Pushing back against the rising tide

A common refrain in accessibility efforts, both online and in physical spaces, is that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” I’ve said it myself, in many client meetings and in public presentations. The idea is that designing an accessible space or website makes it better for all users. In the case of technology, an accessible website is typically easier to navigate and more simply designed. In physical spaces, the way that curb cuts, ramps and other access features benefit people without disabilities has been well-documented as the “curb cut effect.” Sounds great, right?

But if you peer past the veneer of the rising tide, what are technologists and planners really saying? It seems that the message is “make it accessible because it’s good for people with disabilities and everyone else.”

What if equity for people with disabilities in public spaces--online and off--was reason enough?

The idea that “everyone” should benefit from accessible public spaces is not new. The rhetoric first emerged in the post-World War II era, when individuals with disabilities gained new visibility in our society as soldiers returned from war. White men experienced disability in record numbers, but were not institutionalized. Instead, society strove to re-integrate them. The goal of early access innovations, such as prosthetics, wheelchairs and ramps, was to “perform, seemingly at any cost, the familiar activities of middle-class, white, and gender-appropriate life” (Bess Williamson, Accessible America). Disabled men returning from war still needed to be productive citizens and breadwinners.

The first accessibility standard for public spaces, ANSI 117.1, was created in 1961 and codifies the idea that access must be discreet and beneficial to all. The standard’s lead author, Timothy Nugent, stated “all standards which will be recommended to benefit the permanently physically handicapped will be of benefit to everyone.” But as Aimi Hamraie writes, “In portraying accessibility as broadly beneficial, barrier-free design supporters treated access to public space as a reward for being a productive citizen” (Hamraie, Building Access). And given the era, “everyone” frequently left out people of color, queer individuals and other marginalized communities.

Recently I attended an event for accessibility professionals at which there was a lot of self-congratulatory discussion about the “rising tide” and the “curb cut effect.” The event was hosted at the offices of a very large telecommunications company here in Philadelphia. I was struck that in the conversation about how accessibility makes technology better for “everyone,” no one raised who is left out of “everyone”--the individuals who cannot afford the latest cable device or fastest broadband access, or those who do not have stable housing in which to use such technology. No one discussed that people with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty, and Philadelphia is the poorest large metro area in the United States. I was reminded of Anand Giridharadas’ writings on “win-winism,” a signal to the rich and powerful indicating “a form of change that won’t cost you.” This is change that will allow the wealthy to prosper further by ceding a small amount to the marginalized. If Big Tech just makes its technology “accessible,” can it absolve itself for neglecting a disability justice framework?  

Most discussions about curb cuts celebrate the “guerrilla activists” who “hacked away” at steep curbs in Berkeley, California under the cover of night in the late 1960s, creating a DIY access scheme until the city government mandated curb cuts in 1972. This history is contested (read Hamraie’s text for more) but through curb-cutting, “disability activists produced a set of ideas that later influenced an academic theory of the ‘social model,’ which is often taken to argue that disability is a system of disadvantages that societies produce and not solely an embodied pathology” (Hamraie, Building Access).

When we focus solely on how curb cuts benefit everyone, we miss the opportunity to wrestle with the complexities. We remove the activist history of those who prototyped curb cuts and lobbied for inclusion. We sidestep the uncomfortable reality of who is excluded from “everyone,” and particularly how people of color were implicitly segregated in this era. Finally, we leave out the histories of experimentation, learning and negotiation among people with disabilities that were instrumental in the creation of the modern curb cut and are instructive to us today.

Hamraie writes that as activists began to experiment with curb cuts, “it became evident that access needs are not uniform across all users. Blind people, in particular, pointed out that when a curb cut smoothly intercepted the street and the sidewalk, it disoriented their learned sense of the city’s layout.” More iteration, including the creation of tactile signals on the curb cut, was required before landing on curb cut styles that worked for people with different kinds of disabilities--a lesson we would do well to learn from. Today’s curb cuts often use tactile dots and colored lines to signal to different kinds of users that a change in grade is coming.  

By centering the needs of people with different kinds of disabilities, activists ultimately iterated towards a better curb cut. Certainly, it has had positive ripple effects for able-bodied individuals. But why do individuals with greater power need to benefit when we design for those who have historically been excluded from public space?