December 24, 2022

By Yvonne Ventimiglia

Parents push their children in strollers across each street corner. Delivery people use wheeled hand carts to move furniture or boxes easily. Children pull wagons or ride their tricycle more than one block.

Older citizens can easily take a stroll without stepping up or down a curb. Today, the ubiquitous cut outs that create a seamless traffic flow are used throughout America. But these curb cuts were initially designed for wheelchair users to make sidewalks accessible, provide access to buildings, and give independence to a group of citizens previously left behind by society. You’ve probably never wondered about the history behind this relatively modern convenience.

Once upon a not so distant time in the past, it was next to impossible for someone who used a wheelchair to travel independently any distance, as their only way off or onto a sidewalk was accessed by a driveway. If there was not an able-bodied companion to assist in pushing them up or helping them down from a curb, anywhere outdoors was physically off limits. People with physical disabilities were limited to their homes. After WWII, an increase in disabled veterans made communities more aware of this limitation. Veteran’s activism increased in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, and joined with non-veteran Americans with disabilities that together advocated for accessibility on a broader scale. There were many well-known activist-heroes in these battles, from Ed Roberts and his “Rolling Quads” at University of California, Berkeley, that smashed curbs to make their own cuts, to parents who fought for their child’s right to independence in schools and every area of society, to vets like Max Cleland who as a Vietnam Vet triple-amputee led the Veterans Administration and was later a Congressman.

In 1968, a federal law was passed that decreed any building that was even partially funded by federal dollars must be barrier free, and a new revolution began. However, while the building was required to be accessible, getting to the building was on a public sidewalk that still might prevent access. The first curb cuts were added as federal law as early as 1973, but progress was slow. In 1977, a group of citizens vested in disability activism met in Washington DC for the White House Conference on Handicapped Individuals. Delegates to the conference spent months traveling within their state to identify the barriers and needs of individuals and families with disabled members. Possible solutions were gathered. Then the groups from all 50 states came together for five days in Washington DC to highlight their findings and propose needed legislation to the White House, the Cabinet, and Congress. I was a delegate from the State of Missouri, and attended the very lively meeting about curb cuts. Not everyone in attendance was for curb cuts; those with visual impairments relied on curbs as a boundary marker that would prevent them from accidentally walking into traffic. After a raucous debate, someone proposed roughing up the curb where it would be cut so canes would be able to distinguish the subtle change. And a compromise was born. Today, roughed-up cement on a curb cut has mostly been replaced with plastic inserts with more distinguishable bumps, and thankfully, most curbs are no longer a barrier for anyone.

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law. The term “curb cut” or “accessibility” is rarely used today and now is referred to as Universal Design. And universal it is, as people everywhere have come to benefit from the efforts of these early activists. The next time you enjoy a walk in a Lee’s Summit community or shopping in downtown Lee’s Summit, take a brief moment to notice the accessibility and freedom now shared thanks to the advocacy of a dedicated group of people who found a solution for a specialized need.

Yvonne Ventimiglia, a Lee’s Summit resident and member of the Livable Streets Advisory Board, mayor-appointed, volunteer board whose goals include working to make our community and our streets more “livable,” safe and accessible for all of our citizens.