The history of the wheelchair dates back to 300 BC in China, where records show wheelbarrow type furniture was used to assist people with disabilities.
It wasn’t until the 1970’s that the ramped curb became widespread in the United States.
Getting there wasn’t easy.
Curb Cuts and Independent Living
Disability activism has existed in some form in the United States since the 18th century, but it was significantly expanded in the 1950’s when veterans returned home from World War II with life changing disabilities.
In the late 1950’s Ed Roberts, a student with disabilities at University of California (UC)-Berkeley, grouped together with several other students with disabilities to form the Rolling Quads.
Together they demanded equal access on campus. The group even went as far as laying asphalt in the middle of the night to create ramped curbs.
UC Berkeley was soon one of the most accessible campuses in the country.
Eventually this group formed the Center for Independent Living. The concept of independent living pushed beyond typical advocacy for people with disabilities in the 1960’s.
It focused on policies that would allow people with disabilities to lead independent lives, rather than assistance and group living homes which were typical at the time.
Architectural Barriers Act
In 1968, the Architectural Barriers Act was passed, which required federal buildings to remove barriers to access.
This was the first major piece of legislation that afforded people with disabilities access rights.
After the Architectural Barriers Act, architects were required to take equal access seriously and began adding ramps, wider doors, and other accessible features to their designs.
Although these features did provide equal access, they often did not fit in with the aesthetic of the building and were costly to implement.
These designs often included separate entrances to buildings for wheelchair users, which helped perpetuate negative stigma against people with disabilities.
The Universal Design movement formed to solve this.
Coined by Ronald Mace, Universal Design can be defined by design that is usable to all regardless of ability or disability.
Universal Design aims to create environments which work for everyone, not separate environments for people with differing abilities.
Universal Design can be seen across industries today. The Ed Roberts Campus at the UC Berkeley campus is one stunning example of how buildings designed with Universal Design concepts can be aesthetically pleasing and helpful for all people.
Another example of Universal Design in modern-day design is OXO, a company that designs and manufactures kitchen tools and housewares.
On their About page they state,
OXO was founded on the philosophy of Universal Design, which means the design of products usable by as many people as possible.
OXO’s products are well known and loved because they provide a pleasant user experience for everyone, not only people without disabilities.
As more and more of life moves onto the web, it’s important that we keep Universal Design in mind when designing for the web.
Today, it’s hard to conduct a normal life without using the internet. We pay bills, make travel reservations, keep in contact with loved ones, access services, and research our rights on the web.
The web has become as important to living an independent life as the built environment. This makes it crucial that we treat access to the web the same as access to a grocery store, federal building, or movie theater.