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The Curb Cut Effect Explained

by Ashley Chemtov on September 17, 2018

What is a curb cut?

Sometimes easy to overlook, a curb cut is a small ramp that can be found at most intersections, between the sidewalk and the street. You wouldn’t know it by looking at it, but this tiny, almost imperceptible feature of most urban centers has redefined accessibility as we know it. Let’s take a closer look...


A brief history

Kalamazoo, Michigan, 1940’s: The city installed curb cuts at four downtown corners as a pilot project to help with the employment of disabled veterans.

Berkeley, California, 1970: In the midst of the revolutionary spirit of the 60’s and 70’s, a group called the Rolling Quads, led by disability activist Ed Roberts, demanded curb cuts on main roads. They even went so far as to take to the streets at night and use sledgehammers to smash curbs and build their own ramps, forcing the city into action.

Denver, Colorado, 1980: Disability activists staged a protest demanding curb cuts, blocking traffic until city officials gave in. Demonstrators in wheelchairs whacked at concrete curbs with sledgehammers to get their point across.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, 1990: Although not the first piece of legislation to address widespread accessibility, the passing of the ADA was a landmark event due to its unprecedented reach. It mandated access and accommodation in all public spaces, including business, lodging, transportation and employment, making curb cuts the commonplace feature we know today.


Unexpected ripple effect

Surprisingly, the benefits of curb cuts extended to everyone, not just people in wheelchairs or those with limited mobility:

  • Parents pushing strollers
  • Workers lugging heavy loads
  • Travelers wheeling luggage
  • Runners and skateboarders


Transforming Accessibility in Higher Education

Like the curb cuts that ended up making mobility easier for so many people beyond the intended recipients, accommodations in schools that were originally designed for students with disabilities end up benefiting the entire university community.

Transcription and captioning is a prime example of this phenomenon. Of course, these services enable accessibility for students who are deaf or HOH. But the curb cut effect comes into play when the positive effects spread to the entire student body - including students who speak English as a second language, and students who prefer to learn by reading.  

In fact, the number of students without hearing difficulties who use captioned video is on the rise. More and more students are reporting that this is an essential tool in their learning process, with tangible effects on academic success. According to a study conducted at San Francisco State University, students who used captioned video achieved a full GPA point increase compared to students who did not.


Greater Impact
Beyond the world of higher education, there are many examples of the curb cut effect that have profoundly impacted our lives for the better, including:
  • Seat belt legislation: Laws were initially adopted to protect young children. Years later, almost every state has firm seat belt laws in place, saving an estimated 317,000 lives since 1975
  • Smoking laws: Disgruntled flight attendants led the charge to ban smoking on airplanes, sparking possibly the most notable public-health campaign of all time. Since the 1960’s, smoking has largely been banished in public spaces and tobacco consumption has been cut in half

As technological advances continue to revolutionize the world of higher education, the positive effects extend to everyone. Like the curb cuts that enabled greater mobility for wheelchair users and other groups of people, tools like transcription and captioning solutions benefit all students and drive innovation further.

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