Who thought of kerb cuts?

A concrete kerb ramp with yellow tactile markers on the slope.Who thought of footpath kerb cuts? 30 years ago policy makers couldn’t understand why anyone needed kerb cuts in footpaths. “Why would anyone need kerb cuts – we never see people with disability on the streets”. This is part of the history of disability rights that we rarely think about these days. But kerb cuts didn’t happen because of policy – they happened because people took matters into their own hands. And accessibility eventually shaped the streets.

Stories of activists pouring concrete on kerbs have made their way into urban legends. It is sometimes referred to as the “Curb Cut Revolution”. (Note the American spelling. In Australia we call them kerb ramps.) It was the beginning of a turning point for accessibility.

Of course, the injustice is not evident to those who are perhaps inconvenienced but not excluded. And it’s not just about wheelchair users. Anyone using a wheeled device: delivery trolley, pram, bicycle or luggage knows the value of the kerb cut. They’ve also benefited from the other accessibility features in the built environment. That’s how the term “universal design” was coined – good for wheelchair users, good for everyone. 

The Forgotten History of How Accessible Design Reshaped the Streets is a nicely written blog article. It provides an interesting context to what we know now as access standards. But compliance to legislation does not guarantee inclusion. It only provides access. That’s why we still need universal design thinking.

The Universal Design Movement goes back to the 1970s and it’s still going. That’s because every improvement for inclusion is hard won. The article has a great quote:

“When injustice is tied up with the physical spaces of cities and the policies that create them, it becomes difficult to assign responsibility for it – and hence difficult to change.”

The article is from Bloomberg CityLab.