The curb cut effect

… and why it matters

Emilie Isch
May 8 · 4 min read

On a recent run I listened to one of 99% invisible’s older podcast episodes titled “Curb Cuts”. It got me thinking. The episode starts with a story about a wheelchair, and the man who used that wheelchair. His name was Ed Roberts. Ed had Polio, and was paralyzed below the neck, making his need for a wheelchair a necessity if he wanted to get around. While this was somewhat liberating for him, he still required an attendant to push him in the chair, and help up sidewalks and other obstacles that are present while traversing a city.

In the first photo: Ed Roberts on the Berkeley Campus In the second photo: Ed Roberts at a protest holding a sign which reads ”civil rights for disabled.”
In the first photo: Ed Roberts on the Berkeley Campus In the second photo: Ed Roberts at a protest holding a sign which reads ”civil rights for disabled.”
Image from: https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/curb-cuts/

You see, cities in the United States fifty years ago, when Ed was beginning his journey as an influential disability advocate, were even less accommodating for him and other wheelchair users. Getting from a street corner with a sharp drop-off without a curb cut is near impossible without assistance. The need then for curb cuts were critical.

Two individuals helping someone in a wheelchair up onto the sidewalk from the street
Two individuals helping someone in a wheelchair up onto the sidewalk from the street
https://www.newmobility.com/2016/04/united-spinal-association-curb-cuts/

Curb cuts are those slopes at the corner of a sidewalk which make it really easy to roll between the sidewalk and the street. They’re now all across our cities, and it’s in part thanks to advocates like Ed, and many disability rights activists such as Hale Zukas (he actually invented the curb cut).

At this point you might be asking yourself, why should I care? I mean what does a curb cut do for me as someone as who may not be in a wheelchair?

Cue the curb cut effect.

Curb cuts make city walking or moving in a city whole lot easier, and a whole lot safer. Think about a mother or father pushing their baby in a stroller for instance, they sure benefit from a curb cut.

A woman pushing a stroller walks from a curb cut onto a crosswalk in the street
A woman pushing a stroller walks from a curb cut onto a crosswalk in the street
https://www.columbian.com/news/2016/aug/10/curb-cuts-southeast-park-crest-avenue/

And what about when you’re biking, and you need to get off or on the sidewalk and so you try to do some sort of parkour trick to get your bike to lift up over edge there but just end up looking silly as it really doesn't go as planned. What about when you’re walking home carrying something really heavy from the store, I’m sure a curb cut has helped make that trip a little more bearable. Now think about someone with a cane or in crutches, or someone who is blind, navigating the drop from sidewalk to street without a curb cut can be dangerous. So really — even though curb cuts were something initially designed for wheelchair users, they end up inherently helping all users of a city.

The curb effect has a lot to do with the idea of universal design, which has expanded to understanding other areas of our lived experiences where something appears to be designed for one group of people (mainly disabled people), but end up benefiting everyone else too.

Closed captions while being intended to assist the auditory experience of deaf people, is a great example of universal design.

Imagine you’re in a loud, crowded bar watching a sports game (this was the example given in the 99% invisible episode) and you’re desperately trying to keep up with the scores and plays, I bet you’re glad the TV has closed captions on. Because how else would you know what’s happening? Now, what about an experience a little more Covid-19 friendly, like an online university lecture. I’m sure keeping up with you professor while they're talking, and you’re trying to drown out the background noise of your roommates and stay focused, is hard. The use of captions as a learning aid becomes really helpful in this case, and maybe something worth trying if you haven’t already.

For those of us without a disability of some kind, the ways in which the curb cut effect exists in our lives may go largely unnoticed. But when we begin to observe more, and take note of how it impacts our everyday experiences, we see just how incredible the little ways in which universal designs benefit us all.

Want to listen to the episode?: https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/curb-cuts/

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn | Tune in at aoapodcast.com | Connecting 500k+ monthly readers with 1,200+ authors

Emilie Isch

Written by

Human-Centered Designer

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn | Tune in at aoapodcast.com | Connecting 500k+ monthly readers with 1,200+ authors

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