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Creating Curb Cuts

Curb cuts allow those using wheelchairs, walkers and other assistive devices to more smoothly transition from the curb to the street.
Southwest Michigan lays claim to historic innovation

Quick, what is the gradual slope on sidewalks that allows individuals in wheelchairs or on bicycles and skateboards to smoothly transition from the street to the walkway called?

If you guessed “the sidewalk slide,” you’re wrong. While “the sidewalk slide” does sound like a cool breakdance move from the 1980s, the correct answer is “curb cut.”

“They’re called curb cuts because the curb is actually cut out of the sidewalk,” says Kristen Potts, resource development director of Disability Network Southwest Michigan.

And although Berkeley, California, is usually recognized as the first city to have installed curb cuts (which it did in the 1970s), a recent investigation by Potts shows Battle Creek and Kalamazoo actually beat Berkeley by about 30 years.

“It started last year,” Potts says of her research. “The Disability Network Southwest Michigan was having a celebration of the 24th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act when one of our guests gave us an article claiming Kalamazoo was the first city to have curb cuts.”

After browsing the Web and corresponding with Battle Creek city administration and with Kalamazoo Historic Preservation Coordinator Sharon Ferraro, Potts discovered that curb cuts were first installed in Battle Creek. After World War I, Battle Creek’s former Percy Jones Army Hospital was a government medical facility for amputee treatment and rehabilitation. The escalating number of patients with physical disabilities residing in the city prompted Battle Creek officials to place curb cuts throughout its downtown district in 1945.

“The idea was that they wanted these temporary residents to feel comfortable and to be able to move around more easily and enter businesses downtown,” Potts says.

She also found that later the same year Kalamazoo native Jack Fisher, a lawyer and war veteran who spent time at Percy Jones, petitioned Kalamazoo’s city manager to make Kalamazoo’s sidewalks more accessible too. Not long after Battle Creek installed curb cuts, Kalamazoo did too — adding metal handrails for emphasis.

Curb cuts eventually caught on elsewhere during the 1960-70 era of social and political activism. That’s when a group of University of California, Berkeley students with disabilities rallied for city officials to make that town’s sidewalks more wheelchair-accessible.
“I think Berkeley gets the credit because the times were different,” Potts says. “They had more momentum. Battle Creek and Kalamazoo did it for the sole purpose of bettering their communities, whereas Berkeley capitalized on it and pushed it.”

The Berkeley protest coincided with The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which required all federal government institutions to make accommodations for those with disabilities. President George H.W. Bush followed up with the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, which applied the Rehabilitation Act to state and local institutions, prompting more and more curb cuts to be installed on sidewalks.

Disability Network Southwest Michigan this month is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act and is putting a spotlight on Southwest Michigan as home of the first curb cuts.

“It’s important for residents of Southwest Michigan to know our community was the first to say, ‘Hey, businesses, restaurants and movie theaters should be accessible for everyone,’” Potts says. “We were the first to think about inclusion. That’s a big thing to say about this community.”

J. Gabriel Ware

An editorial intern at Encore, J. Gabriel explored historic curb cuts and the nonprofit Jamaica Rehab Partners for this month’s issue. While working on his story Therapeutic Mission, J. Gabriel got a glimpse of the lives of poor patients in Jamaica and a special bond between father and daughter. “This is the most significant story I have written so far. I attempted to tell many stories in this one piece because I felt that each one of them needed to be told,” he says. J. Gabriel will be a senior at Western Michigan University this fall.

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