The ‘Curb-Cut Effect’ in the Digital Age: How Accessibility Tools Help Everyone 

Published November 30, 2022

While few are likely to argue the impact and necessity of workplaces making accommodations for employees with disabilities, the culture is changing. Now, instead of offering accommodations to just those who request them, more companies are embedding diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) initiatives into their plans from the get-go. 

As an accessibility partner to many of today’s organizations, Verbit’s team has seen the incredible impact of offering accommodations, such as captioning, transcription and audio description, among others, to everyone. Business leaders are speaking about accessibility efforts daily, and incorporating them into product designs, marketing campaigns and more.   
As businesses prioritize these efforts, they’re experiencing a phenomenon called the “Curb-Cut Effect.” What was once a concept that highlighted the benefits of accessibility in physical spaces now proves just as relevant in today’s digitized landscape.   

What is the “Curb-Cut Effect”?   

In the early 1970s, a group of student disability-rights advocates in wheelchairs poured cement onto a curb in Berkeley, California. While police officers threatened the students, the rudimentary ramp they created highlighted a need. A short while later, Berkeley created its first official curb-cut to improve mobility for people using wheelchairs.    

More towns and cities followed, and in 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed the ADA into law. With that legislation, curb-cuts became standard requirements. Interestingly, once curb-cuts were commonplace, it became apparent that the feature helped far more people than those who needed them to navigate in wheelchairs. Parents pushing strollers, travelers pulling suitcases and people using carts to make deliveries all gravitated toward the curb-cuts. In fact, some research suggested 90% of pedestrians prefer using curb-cuts.    

The term “curb-cut effect” became a way to describe how a modification, technology or accommodation geared towards people with disabilities often proves beneficial to society at large. Additionally, savvy business leaders are finding ways that taking such steps can even offer financial gains.     

“It's funny how we look at trying to provide access as a cost instead of realizing the greater benefit, even financial benefit, that we can gain by providing that,” said Scott Ready, Global Head of Accessibility and Inclusion at Verbit.   

From a business perspective, Ready explained, “imagine a store that has steps to get into the door. There's no ramp. Well, you are excluding a very large percentage of your potential customers.”   

The reality is that exclusion extends to people who sprained their ankle or who are pushing strollers, not just those who use wheelchairs. In that sense, not having a ramp could prevent purchases and cost businesses.    

However, in today’s world, conversations around accessibility have less to do with physical spaces and focus more on digital access.   

Why digital spaces are the new concern for accessibility   

The ADA didn’t cover online accessibility. In fact, the law predated the Internet. As time passed, the importance of online spaces grew. Today, being excluded from online spaces can be as problematic as exclusion from physical ones. Whether a person is trying to access their bank information, fill out a job application or complete college courses, being able to navigate digital spaces is critical.   

Still, the law hasn’t kept up with digital accessibility needs. Instead, business leaders may not always know how to ensure their customers and employees can access their websites and other content. The best way to approach the subject is to consult the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines that the World Wide Web Consortium publishes and routinely updates.    

However, it’s also important that business leaders ensure their sites and content include some common accessibility features. In fact, many of these also highlight the curb-cut effect as it applies to online content.    

How accessibility promotes better digital access for all    

The benefits of accessibility online often extend beyond those that accommodations are aimed to help. For instance, accessibility efforts may flag sites that lacked clear and intuitive navigation. However, the same accessibility barriers often make sites difficult for anyone to navigate. As a result, instead of trying to ensure accessibility, the focus started to shift towards “universal design principles.”  

Universal design principles dictate that designers should create products that work for everyone, to the greatest possible extent, without needing adaptation. Instead of making people request an accommodation, UD principles say to offer the tools that some people need to everyone, without anyone needing to make a request.    

Considerations for accessibility solutions at your company 

Every company should be working to find ways to incorporate universal design principles and accessibility solutions into their business. Here are a few suggestions to help companies get started. 

Make your website navigation more intuitive   

Some company websites are “so cumbersome to try and to navigate to find information, there are some employees that will dig and dig and dig and find it, but there are a number of employees that will not follow that kind of processing navigation. They disengaged, and they miss out on it because of the disability,” said Verbit’s Ready.   

W3C guidelines require easy navigation because complex sites can prevent people with cognitive disabilities from finding the necessary information. Some examples of barriers that make navigation a challenge include:   

Mechanisms for navigation that are complicated   

  • Poor or confusing page layouts   
  • Complicated sentence construction   
  • Lengthy passages without images, illustrations or graphs to add context   
  • Images or videos that move or flicker and that users can’t disable   

Although W3C may highlight the impact of these features on individuals with cognitive disabilities, “the reality is there's a significant number of other employees who also lose out because the navigation is not intuitive,” explained Ready.    

As a result, Ready said that “navigation is one area that when we improve that navigation in order for those with cognitive disabilities, we improve the navigation for everybody.” This example showcases the curb-cut effect as it applies to all websites.      

Engage greater audiences with captioning   

Captions are one of the most common accessibility accommodations that people request. Many individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing rely on captions to view video content, live events or participate in meetings.    

Interestingly, studies show that captions actually benefit many people, not just those who need them because of a hearing-related disability. For instance, people who aren’t native speakers of a language and individuals who have ADHD or other forms of neurodiversity greatly benefit from this solution. Also, captions help students learn to read and improve their comprehension and fluency. Research even suggests that everyone retains information better when they use captions.    

Captions are, therefore, a great example of a tool that some people need, but that everyone benefits from once they have access. Universal design principles support universal captioning, where everyone has the access to captions without needing to request them. The curb-cut effect indicates that when a business offers captions for everyone, all viewers will have a better experience.    

Consider audio description too  

 Audio description is a less prevalent tool than captioning, but it is growing in popularity. People who are blind or have low vision can use audio description to understand the visual aspects of films or live video content. In an educational setting, the descriptions might need to include more specific context, and so there are options for extended audio description that helps provide more detailed information.    

 Studies now indicate that this tool is useful for others as well. For example, people who have autism spectrum disorder may find audio description helpful in interpreting human body language or emotions. While this tool isn’t something that developers created for this purpose, they are able to make viewing experiences better for far more people than just those who need it because of a vision-related disability.   

Today, this solution is more common in videos, and people are finding that they benefit from it, even if they didn’t know they would. Such realizations are the essence of the curb-cut effect.    

Move beyond today’s basic requirements  

Instead of offering support only for those who report they need it, it’s better to proactively offer solutions to everyone. It is essential for today’s businesses to lean more into inclusive practices and studies show the bottom line will benefit as a result with the opportunity to engage a greater pool of individuals and your own employees.    

If you’re looking for more insights on where to start, feel free to reach out to Verbit. Our captioning, transcription and audio description solutions are surefire ways to help you boost accessibility and help your brand and its content to become more inclusive. Contact us to learn more.  


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