The Curb Cut Effect: How A Fix For One Group Benefits Us All

By Janet Firshein, June 6, 2018

The curb cut. It’s a convenience that most of us rarely, if ever, notice. Yet, without it, daily life might be a lot harder—in more ways than one.

Pushing a baby stroller onto the curb, skateboarding onto a sidewalk or taking a full grocery cart from the sidewalk to your car—all these tasks are easier because of the curb cut.

But it was created with a different purpose in mind.

It’s hard to imagine today, but back in the 1970s, most sidewalks in the United States ended with a sharp drop-off. That was a big deal for people in wheelchairs because there were no ramps to help them move along city blocks without assistance. According to one disability rights leader, a six-inch curb “might as well have been Mount Everest,” for wheelchair-bound people.

So, activists from Berkeley, California, who also needed wheelchairs, organized a campaign to create tiny ramps at intersections to help people dependent on wheels maneuver curbs independently.

I think about the “curb cut effect” a lot when working on issues around health equity.

The first time I even heard about the curb cut was in a 2017 Stanford Social Innovation Review piece by PolicyLink CEO Angela Glover Blackwell. Blackwell rightly noted that many people see equity “as a zero-sum game.” Basically, that there is an “ingrained societal suspicion that intentionally supporting one group hurts another.”

What the curb cut effect shows though, Blackwell said, is that “when society creates the circumstances that allow those who have been left behind to participate and contribute fully, everyone wins.”

There are multiple examples of this principle at work.

For example, investing in policies that create more living-wage jobs or increase the availability of affordable housing certainly benefits people in communities that have limited options. But, the action also empowers those people with opportunities for better health and the means to become contributing members of society—and that benefits everyone.

The GI Bill is another example. This policy, created specifically for veterans after World War II, helped a lot of people get college degrees and good jobs, and also helped a lot of industries gain a foothold in the American economy.

Even the football huddle was initially created to help deaf football players at Gallaudet College keep their game plans secret from opponents who could have read their sign language. Today, it’s used by every team to shield the opponent from learning about game-winning strategies.

So, next time you cross the street, or roll your suitcase through a crosswalk or ride your bike directly onto a sidewalk– think about how much the curb cut, that change in design that broke down walls of exclusion for one group of people at a disadvantage, has helped not just that group, but all of us.  

Check out the curb cuts episode of 99% Invisible where UC Berkeley professor and journalist Cynthia Gorney tells the full story of how this design fix came to be and its impact on people’s lives.

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