Using The ‘curb cuts’ Principle to reboot computing

The ‘curb cuts’ principle

curb cuts for wheelchairs also guide blind persons into street crossings and prevent accidents for baby strollers, bicyclists, skateboarders, and inattentive walkers. The “curb cuts” principle is that removing a barrier for persons with disabilities improves the situation for everybody. This hypothesis suggests erasing the line that labels some technologies as assistive and certain practices as accessibility to maximize the benefits for future users of all computer-enabled devices. This paradigm requires a new theory of design that recognizes accessibility flaws as unexplored areas of the design space, potential harbingers of complexity and quality loss, plus opportunities for innovation in architectures and interfaces. Besides the general acceptance of computing curb cuts as a social good at an acceptable price, the traditional computing culture will benefit from a dose of understanding of the technology communities, institutions and visionaries that drive a vibrant world of persons who overcome disabilities.

cross walk by curb cut to assist wheelchair


As I lost vision due to myopic degeneration, My computer use modes switched to audio. I was swept into a world of rich information resources and innovative mobile devices that rejuvenated my personal interests in computing. Learning to use assistive technology while studying the practices of accessibility motivated me to write my personal experiences in the “As Your world changes” blog. I seek to create a framework of concepts that integrate the lessons and techniques of what is customarily considered deficient abilities into the mainstream of computing for the betterment of all based on the “curb cuts” principle. The physical world ‘curb cut’ analogy flows over into computing in the following ways.

1. End Users benefit from alternative and new uses of computing.

So-called assistive technologies today expand the way computers are used in an essential sense, incidently overcoming some human deficiencies. Better designed ways of using only a keyboard without a mouse offers power shortcuts to everybody. Consistent displays in high contrast modes offer more relaxing viewing that cut the glare that causes natural photosensitivity and mental stress across a wide range of eyesight conditions. Text to speech from screen readers offers eyes-free reading of long web pages for audio adapted multi-tasking individuals while also providing GUI interactions for the visually impaired. Digital talking books and newspapers will eventually be available commodities for sighted readers as they have been for years to qualified print-disabled individuals.

Because there is now an artificial line that views such technologies ass assistive rather than normal options, products are designed for or against certain users. Emphasis on the GUI has restricted advances in speech-enabled applications with the potential for many new innovations and wider markets. Studies on the plasticity of the brain suggest that more satisfying and productive use of computers flows from integration of visual, audio, and tactile modes of processing information.

Erasing the artificial lines and labels of assistive as separate and remedial technology offers a chance to revitalize the visual dominated modes of computing that no longer apply within a marketplace of diverse hardware and software components. Integration of so-called assistive technologies and accessibility practices will show the flaws of products developed only for an assumed fully enabled user.

2. Accessibility concerns lead into productive unexplored design regions.

Accessibility and usability are well defined if underused principles of product quality. The ‘curb cuts’ principle suggests that a defect with respect to these qualities is in a poorly understood or unexplored area of a design. Often a problem that presents only a little trouble for the expected “normal” user is a major hassle or show stopper for those with certain physical or cognitive deficiencies. However, those flaws compound and often invisibly reduce productivity for all users. Increasingly, these deficiencies arise from ambient environmental conditions such as glare, noise, and potential damage to users or devices.

Moreover, these problems may also indicate major flaws related to the integrity of a design and long term maintainability of the product. An example is the omission of Headings on an HTML page that makes it difficult to find content and navigation divisions with a screen reader. This flaw usually reveals an underlying lack of clarity about the purpose and structure of the website and page. Complexity and difficult usability often arise from missing and muddled use cases. Attitudes opposing checklist standards often lead to perpetuating poor practices such as the silly link label “click here”.

The ‘curb cuts’ principle leads toward a theory of design that requires remedy of accessibility problems not as a kindness to users nor to meet a governmental regulation but rather to force exploration through difficult or novel parts of the design terrain. The paradigm of “universal design” demands attention to principles that should influence requirements, choice of technical frameworks, and attention to different aesthetics and other qualities. For example, design principles may address where responsibilities lie for speech information to a user, thus questioning whether alternative architectures should be considered. Applying this principle early and thoroughly potentially removes many warts of the product that now require clumsy and expensive accessibility grafts or do-overs.

Just as the design patterns movement grew from the architectural interests of Christopher Alexander, attention to universal design should help mature the fields for software and hardware. The “curb cuts” principle motivates designers to think beyond the trim looking curb to consider the functionality to really serve and attract ever more populations of end users.

3. The social value of curb cuts ennobles computing.

Computer professionals are often shocked when they see how difficult their products are to use, reaching levels of excruciating pain for persons with disabilities. Professional pride is a motivating factor for many individuals attracted to the computing field, e.g. women and games that truly enhance their views of human potential and relationships.

The market motive is obvious with many millions of persons with disabilities to be included in the mainstream rather than being totally excluded or segregated into the higher priced rehabilitation industrial complex. Especially as the U.S. population ages, the social services are simply not there to smooth their transition and maintain their purchasing influence. Services of all kinds work more efficiently with fewer exceptions due to individuals requiring special processing.

There are so many genuinely innovative products designed by the blind, e.g. a screenless Linux PDA that rivals the Kindle with book, news, and RSS access and reading. An international open source project driven by energetic Australians is producing a free screen reader for global use with synthetic voices in dozens of languages. A standard camera-phone can now read menus and transactions items, even currency. A $5 audio device is being designed to bridge the literacy gap in impoverished societies. some people are also drawn into a futuristic world of open source hardware for designing gadgets that will speak what they are doing, how to use them, and their location, orientation, and other physical properties.

for many The social good of enabling equal access to computing is an attractor to a field renowned for nerds and greed. Social entrepreneurs offer an expansive sense of opening doors to not only education and entertainment but also employment, that now stands around 20% for disabled persons. Many innovative nonprofit organizations take advantage of copyright exemptions building libraries and technology aids for alternatives to print and traditional reading.

The computing curb cuts principle can motivate professionals, services, and end users to achieve the potential beauty and magic of computing in everyday life, globally, and for everybody who will eventually make the transition into some form of sensory, motor, or mental deficiency. But, first, mainstream computing must open its knowledge and career paths to encompass the visionaries and advances now segregated. All too often persons with disabilities are more advanced, diversified, and skill full in ways that could benefit not yet disabled people.

The “curb cuts” metaphor offers a compelling and, well, concrete way of motivating new attitudes toward computing. Walk down any American street and the reminders are at each intersection. Every computer professional will be on the hook to deliver universally usable products, not wait three years as happened with iTunes and only under legal threats, as may come soon with Google’s Chrome and Google Book Search or the Amazon and Target websites. Failing to universally design a computing product is as much a social menace as a missing or poorly designed concrete curb. The computing curb cut provides a metaphor to tell the public about new ways for improving their lives and the value of innovations that will follow from obliterating the artificial border with accessibility.

<img src=”; ALT=”curb cut schematic from”

Notes and References on the ‘Curb Cuts’ principle

  1. ‘Universal Design’ paradigm (from Wikipedia) integrates concepts from physical, architectural, and information design. Detailed principles (from NCSU design center) include equitable use, flexibility, simplicity, intuitiveness, tolerance for error, low physical effort,… A chronology of inventions for electronic curb cuts illustrates how hearing, seeing, and learning disabilities have influenced the modern communications world. Universal design as a business principle (from Lowes corporation) brings the principles into everyday life.
  2. The ‘curb cut’ symbolism is widely used in the accessibility world, e.g. ‘’, an accessibility consultancy . The site kindly provides a guide to concrete curb cuts . Background on accessibility in the context of “curb cuts” covers the essential role of considering the full range of human abilities in design. Analysis of the “curb cut” metaphor in computing suggests many problems in its usage.
  3. ‘curb cuts’ are technically complex as described in the A.D.A. guidelines on curb ramps .
  4. Mark Guzdial’s blog on principles of computing introduces many of the issues of professional soul searching and educational concerns that motivate the “rebooting computing” movement lead by NPS Professor Peter Denning Beneblog from on ‘Technology meets Society’ illustrates non-profit effectiveness and innovation..
  5. Innovative assistive tools for visually impaired users include:
  6. Use the Controversy Discovery Engine to search for articles on accessibility and usability. Use terms like “curb cut” then choose controversy synonyms and forms of support to drill down into the Analytic Web.
  7. Author: slger

    Susan L. Gerhart (slger) is a retired computer scientist. Her professional specialities included software engineering research, technology transfer management, and computer science education, see SLGer's Research Autobiography. Susan is active in a lifelong learning institute (OLLI) at Yavapai College in Prescott Arizona. She has facilitated courses on podcasts, Twitter, the Singularity, and climate fiction. "As Your World Changes" blog describes her journey with vision loss into the spectacular world of assistive technology and the frustrating practices of accessibility. She writes with the NVDA screen reader, reads books from Bookshare on a BookSense, and listens to podcasts on an iPhone. slger123 on Twitter records her favorite articles and occasional comments on life and politics. Creative writing courses led her to undertake "A Chip On Her Shoulder", a novel asking the questions: "how did we get into the privacy mess of modern social media?" and "Are we now just 'packets of data formerly known as people'?" She's enduring the 2020 Pandemic era and autocracy challenge by analyzing changes in progress, promising, and unknown. Times sure are changing! Contact: slger123 at

5 thoughts on “Using The ‘curb cuts’ Principle to reboot computing”

  1. All right! Here comes a challenge from foremost design theorist, educator, and consultant Don Norman’s CNN Design Challenge to Include the Disabled.

    Norman ranges across design regimes from toilets to canes to web interactions and more. Asserting the principle that design should be universal, duh, he cites many examples of benefits to everybody from more inclusive designs. Going further, he asks why so-called assistive devices cannot be designed with greater esthetics to make devices more versatile, appealing, and fun, like flasks in canes, wheeled things for teenagers, and yet to be imagined helpers from novel materials that fold and reshape.

    I admire this concept for many reasons. Pragmatically, the wider the market, the more opportunity exists for cost-effectiveness and efficacy for persons with disabilities. And, this happens by erasing the line between assistive and so-called normal devices, shining the spotlight on innovative designs and designers from the so-called assistive domains. There is so much untapped potential for those not yet disabled to become accustomed earlier and make transitions more comfortable and natural.

    But, geez, will I lose my cultural position as ‘Grabbing my Identity Cane to Join the Culture of Disability?? Well, I have already graduated to functional long cane with a rolling tip that grants me more confidence as I stroll streets and airports. It folds nicely, attracts notice, and guides me around obstacles. This only makes ne more aware of dangers to myself and others — bicyclists that sneak up on walkers, grass growing in sidewalk cracks, overhanging branches at eye level, real estate open hourse signs, etc.

    Thanks to the Disability Nation news serviceM podcast for alerting me to Norman’s CNN article.

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