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Using the Curb-Cut Effect to Advocate for Digital Accessibility

Can’t convince your colleagues to invest in digital accessibility? That’ll change when you explain the curb-cut effect. Here’s what you need to know.

June 15, 2023 by Amy Foxwell
Using the Curb-Cut Effect to Advocate for Digital Accessibility

Accessibility features benefit everyone, not just the people they’re built for. Anyone who’s pushed a stroller up a wheelchair ramp could tell you that.

This tendency is called the “curb-cut effect,” and it applies as much to websites as to city sidewalks. If you’re struggling to get buy-in for a digital accessibility project, this notion of the curb-cut effect can help make your argument. It offers a conceptual framework—a recognizable why—that helps to rally organizations around accessibility initiatives.

Effective accessible design isn’t just a list of features. It’s an institutional mindset, an ongoing commitment that takes work. The curb-cut effect explains why that’s worth the effort.

Most executives would probably say they prioritize accessibility. No serious person wants to be on the wrong side of a civil rights debate, and besides, the business case for digital accessibility is clear. Accessible design broadens your audience, bolsters brand reputation, and reduces legal risk.

So how do we explain this 2022 review of 3,500 random websites, which found that most business sites weren’t compatible with assistive technology? The study found serious accessibility flaws in 83% of e-commerce sites, 78% of health care sites, and 77% of career sites.

The survey suggests that businesses aren’t investing the time, money, or care it takes to ensure their digital services work for everyone. You might be ready to change that for your operation, but you can’t do it alone. The curb-cut effect can help you convince your colleagues that investments in accessibility are worthwhile.

With that in mind, here’s an introductory FAQ about the curb-cut effect in digital design.

The Curb-Cut Effect and Digital Accessibility: Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is the curb-cut effect?

The curb-cut effect is a phenomenon in which accessibility tools, features, or design elements end up benefiting broader populations than intended.

In response to pressure from disability rights activists, U.S. cities began installing curb cuts—small ramps between streets and sidewalks—in the 1970s. Later, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandated installation of such ramps.

Curb cuts were installed to provide sidewalk access to people who use wheelchairs. That was the beginning and end of their purpose. As ramps became more common, however, everyone began to use them.

“When the wall of exclusion came down, everybody benefited—not only people in wheelchairs,” wrote Angela Glover Blackwell in an influential 2017 article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

“Parents pushing strollers headed straight for curb cuts. So did workers pushing heavy carts, business travelers wheeling luggage, even runners and skateboarders.”

This quote leads to another question: In writing these words, was Blackwell referring to an existing idea—or did she invent the notion of a curb-cut effect? In other words:

2. Where did the idea of a curb-cut effect come from?

Credit Blackwell as the inventor of the curb-cut effect as a recognizable social phenomenon. None of the experts we spoke to—a lawyer, a disability rights advocate, and a digital designer—could point to an earlier reference to the phrase than Blackwell’s SSIR article.

However, Blackwell’s coinage does build on a long history of disability rights activism, said Puneet Singhal. Singhal is the founder of ssstart, an organization that builds awareness for people with speech disorders and communication differences. He’s also an active member of the Diversability advocacy collective.

“While the term ‘curb-cut effect’ may not have been used explicitly before 2017, the concept of universally accessible design has existed for decades,” Singhal said.

“But the curb-cut effect itself was popularized by Blackwell in her 2017 article highlighting the broader benefits of accessibility features initially designed for people with disabilities.”

Blackwell applied the curb-cut effect primarily to questions of social policy and law. However, the idea is also helpful for understanding—and explaining—the universal benefits of accessible digital design.

3. How does the curb-cut effect apply to digital design?

The gold standard for accessible web design is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), published by the World Wide Web Consortium. This document gives specific details on how to build more accessible websites, and its rules apply equally well to many other digital products.

The Success Criteria listed in WCAG were primarily developed to improve accessibility for people with disabilities. But these accessibility-first design features have proven popular with users without disabilities, too.

For example, consider the following:

In 2019, about 13% of U.S. adults had trouble hearing, even with a hearing aid. This hearing difficulty was extreme or complete in less than 2% of U.S. adults. But the largest-to-date survey on caption use for TV and streaming content found that 50% of Americans use captions “most of the time.” Among Gen Z respondents, caption use soared to 70%.

This is a clear instance of the curb-cut effect in digital spaces. We’ll discuss more examples shortly. For now, captions illustrate how WCAG Success Criteria—the best source of advice on digital accessibility—end up benefiting far more than the populations they were designed for. In other words, accessible digital design is user-friendly digital design.

4. How can you use the concept of the curb-cut effect to get institutional buy-in for accessible design?

Decision-makers who oppose investments in accessibility typically worry that the costs outweigh the benefits. That’s because they don’t understand the benefits. When you explain the curb-cut effect, you can correct the record.

According to Singhal, accessible digital design brings three universal benefits to organizations, each of which reflects the curb-cut effect:

  1. “Embracing inclusive design principles in digital spaces can lead to a more user-friendly and accessible environment,” Singhal said. “That caters to a broader audience, ultimately improving user satisfaction and reaching untapped markets.”
  2. “Adopting digital accessibility measures can enhance an organization’s social responsibility and inclusivity reputation,” Singhal continued. “That makes your organization more attractive to potential clients, partners, and employees.”
  3. “It’s also essential to remember that digital accessibility compliance can prevent potential legal issues,” Singhal said. “Many countries have enacted legislation requiring organizations to meet specific accessibility standards.”

If your broader argument about the curb-cut effect fails, you can always emphasize these legal threats—which can be significant, said Martin Gasparian, attorney and owner of Maison Law.

“Digital accessibility can improve the user experience for everyone, regardless of disability status,” Gasparian said. “But inaccessible digital content can also lead to major lawsuit risks.”

Indeed, 2022 saw more than 4,000 ADA-based lawsuits involving digital accessibility. That’s the second year in a row these filings numbered more than 4,000, continuing steady year-over-year growth since 2018. And any one ADA lawsuit can extract a high price from offenders.

“Websites that violate the ADA can be significantly fined,” Gasparian said. “I’ve seen companies hit with $75,000 fines, and almost double that should they fail to fix the problems.”

5. What are some examples of the curb-cut effect in online spaces?

For virtually every WCAG Success Criteria, there’s a universal benefit. Singhal pointed out some of the most obvious examples.

  • Text descriptions of images (alt-text): “Primarily meant for users with visual impairments using screen readers, alt-text also improves search engine optimization and provides context when images fail to load, or users have a slow internet connection,” Singhal said.
  • Keyboard navigation: “While designed to assist users with motor disabilities, keyboard navigation also benefits power users who prefer using keyboard shortcuts for efficiency and those using devices without a mouse or trackpad,” the advocate said.
  • Adjustable audio-playback speeds: “Initially implemented to cater to individuals with cognitive or auditory processing difficulties, adjustable playback speeds in audio and video content allow users to consume content at their preferred pace, which can be helpful for non-native speakers, slow readers, or fast learners,” Singhal said.

Perhaps the strongest example of an accessibility tool with universal appeal is text to speech (TTS), which instantly renders written words into spoken language. Sharon Chung, design and development director at digital studio Bamozz, doesn’t use TTS as a disability accommodation—although TTS is essential for that purpose, too. She uses it because she learns best by listening.

“I’ve encountered online magazines using a TTS feature in their articles,” said Chung. “As an audio learner, I really appreciate the opportunity to listen to articles like a podcast.”

Text to speech supports the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), an education framework that requires multiple means of presentation for all materials. Just like the curb-cut effect, UDL rests on the premise that different people have different needs. The best way to serve everyone is to offer choice in how they interact with your online content.

Introducing TTS to your website, app, or digital product is low-hanging fruit for invoking the curb-cut effect. Just reach out to the experts at ReadSpeaker. We offer a variety of TTS solutions, in more than 35 languages, all with lifelike synthetic voices. Our solutions bring TTS and related literacy tools to every industry, from accommodations (and UDL) in education to custom branded voices for AI voice assistants.

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