Curb Cuts, On and Offline

This past weekend as part of my weekend program for progressive leaders I went to a talk from some of the people who run public transportation in Portland.

They spoke at the TriMet offices, which is the metropolitan transit authority for Portland and its surrounding communities. A friend and I showed up 20 minutes early because we were a bit behind on the changing text messaged locations of the group, so we had just went to the next place on the itinerary to wait for everyone to catch up.

When we walked into the lobby of TriMet, we saw an obstacle course. Here is a picture I took after everyone else showed up:

Tri-Met in Portland, disability testing center.
Ramps and pitfalls and gravel and uneven-plywood and a 12.5% grade ramp. A showcase of environments a person whose legs aren’t cooperating faces when getting around a city.

The three men who were presenters and worked at TriMet told us that was the exact purpose of this indoor playground: to help people using public transit evaluate whether they could walk to a bus, needed front-door pick-up, or something else entirely. The presenters said it has helped them decrease costs by tailoring alternative transportation options to the people who needed them.

I’ve been professionally interested in usability and universal access design in computers since I went to my first Hopper conference in 2007 when I wandered into a presentation from a woman with a macular degenerative disorder who worked on usability. I’ve personally interested since Peggy in my home church had her MS get so bad she had to move from a manual to an electric wheelchair. When that happened, my Mom took my brother and I to the Harley Davidson outlet and we bought her a fistful of flaming skull and screaming eagle stickers for her new ride. She laughed when she put them on her chair. She used to give my brother rides around the church courtyard on her chair; it was flat and smooth, regularly swept concrete with space for her broad-sided turns.

The three men in Portland shared my passion for accessibility, and like all nerds when gathered, we began to exchange acronyms and catch phrases related to our fandom. One man said he considered himself a “TAB,” that is, “Temporarily Able-Bodied.” I told him I tell people:

“We’ll all have a disability if we live long enough.”

He laughed, so I snatched my glasses off my face, waved them around and said:

“Just because these are a socially-accepted prosthetic, didn’t mean I am any less hindered without them attached to my face!”

It was a bit performative, and I was certainly preaching to my choir. But I needed something even nerdier to share. I asked if they’d heard about how web accessibility nerds talk about curb cuts. The three men shook their heads. The coinage of fandom is esoterica, and here I had brought them a gem.

Curb cuts are those little ramps on the corners of sidewalks. I told the assembled men how people who design websites think a lot about curb cuts. As I understand it, curb cuts became much more common after the Americans with Disabilities Act passed at the federal level with new standards for build environments and were originally designed to help people in wheelchairs get around.

But that’s not how they’re most commonly used today. Sure: they are vital for people who have trouble walking or cannot walk at all. But curb cuts also help delivery-people not trip on the sharp right-edges of sidewalks. They help Moms with strollers (“And Dads! Dads too! I walk my daughters all the time!” interjects the conscientious, bearded Portland man in the conversation). And, most importantly (to me at least), they enabled massive growth in the roller-bag industry.

This may be apocryphal, since a few minutes of furtive Googling did not rate me a definitive history of the roller-bag. But the story goes this way. Roller-bags were rare before curb cuts. They only worked for people with strong arms and who lived in smooth, flat, regularly swept places. Enter ADA sidewalk requirements, including curb cuts. Suddenly, all kinds of people can carry absurdly heavy roller-bags, because they never have to lift them.

(I once spent a June night hauling 2 50lb roller bags 1.5 miles from the T-station to my summer rental apartment in Somerville, MA alone at 9:30pm (with hundreds of leopard slugs baring my path, but that is a different story). I could not have rolled all of my clothes for an 8-week summer program at the Berkman Center without curb cuts.)

The three men of TriMet were suitably impressed and let me continue to play on the obstacle course as we waited for the rest of the group. Their actual talk had to do with how to use transit to encourage density, leave healthy neighborhoods, and undercut myopic reliance on cars. It was colorful and has made me think differently about the role of regional transportation districts in our states.

Our chat was also a chance for me to think about physical differences, rather than the invisible ones I spend more of my time thinking about. Invisible differences are a common topic in my online circles. My tumblr feed is rich with folks struggling and conquering and being kicked in the head by depression, bi-polar disorder, Autism spectrum issues, fibromyalgia, and all manner of differences that make accessing most of the world harder.

A citizen of my feed posted this quote and commentary, which rang in the back of my head through the curb cut conversation with the three men of TriMet. I’ve had it in a note on my desktop for a month so I could think about it, and it finally found the context it needed to be shared:

“Another myth that is firmly upheld is that disabled people are dependent and non-disabled people are independent. No one is actually independent. This is a myth perpetuated by disablism and driven by capitalism – we are all actually interdependent. Chances are, disabled or not, you don’t grow all of your food. Chances are, you didn’t build the car, bike, wheelchair, subway, shoes, or bus that transports you. Chances are you didn’t construct your home. Chances are you didn’t sew your clothing (or make the fabric and thread used to sew it).

The difference between the needs that many disabled people have and the needs of people who are not labelled as disabled is that non-disabled people have had their dependencies normalized. The world has been built to accommodate certain needs and call the people who need those things independent, while other needs are considered exceptional. Each of us relies on others every day. We all rely on one another for support, resources, and to meet our needs. We are all interdependent. This interdependence is not weakness; rather, it is a part of our humanity.”

— AJ Withers, Disability Politics and Theory (via thalensis)

[Comment from the poster] This reminds me super-a-lot of a section from Critic of the Dawn, published 11 years earlier by Cal Montgomery, so I’m gonna leave that here.

“But some rely on supports which are so common as to go unnoticed, while others use support that is atypical and therefore apparent. Some supports are provided by the community as a whole and go unnoticed, while others are borne — or not — by a small number of people whose lives are profoundly affected.” (via yesthattoo)

These quotes, the metaphor of the curb cuts, my wild gestures with my glasses–they all get to the same core argument of the accessibility fan. We’re trying to help people who don’t get it yet that universal accessibility matters using metaphors they live with every day. Accessibility matters because it’s just luck that my legs work for walking. Accessibility matters because curb cuts improve everyone’s lives. Accessibility matters because there are justice-reasons for making our built environment accessible to all, but practical ones as well, like that it makes it easier to get roller-bags around late at night in a Boston suburb.

Accessibility matters because I bet the three men of TriMet have had a Peggy in their lives, and join me in wanting everywhere in the world to be as open and welcoming to them as our church courtyard was to my Peggy.

Inspirational Quote:

“I am a dependent person. I eat food whose final preparation I handle myself, but which has come to me across roads laid and maintained by other people from stores staffed by other people — and even those people didn’t grow or raise or harvest or slaughter any of it. I wear clothes made by other people from cloth woven by still others. I am human: I depend on others. And this is called independence.

I am a dependent person. I need human contact, most of which I receive through an Internet built and maintained by many other people. I do not know my neighbors, but even face-to-face interaction requires someone’s cooperation. I have learned from my time in isolation rooms that I can handle a while without human interaction, but that eventually it will become unbearable. I am human: I depend on others. And this is called independence.

I am a dependent person. The words I work with were taught to me by people who wrote and read them before I traced my first A. The language I work in is a living entity, shaped and grown over centuries by billions upon billions of speakers. The ideas I work on are part of a tradition nurtured by many thinkers. I am human: I depend on others. And this is called independence.” — Cal Montgomery, Critic of the Dawn

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