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The Curb Cut Effect: Reframing Accessibility for Developers and Marketers

Ryan Loos, Developer
#Accessibility | Posted

Berkeley, California 1972. This time and place, famous for its activism and revolutionary spirit, experienced a new kind of civil disobedience. Every so often, the city would wake up to a sidewalk corner suddenly merged with fresh asphalt to form a ramp.

This was the work of The Independent Living Movement, a disability activism group who wanted to establish a wheelchair accessible route through the city and campus. Berkley listened and  began making divots in the sidewalk called curb cuts. It quickly became apparent that this simple change, while designed for those in wheelchairs, actually helped a variety of people. All of the sudden those with luggage, shopping carts,  strollers, or simply tired legs had a much easier time traversing the city.

Closed captions had a similar effect. While originally created for people with hearing loss, they are used in loud places where people cannot hear the TV like bars or parties. In fact, curb cuts and captions are so ubiquitous that they’ve shed the assistive technology label and are now expected conveniences. This is the “Curb Cut Effect,” the idea that designing something to be accessible benefits all of its users, not just those with disabilities.

The “Curb Cut Effect” is an important concept for developers and marketers to jointly embrace in the new digital landscape. By working together to implement accessibility best practices, developers and marketers not only ensure an accessible experience for their site’s entire audience; they demonstrate an understanding of the power of accessibility and its positive impact on the overall user experience.

As a developer without a disability, I understand the importance of accessibility, but it is often relegated to the “as time and budget allows” set of features.  This outlook isn’t particularly helpful or equitable, but it is common. The curb cut effect not only changed my perspective, but also led me to start investigating ways that this analogue idea can improve digital construction.

Here are some examples of The Curb Cut Effect in web development:

  • Alt text: While traditionally used to help people with visual impairments, alt text can also be helpful when someone with a poor internet connection attempts to load your site. The picture might not load completely but the alt text will.

  • Logical URL design: When someone’s main form of interacting with a site is through a screen reader, a logical URL is really important because it can tell them a lot about what is going on in absence of visual information (e.g. https://www.facebook.com/messages/ is very clear). However, even if you can see the whole site, a straightforward URL can be very helpful for navigation and quick information.

  • Clear and simple menus: Finding and clicking the right thing is more difficult for those with disabilities, and limiting that requirement helps not just them but all of your users get what they need faster.

  • Keyboard Interface: Sites that are operable entirely through the keyboard help people with cognitive and motor disabilities who might struggle with the precision a mouse requires. As a keyboard-shortcut nerd, I would love to see more sites do this because I would waste even less time reaching for my mouse.  

There are, of course, even more examples of the Curb Cut Effect in our day-to-day lives. Ultimately, by reframing accessibility in this way, we can start to see it as a constraint that forces creative thinking and, to paraphrase Phase2’s own Catherine McNally,  limits bad design choices .

Download our accessibility playbook for some easy-to-follow steps that developers and marketers can follow to improve website accessibility.

Ryan Loos

Ryan Loos

Developer