Why Remote Access Is The New ‘Curb Cut’ For Modern Accessibility

Why Remote Access Is The New ‘Curb Cut’ For Modern Accessibility

Originally posted on Forbes EQ.

In the United States, approximately 1 in 4 adults live with a disability, defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) made the U.S. the first nation to ban discrimination against people with disabilities from employment, education, health care, transportation, housing, and other areas of public life. While the ADA has reduced barriers for individuals with disabilities, many still face substantial obstacles to living and working fully in society.

The road to the ADA was paved by the tireless efforts of many disability rights activists and historic icons (some might call, “Historicons”), who led the charge for a more accessible and inclusive America. In 1945, disabled veteran Jack Fisher successfully lobbied for the nation’s first curb cuts to be installed in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In 1968, congressional aide Hugh Gallagher drove congress to pass the Architectural Barriers Act, requiring all federal and federally-funded buildings to be accessible to individuals with physical disabilities. And in 1977, disabled activists (led by Judy Heumann and Kitty Cone) organized a sit-in protest in San Francisco, which lasted for nearly a month, to call for greater accessibility and accommodations for individuals with disabilities. This protest was instrumental in securing the first civil rights protection for people with disabilities.

Today, it’s easy to forget the struggles and sacrifices that disabled people made throughout history to better our country—for everyone. Perhaps some might not even know that accessibility features such as curb cuts—the mini sidewalk ramps found at intersections throughout the country—used not to exist. That is, before disabled activists such as Ed Roberts and Hale Zukas and the rest of the "Rolling Quads" sledgehammered curbs and laid asphalt in the middle of the night to create curb cuts on their college campus, forcing legislators into action.

Today, wheelchair users, travelers with luggage, workers with rolling carts, and caregivers with strollers, alike, rely upon curb cuts to transition smoothly from point A to point B—so much so that the term “curb cut effect” has been coined, referring to the frequent phenomenon that occurs when designing for disability results in benefits for everyone. More often than not, everyone benefits from accessibility features, such as closed captioning, adjustable-height standing desks, and voice-to-text technology. And at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses and workers benefited from telework and remote access options: accessibility accommodations that the disability community have been demanding since decades before the pandemic.

In response to the pandemic, employers let their employees work from home, doctors offices and health insurance companies enabled telemedicine appointments, courtrooms turned to virtual civil jury trials, museums started providing virtual tours, and concert venues began streaming concerts online. For the first time in history, people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, or limited mobility were able to participate in work and experiences that were previously unavailable to them—without the hassle of overcoming physical limitations or geographical barriers to physically attend them.

By removing physical barriers of work and entertainment, employers and organizers created a more inclusive environment that allows disabled employees to contribute their talent and skills or enjoy live experiences on a more level playing field. The shift to remote work has been especially beneficial, with accommodations for remote work raising the employment rate for people with disabilities to its highest rate in over a decade.

Just as curb cuts and wheelchair ramps made places and spaces newly accessible to millions of disabled people in the United States, remote access opened doors for the disability community to more fully participate in work and society. And just as the “curb cut effect” dictates, the rise of telework and remote access in the pandemic has provided benefits to everyone.

Thanks to remote access options, non-disabled individuals have gained flexibility to work from anywhere, balancing their personal and professional lives more effectively. In fact, research shows that working from home is associated with decreased employee stress levels and increased productivity. Employers have gained access to a broader, more diverse talent pool, with far less geographical restraints to hiring. Similarly, telemedicine and virtual participation options have allowed healthcare organizations and companies to expand their services to a broader audience, increase profitability, and improve health outcomes.

But as suddenly as virtual access solutions were opened up at the height of the pandemic, they are now being shut down (or are at risk of being pared back), leaving individuals with disabilities, again, shut out, with little immediate recourse. The future of accessibility remains uncertain as there is limited legal precedent on when remote access qualifies as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. Prior to the pandemic, courts often ruled against telework as a reasonable accommodation, citing the essential need for physical presence in the workplace for teamwork, client interactions, and work supervision. However, the last three years’ experience with virtual solutions may persuade courts otherwise. Thanks to the pandemic, video conferencing and streaming technologies have become integral aspects of many office jobs and daily life, revolutionizing the traditional workplace and access to healthcare, civics and entertainment. Already, companies are facing legal pushback from the disability community due to their bans of remote work.

As our nation endeavors to "build back better" from the pandemic, we must avoid repeating history by burdening the disability community with the responsibility of fighting for equal access and inclusion. As society continues to return to in-person activities, it's important not to leave behind the gains made by virtual access. Instead, we should use them as a stepping stone—or more aptly, a curb cut—to create a more accessible world for everyone.

While the pandemic has had tragic consequences, it has also presented a unique opportunity for society to collectively experience the challenges of social distancing and the benefits of remote access to work, entertainment, civics, and healthcare. It’s time we teamed up to make history together, regardless of ability or position, to transform our shared experience into effective legislation that guarantees equal participation in society for individuals with disabilities, once and for all.

Words by Rose Perry, PhD

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