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Curb Cuts and Captions

Written by Nina Endler of Boulder, CO
July, 2020

Earlier this year, something happened in my neighborhood of 1960s ranches, split levels, and tri-levels that I wished had been there while my children were growing up. (For the record, they’re 19 and 22.)

Image of President George H.W. Bush with Evan J. Kemp, Jr., then the chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (pictured next to President Bush seated in his motorized wheelchair) and Justin Whitlock Dart, Jr., often called the “Godfather of the ADA,” an American activist and advocate for people with disabilities and co-founder of the American
(For the uninitiated, that’s President Bush the Elder signing the Americans with Disabilities Act – ADA – on July 26, 1990.)

In the first part of a year that marks 30 years since this happened -my neighborhood, in which the trees now tower over the houses at long last received these: curb cuts!

picture of curb cuts at an intersection
A curb cut is a solid (usually concrete) ramp graded down from the top surface of a sidewalk to the surface of an adjoining street.

How nice it would have been to have these while I was pushing a baby jogger, while my daughters were learning to ride bikes, while…

But wait, that’s not their intended purpose – that’s not their raison d’etre.

They are, however probably the best example of universal design, of something that was done so more of us could participate and which those of us who were already participating also benefit from. With them, my neighbors who are now pushing baby joggers no longer need to carefully navigate going down and then up each curb. Children who are now learning to ride bikes no longer need to stop, get off their bike, and then get back on. Walking and wheeling through the neighborhood is now more seamless. Something for which the wheels (pun intended) were set in motion 30 years ago is benefiting significantly more people than was initially intended.

Recently, the state chapter of the union I belong to held a webinar and after it was over, emailed the link to its membership. I received this email on my phone, clicked on the link, and, as I do when captions don’t automatically come up, searched for a way to turn them on. As the displays are different on different devices, and willing to give the state chapter of my union the benefit of the doubt, I figured that the captions didn’t display on smaller devices such as phones. Since I wasn’t near my larger devices at the time, and as I had also seen a social media post about the webinar, I inquired on the post about the availability of captions. The state contact apologized “that wasn’t accommodated on this webinar. I realize that is not ok and we will correct for future webinars.”

It has now been 30 years since the first President Bush signed the ADA. Let’s stop thinking of captions as an accommodation. Let’s stop thinking of things like curb cuts and captions as accommodations and start thinking of them as universal design. Let’s eliminate the perception of curb cuts and captions as being “for those who need them.” Just as people who are currently pushing baby joggers and children who are currently learning to ride a bike in my neighborhood are benefiting from the new curb cuts, here’s a starter list of how people with typical hearing benefit from captions.

  • You’re insomniac and you want to watch a video you’ve been meaning to watch while remaining in bed. The person next to you, who has typical hearing is sleeping.
  • You’re in a noisy area and you can’t find your earbuds.
  • You went to work outside of a coffee shop and left your AirPods at home.
  • You’re parallel-working with a family member at the table and you want to be able to listen for an anticipated delivery so you don’t put anything in your ears.
  • You don’t have either AirPods or earbuds and the noise of your device interferes with the concentration of the other person in the room who’s reading a book.

Because captions are still thought of as an accommodation rather than as universal design, OTTO Health didn’t include captions in their telehealth platform. Because captions are still thought of as an accommodation rather than as universal design, Zoom does not offer live captions that anyone can turn on with the click of a button. Because captions are still thought of as an accommodation rather than as universal design, I can’t follow a YouTube video that doesn’t have the CC icon in the lower right corner.

Let’s stop thinking of things like curb cuts and captions as accommodations and start thinking of them as what they really are – a universal design that everyone benefits from. With universal design, webinars wouldn’t be filmed, online platforms wouldn’t be made and YouTube videos wouldn’t be posted without captions. And someone with typical hearing can watch the recording of a webinar in bed while they’re insomniac and not wake up the person sleeping next to them.