Design Curb Cuts to Help All of Your Students

Curb cuts are the gentle sloping edges to sidewalks that are now ubiquitous across the country and all over the world. Yet, there was a day when curb cuts just didn’t exist. The tenacious activist Ed Roberts led a movement in Berkley, California to demand that the city make curb cuts (99PI podcast episode) to increase access for the disabled who wished for mobility around the city they lived in. A reasonable right to fight for? Yes. That movement earning curb cuts had profound impacts on the city beyond helping disabled residents. As we all now know, curb cuts help more than the permanently disabled, helping those with temporary disabilities and those in situational need. The landscape was being permanently changed in our cities and our way of thinking about civic mobility is part of that. Our schools, classrooms, courses and assessments have undergone and continue to undergo similar changes by where access needs opening, often for the disabilities we can’t see and having a positive impact for all our learners.

The Story of Access in the Built Environment

Curb Cuts have become a generic term in design that describes a situation where a design solution is employed to help the neediest in a population that ends up helping a much larger swath of the population. Curb cuts themselves were specifically designed for permanent wheelchairs but were instantly usable to those who were temporarily disabled and those with situational needs. The temporarily disabled may include wheelchairs but those with crutches, with a limp, young children, elderly or even a visual impairment could all benefit from a sloping edge. Those with a situational need include the able-bodied such as parents with strollers, those carrying boxes and moving cargo with wheeled tools like a dolly. You can see here how online shops and shippers greatly benefit from an accessible world. Perhaps my favorite alternative use for a curb cut came from a workshop participant of mine who suggested that those who have had too much to drink benefit greatly. We all giggled at the notion but the very best curb cuts probably do an amazing job with color, shape, haptic feedback to support the needs of the drunk who wish to make it home safely.

Beyond curb cuts, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 set in motion a monumental change to our designed world that we all benefit from, weather we know it or not. Buses, bathrooms, restaurants, ballparks, civic buildings, parks and so on have all been transformed to support all of our needs. Ever wonder why the checkout counter in a fast food joint or in a clothing store are both rather low and easy to use? The ADA is to thank for that as its intended design is again for wheelchairs but a low counter serves many great purposes.  

The Story of Access in Our Schools

“If your student needs a pencil, give them a pencil!” That’s one common tweet I’ve seen many times on EduTwitter during 2018 and 2019, suggesting that there’s an access problem with learning and we, the classroom teachers, can fix that problem and increase quality access to learning. But the pencil problem goes much further for many teachers as we search for ways for many students with needs to grip a pencil correctly, sliding on different plastic, rubber and even foam accommodations so young students can hold a pencil correctly. Going further, the paper we use in classrooms has evolved with different lines, shapes and colors to make learning more accessible, not to mention all of the digital solutions coming online every day. It would be incomprehensible to think that these accommodations wouldn’t be valuable for all students or that we would think to apply these accommodations to just a select population of students. Yet, I can imagine what the first teachers giving rubber pencil grips to the neediest must have thought. I’m going to bet that they didn’t see this as a general population solution. The same can be said for voice to text in the classroom. The technology that was used to create voice to text was specifically created for the neediest students and now exists in many popular educational digital tools, in Alexia and in your iPhone. Heck, your digital watch may include the very same coding DNA that made this accessibility tool a reality.  

Some accessibility curb cuts you dream up may be very simple in the classroom. My own personal favorite might be designing the space on my math tests to help show students how much they have learned and what they still need to learn. My own tests are set up in rows from left to right, easiest to hardest with each row representing one standard. Then, they are labeled to help students read what each row consists of. The idea being that I had my student who struggle the most were also regularly unable to look over a test and make sense about what they know and don’t know. They were then less likely to know how to study and how to approach their learning in my class. This design did help these students and all students in my class make sense about their progress. Metacognition grew and performance improved.

What’s Reasonable Action in a School?

What’s reasonable to do is usually the first question I get and the easiest to answer: Go as far can you can to help those in academic need at your school because everyone will benefit when you design a better school for the needs you can identify.

Keep in mind that much of the work we are already doing is in an effort to help those that struggle so I am not suggesting that a sea change is in the offing. Rather, framing the understanding of our work will help enhance what we do and to make the impact more meaningful greater and longer lasting. Thinking of our efforts as curb cuts that we would seek to apply broadly is a helpful framing. For example, considering how to organize homework for the most forgetful will make the experience easier for all when applied to all. The experience of homework would now become more about quality practice and less about the work it takes to be organized. Hence, access to learning is increased because of design attention to the neediest. A curb cut was identified for a needy part of the population, applied to all and greater access to all is the outcome.

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