Curb Cuts: They Have a History!

Curb cuts—the slight slope from a sidewalk to a roadway—are preferred by most people: walkers, bikers, and parents pushing children in strollers—yet they came about only because of a hard-fought battle by disability rights activists.

families using curb cuts

Enjoy them, use them, just don’t ever take them for granted.

The Issue With Curbs

For most people, a curb cut provides an easier path on our walks through a town or a neighborhood. But consider the plight of a wheelchair user.  Before curb cuts, a person using a wheelchair would arrive at a corner and have to look down the street to find the closest driveway. They would then go to that driveway, cross the street in the middle of the block, and then have to find a driveway or alley on the other side of the street to return to a sidewalk.  This was a difficult, cumbersome, and dangerous way to cross a street. 

In a city like Manhattan where there are many blocks with no driveway entries to blocks, traveling by wheelchair was next to impossible.

Disability Activist Gary Karp fell from a tree when he was 18 years old and sustained serious and permanent injury to his spine. The year was 1973, and at that point, curb cuts were just beginning to be added to streets and roads. Karp notes that as a young man in a light wheelchair, he could sometimes pop his wheelchair up so that it jumped the curb. But obviously, this wasn’t a solution for many people.

The Need Was There

People with disabilities have always existed. Some people are born with some type of physical difference. Many men who served in war came home without limbs or returned with other types of disabilities. But before World War I, many businesses were small family operations. If the person was capable of some type of work, then accommodations could be made. 

By World War I, more people were living in cities and many were working in factories. This lifestyle and these types of jobs were next to impossible for anyone with physical differences. Mobility was  difficult. Wheelchairs were primitive, and it was not easy to get around.

During this time, many people institutionalized family members. Families lacked a way to care for them. If the person did remain at home, they often lacked mobility. Morris Frank lost his vision when he was 26. His family was well off, so if a family member wasn’t available to help him, Frank hired a young boy to lead him where he needed to go. (Elsewhere on this site, read about how Morris Frank introduced the first seeing eye dog to this country.) What’s more, the public was often unkind. Staring and pointing occurred and made life difficult.

Franklin Roosevelt photographed from the back in his wheelchair.

In his own quest to look “normal,” Franklin D. Roosevelt, who lost his ability to walk when he had polio as a young man, had a carpenter make a wheelchair for him out of a dining room chair. Those who saw him from the waist up (as he was almost always photographed) simply saw a man seated in a chair. Only those around him knew the chair was mounted on wheels, and that FDR was dependent on others for his mobility.

Problem Continued

Then by the 1940s, rubella and polio were affecting children and young people, and the need for coming up with a solution became more dire. Not only were buildings inaccessible, but so, too, were forms of transportation, bathrooms, and places to shop.

This difficulty is illustrated poignantly by disability activist Judith Heumann in her memoir. Heumann was born in 1947 and had polio when she was a toddler (1949). She has used a wheelchair since then. She gives us insight in her book, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist.

Judith Heumann’s Early Story

Heumann grew up in Brooklyn, and she was grateful to have a couple of friends who lived on the same block as she did. She notes that this was very fortunate as the curb along the street was “like the Great Wall of China” to her.

The curb cut Judith Heumann needed.

She describes a typical summer day in 1953 when she was age six. Her mother rolled her wheelchair down the ramp from their front door. Then Heumann took it from there: “I would grip the rim of my wheelchair tires and inch myself along” to the house next door where her friend lived. There were three stone steps leading up to Arlene’s front door (and doorbell). Judith had to remain in her wheelchair, so she called loudly for her friend. She then waited until Arlene heard her or a family member alerted Arlene that Judith was outside.

Once the two friends were together, Arlene pushed Judith’s wheelchair down the block to pick up another playmate. This time, Arlene could hop up the porch steps and ring the doorbell. They generally played in that child’s backyard. Children from the other side of the street often joined them. If the group went across the street to another home, Judith was left out. Another child would not have been able to maneuver a wheelchair down a curb.

School Was No Better

When it came time for Judith to start school, Judith Heumann’s mother dressed them both nicely to walk to the school to enroll. There were stairs, so they waited while someone asked the principal to come out to meet with them. He told Mrs. Heumann that Judith would not be permitted to attend school; she would be a “fire hazard” in the hallways.

Mrs. Heumann wrangled with the school district for 3 years. The district sent someone to home-school Judith for 2-3 days each week, but Judith was a bright conversant child who needed social interaction.  The Heumann family knew that separate is never equal.

Finally, when Judith was age 9, she was assigned to attend a public school, but not the one in her neighborhood. The district designated a classroom at another school for those with disabilities. For a few years, Judith was bussed there.

With this beginning, Judith Heumann has dedicated her life to making the world accessible for all people. (She is among those featured in Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution.)

The Heumann family knew that separate is never equal.

Push For Rights in the 1960s

In the 1960s, the public push for better access began to grow just as other types of civil rights issues were being examined. The topic of accessibility was raised in 1962 when the National Society for Crippled Children and Adults (now Easterseals), joined the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, which was established in 1947. Together, the two organizations launched a campaign for revising architectural standards and building codes so that people using assistive devices such as canes or wheelchairs could have access to all buildings.

One of the aspects that added strength to this movement was the fact a cross-disability interest was growing. People with different types of disabilities (physical, mental, visual and hearing) began to work together on a common cause.

Finding a Way

Change takes time, and finally, a small step forward was made. In 1968, a federal law passed that decreed that any building that was even partially funded by federal funds had to be barrier-free.

wheelchair ramp and curb cut

This was a step forward but required a level of consideration that few had ever thought about. There could be no grand stairs on the exteriors of business unless there was gracious and convenient ramp access for those who needed it. Inside, buildings needed hallways that were wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs. Hallways that added 2-3 steps in between areas of a building were a no-go. Restrooms needed to be accessible for all. This meant wider doors as well as bigger stalls within the bathrooms themselves.

Finally, towns and cities began adding curb cuts. The first cuts were added as early as 1973, but progress was slow. Finally, in 1990 the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. This Act is to ensure equal treatment and equal access to employment and public accommodation. The law specifies that there is to be full inclusion, and integration of all people in all levels of society. With this, progress moved along a little faster. 

Curb Cuts Enjoyed by All

Whether you are in a city or a smaller town, take a few minutes to watch the activities that happen at any street corner. Those preferring curb cuts include parents with strollers, delivery people with hand trucks or carts, older people who may have canes and many walkers who prefer the sloped ramp instead of the harder impact of stepping off a curb.

Accessibility sign

But the work must continue. Curb cuts are one step forward, but most cities have yet to add adaptive devices to signal safe crossings for those with visual limitations.  For example, street crossings currently serve the visually sighted. Even young children recognize the “walking man” signal. But what if you are blind? Then access that is fair to you and others requires audible tones or speech messages or vibrating surfaces for those who might be deaf and blind.

Activist and speaker Gary Karp says in one of his speeches on YouTube: “When you design well for disability, you design well for everyone else… Universal design helps everyone.”

We still have a long way to go.

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