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The Forgotten History of How Accessible Design Reshaped the Streets

Curb cuts may seem like an obvious civic good now. But the protracted battle to enact them exposes a design history that focused on a normative “user” of streets.

Protesters lobbying for an “Equal Rights Proclamation” for disabled people at the U.S. Capitol in 1972. Among their demands were curb cuts at street corners and better access to public transit. The Americans with Disabilities Act mandated curb cuts in 1990.

Protesters lobbying for an “Equal Rights Proclamation” for disabled people at the U.S. Capitol in 1972. Among their demands were curb cuts at street corners and better access to public transit. The Americans with Disabilities Act mandated curb cuts in 1990.

Photographer: Bettmann/Bettmann

In the summer of Covid-19, sidewalks are expanding — making room for new outdoor restaurant seating or extending the square footage of existing dining areas much further, all the way into the street. In what used to be parking spaces, there are now tables and chairs, surrounded by cheery temporary fences and bunting, all to provide the social distancing that our new rules for public life require. The street itself is being temporarily remade. When my home city of Boston recently announced a new program for restaurants to request temporary ramps, guaranteeing wheelchair passage from the sidewalk to the newly commandeered parking spaces, I was thrilled — but not because of the novelty. The quest for accessible passage through the built environment is an old story, and its history is newly alive in the shifting shapes of our streetscapes in 2020. That forgotten history contains clues for reinventing street life that might be our best resources in a pandemic, and as the U.S. confronts a renewed national racial justice movement. 

The need for accessible streets and sidewalks has utterly reshaped the contemporary cityscape, and the most profound change is also the most modest: the curb cuts that you’ll find now at many street corners in cities all over the world. The revolution in street corners seems like an obvious civic good now, a common‐sense softening at the edges of the built environment, a simple solution to buffer the concrete shape of a world built with homogenous users in mind. But it would not have happened without disability activists’ long, hard fight.