Accessible cities in the era of COVID-19

In difficult times such as these, the barriers to staying safe and healthy are amplified. Many people in the news and social media have been talking about how their daily walk outside is keeping them sane during this time of self-isolation. Without sloped curbs and other accessibility features, this release would be denied to many people with mobility issues. Difficulties and barriers such as these should be noticed and called out — but not just during a pandemic when society as a whole is more health-conscious. For people with disabilities, these recent barriers just add to the ones they must deal with every day, and so their perspectives and insights are critical to the designers of cities, buildings, walkways, and other public spaces. Someone not familiar with accessibility needs may see no reason to widen a grocery store aisle by an extra two feet, but many people with disabilities can explain exactly why doing so would be helpful now and even before COVID-19 swept the world.

The importance of not only consulting people with disabilities during the design process, but also being open to making improvements as concerns arise is huge. And making public spaces more accessible doesn’t just help people with disabilities — it helps everyone. The concept that making cities more accessible helps everyone is called the Curb Cut Effect. Named after the introduction of curb cuts, the sloped edge of curbs on public walkways and sidewalks, the Effect describes what happened in American cities after the Americans with Disabilities Act was written into effect in 1990. The Act mandated that all spaces must be accessible, including curbs. Seen as a landmark initiative at the time, disability advocates had been fighting for curb cuts for decades before the change was made universal. With the new changes to curbs, far more people than just those in wheelchairs began to use the curb cuts! Studies describe parents with strollers, workers with trolleys, runners, bikers, and children choosing to use curb cuts because of the wide range of benefits not even considered when the Act was written into law.

The Curb Cut Effect is seen all across the world as cities aim to make spaces more accessible. Think of the wheelchair-accessible elevators that are wide enough for wheelchairs or automated scooters, but that also helps delivery workers with heavy items avoid climbing the stairs, or the automated walkways in airports between terminals that both assist those who cannot walk long distances and tired travellers who want a break in the long trek from one gate to another. In this time of COVID-19, think of all of the things that are taken for granted — automatic doors at grocery stores, remote working and video-conferencing, home delivery of food and medication. Each of the features that makes flattening the curve possible while maintaining some semblance of normal everyday life was fought for by people with disabilities. The accessible services by which citizens can move about a city safely and healthily during this pandemic are there because people with disabilities cannot function without them. It is especially necessary to recognize the work and effort of past innovators to create today’s comforts and necessities.

What if society let this be a time of reflection on all of the ways cities and public spaces could be improved, for people with disabilities, and for those trying to keep safe during COVID-19. Perhaps we would notice things that the disabled community has been mentioning for quite some time, or become aware of the attention to detail that is necessary to make a city or space truly accessible. Next time you’re out at the store, or going for a walk around your neighbourhood, think of how the experience would be for someone with a disability, and how you can help advocate for more-accessible spaces.

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