Crystal Lee (she/她)

I hate talking about the curb cut effect

If someone tells me about the curb cut effect one more time as a reason why we should always "design for everyone," I'm going to scream. On its face, the curb cut effect might be one of the most useful and obvious examples of accessibility benefiting society writ large. And indeed, this story is a particularly effective one and was an important part of my own introduction to the intersection of disability and design. As the story goes, curb cuts were really great for wheelchair users, but in designing for disabled folks, it made sidewalks more accessible to so many other people: folks with rolling luggage, caregivers with strollers, and kids pushing around their scooters.

But what I bristle at, frankly, is how often this anecdote is paraded around as The One Simple Thing You Can Do to Be Inclusive™ without acknowledging the fact that this was not a top down design decision at all. This was never about non-disabled people being empathetic and discovering the unintended rewards of thinking about accessibility. In reality, as Aimi Hamraie notes, curb cuts were the result of disability activists taking sledgehammers to sidewalks in the dark of night (that entire chapter is really worth reading -- they analyze at length the politics of the curb cut and its role in creating a "productive" worker in the aftermath of WWII). The manipulation of this narrative -- either into a heroic act to be canonized in museums, or as a parable about inclusion and its many benefits -- spotlights design with good intentions. This erases the mundane realities that come with infrastructure, and often plays into harmful narratives about disability and inspiration.

Perhaps the most important thing that I think this narrative misses is the fact that it's fine, if not desirable, to simply design with disabled people in mind. Revolutionary thought: you could deign think about disabled people without having to consider how non-disabled people might benefit! The impulse to design for everyone may be admirable, but it is often unrealistic: you might have a meeting space where one participant has a severe allergy to pet dander and another has a service dog. Whose needs should you prioritize? Is it possible to really create a room that is, in fact, "universally accessible?" Conflicting accommodations abound, truly.

It is worth designing primarily with disability, full stop. It shouldn't be something that we do just because it might help a broader swathe of the population -- we can and should be attentive to conflicting needs. That is reality and it's okay -- let's just start the conversation there, rather than pretend that universality is a tractable and desirable goal.