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Practices of High-Performance

BxD 1.3 Curb Cuts

Curb cut

Image from Wikimedia Commons

In the years following World War II, many veterans returned to civilian life dependent upon wheelchairs, braces, or prostheses. Many of these young men opted to take advantage of the GI Bill’s education benefit; a provision that enabled veterans to go to college. However, public spaces, including those on college campuses, often had curbs that were not designed to accommodate mobility challenges. Consequently, some disabled veterans had to hitch rides as cargo on service trucks to get around campus and into buildings.

Veterans with mobility challenges also faced difficulties getting to and from work. The curbs in downtown areas across the country meant disabled veterans required assistance just to get to and from an office building. Thus, having a mobility issue might mean the difference between earning a living or not.

Jack Fisher, a Michigan-based veteran with a Harvard Law degree, learned of many of these situations through his law practice. In 1945, Fisher petitioned the Kalamazoo City Commission about the matter as a point of social justice. Based on Fisher’s testimony, the City Commission authorized the construction of some experimental ramps in the central business district. The ramps soon were laid into the corners of several blocks, and observation of their use began.

In a letter to the Kalamazoo Mayor about the use of the ramps, Fisher noted: These cement ramps in many instances mean the difference between disabled veterans and disabled non-veterans having employment, as with the ramps a person confined to a wheel chair, on crutches or wearing an artificial limb is able to get to a place of employment unaided. The ramps thus enables many so called unemployable persons to become employable persons, and not only benefits the disabled person alone, but benefits the community at large as well.

Kalamazoo went on to fund the development of more ramps. Decades later community activists in Berkeley, CA would champion the installation of curb cuts for social justice in their community. By the 1980s the American Disabilities Act would awaken the entire country to the necessity of equal access to public spaces, and curb cuts and entry ramps became a ubiquitous part of the built environment.

The eventual benefits of the Kalamazoo ramps – or as we now call them, curb cuts – improved life for everyone.  From caregivers pushing strollers to joggers getting exercise, curb cuts make getting around a little easier for all of us.

No doubt Fisher’s innovation was a success. And, given that he was left with a limp from a wartime injury, he may have had empathy for those whose mobility was severely compromised. However, his innovation – or at least the charge for the implementation of his innovation – seems to come from his belief in the principle of social justice.

The bioethical principle of social justice typically informs decisions that hinge on scarcity. It ensures that people will not be unfairly denied benefits – such as access to organs – based on their race or socio-economic status, for example. It also protects vulnerable people – such as children or prisoners – from unfair treatment. Social justice does animate acts of innovation as evidenced by the curb cuts in our built environment. However, empathy seems to be more closely associated with innovation than social justice is.

Questions: Under what circumstances does social justice influence the innovation process? And how do the cultural ideals of social justice and empathy complement each other in acts of design?

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