The Problem with Curb Cuts

Editor’s Note: This week we have a guest post from Carrie Basas who periodically guest blogs about disability justice or whatever else is on her mind. This post came about after I text her saying how “the curb cut effect” has become the overly simplified equity box example when talking about targeted universalism (curb cuts aren’t really targeted universalism), “lifting all boats metaphor,” or access for people with disabilities. Her post adds vital context to understanding the curb cut effect. –Erin

Crosswalk in Seattle
Photo of crosswalk with a curb cut and yellow raised dot pad, car at stop sign, adult walking, two children crossing street one on a scooter, other on a small bike. Photo from SDOT

In many presentations about disability, leaders turn to the example of a curb cut to explain the importance of access or targeted universalism. The logic goes like this: A curb cut doesn’t just provide access to people with mobility disabilities. It also benefits nondisabled people with luggage, baby strollers, rotund dogs, and grocery carts. Therefore, curb cuts help disabled people while not imposing on nondisabled people. We all win with access. What is good for some, will therefore help many others, too. Nevermind that these examples are hardly ever provided with a context about accessibility based on neighborhoods, racial redlining, and racialized infrastructures. But if we just take this example at its face value, we’re still failing. Even in the City of Seattle, after intervention by the Department of Justice and later follow up from advocates such as Disability Rights Washington, curb cut access remains out of legal compliance.

Access remains a huge issue for disabled people, but access isn’t the only component of disability justice. Access is merely rights and barrier removal, not necessarily anti-ableist or anti-racist justice and belonging. Similarly, access is not one size fits all, just as when we talk about disability, we need to go beyond thinking about the sporty White man with a wheelchair on his way to work. 

Here is another often cited example of trying to explain disability discrimination to a nondisabled audience: Even thirty years after the Americans with Disabilities Act, disabled people are largely socially isolated and un- or underemployed. Less than 20% of disabled people are involved in the workforce while the rate of nondisabled people exceeds 65%. When it comes to economic justice arguments and disability, disabled people (or nondisabled presenters) are often asked to make the business case for hiring disabled people. Convince us that they aren’t more costly at work and that investing in them will mean greater productivity and more customers. Essentially, sell us on disability or we aren’t interested. Disabled activists have asked why we even start with the premise that paid labor equals human worth.

What does it mean when QTBIPOC, disabled folks, and others must “sell” others with greater economic and traditional power resources on providing what’s fair and just? What if justice means that someone who hasn’t benefited or been honored as a person will get something long overdue and you will not? When we frame justice as a situation where those with power will do it if they get something in return, then we make justice access to Whiteness and abled-ness. We must move beyond what is legally “owed” to someone to what we must change to recognize them as our colleagues and neighbors. We can only do that by focusing on racial oppression, the Whiteness of capitalism, and the rhetoric of independence versus our mutual interdependence. Then we will move closer to the principles of the  Disability Justice Movement.

Carrie Basas works in education advocacy and formerly in civil rights law, specializing in disabilities rights. Formerly she was a law professor impressing upon law students the importance of understanding race and its impact on people. Carrie has a MEd in Education Policy, Organizations and Leadership from the University of Washington. She earned a Juris Doctorate from Harvard Law School and an Honors B.A. in Psychology with a minor in Sociology/Anthropology from Swarthmore College. However, her biggest claim to fame is some of her fashion weekend wear while hanging with her family, tiny dog, and two rabbits.

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