 

The Rolling Quads were tired of waiting for the simple changes that would allow them equal access and they began campaigning for a nation-wide curb cut program. In 1971, they showed up at the Berkeley City Council meeting demanding curb cuts on every street corner in the city. The City Council met their demand, and the rest of the world followed suit. While curb cuts appeared occasionally in other parts of the United States previously, the Berkeley curb cuts led to an accessibility revolution and world-wide adoption of this simple design.

Today, you’ll see curb cuts at every intersection (and often you’ll see textured landing pads in the concrete – these allow people who are blind to feel with their cane when they’re approaching an intersection). You’ve likely benefited from curb cuts – when pushing a stroller, lugging a cart of groceries, biking or rollerblading. Curb cuts are great for everyone. Hence the term curb-cut effect.

Here are some other examples:

  • TV/Movie Subtitles & Closed Captioning:  designed for people who are deaf, but can are also used by those watching TV in noisy locations or when dialogue is difficult to decipher. 
  • Social Assistance & Economic Interventions: Programs meant to assist populations having social or economic difficulties often benefit the economy more broadly. A startling example is the US Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (also called the GI Bill). The money was given to veterans to help them reintegrate into society after WWII. It invigorated the economy and led to the education and training of 67,000 doctors, 91,000 scientists, 238,000 teachers, 22,000 dentists and 4500 engineers, among many other vital professions.
  • Football Huddle: Invented by Paul Hubbard in 1892, a quarterback who attended a University for deaf students. Hubbard devised the huddle as a way to discuss strategy without the other team reading their sign language.
  • Web Accessibility:
    • Alternative text (descriptions of images for users who are blind) are useful for people with poor internet connections that can’t load the entire image
    • Keyboard compatible sites allow users to navigate a website even if they can’t operate a mouse. The use of keyboard shortcuts can also be a quick way for everyone to navigate their way through a site.
    • Simple and intuitive website menus make it easier for everyone to locate and access the content they’re looking for
    • Plain language helps users with cognitive disabilities absorb and understand web content, but everyone benefits when concepts are easier to understand.