Curb cuts and ramps cleared way for better accessibility

This issue of Access Press includes a guide to winter safety, with one focus on snow removal and shoveling. People […]

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This issue of Access Press includes a guide to winter safety, with one focus on snow removal and shoveling. People often have to be reminded to shovel their curb cuts and ramps to provide access to the street for people who use wheelchairs, scooters and other mobility devices. 

Some timelines put the development of curb cuts in the 1970s. But their origins are much early. Some cities added a limited number of curb cuts to assist disabled veterans after World War II. A history published in Carleton College’s Accessibility Digest cites the origins of curb cuts in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1945. Credit is given to Jack Fisher, an attorney and disabled U.S. Navy veteran. 

Many veterans came home from war with disabilities. Wheelchairs became more prevalent. As veterans returned to their homes and the workforce, they needed access. Veterans around the United States waged a new fight to get curb cuts and ramps placed. 

But many communities still lacked curb curbs and ramps. In her memoir the late disability activist Judith Heumann described the great difficulty people in wheelchairs had with curb cuts in her youth. Born in 1947, Heumann had polio when she was a toddler. She used a wheelchair for the rest of her life. 

In her book Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist, she describes what life was like on her Brooklyn block. While she was lucky to have a couple of young friends on her block, Huemann compared street curbs to “the Great Wall of China.” 

Heumann’s memoir describes a typical childhood day in the early 1950s, when she’d get help from her mother to use their family’s front door ramp. She’d wheel next door to meet a friend but couldn’t climb three stone steps to reach the doorbell. Heumann would have to call out for her friend and hope that someone heard her. 

The friends would typically go to a third friend’s back yard and play. Huemann could go along if another child pushed her wheelchair. The group was fine on their side of the block, but if they went elsewhere a street curb could be an obstacle. Heumann would be left out. 

More efforts to gain curb cuts and ramps came in the 1960s and 1970s as college students sought change. One of those students was prominent disability rights activist Ed Roberts, who protested Berkeley’s inaccessible sidewalks and street corners. University of California Berkeley students worked at night to demolish curbs and lay in curb cuts and ramps with asphalt. The Architectural Barriers Act was passed by Congress in 1968, setting the stage for the broader access requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

Curb cuts and ramps should never be taken for granted, as the fight for them cleared the way for broader access. 

Learn more at the Carleton College website, at Accessibility Digest Curb Cuts: A Brief History.

Encore Magazine also has this history. Learn more at Encore Magazine | Curb Cuts

Another website for those interested in curb cuts and ramps is in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The Curb Cut Effect is used to describe innovations meant to help one group that end up helping many. Learn more at Standford Social Innovation Review The Curb-Cut Effect.  

The History Note is a monthly column produced in cooperation with the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. Past History Notes and other disability history may be found at www.mnddc.org 

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