The Digital Curb Cut Effect

The conversation around accessibility, including the definition of web accessibility, is shifting from a binary between disabled and non-disabled users to a more nuanced understanding of the fluid nature of access needs over time. This broader way of thinking about accessibility is good for your clients, for your business and for the world we want to live in.

Expanding How We Think About Access

This way of thinking isn’t new, and in the world of industrial design it’s known as the curb cut effect. The project of grading sidewalks down to street level was begun with the intention of accommodating people in wheelchairs (and was the result of a huge amount of work and advocacy by disability organizers in California), but it soon became clear that curb cuts benefited far more people than just wheelchair users. It benefits people pushing strollers, people pulling rolling luggage or grocery carts, it benefits those who use walkers and people who are recovering from injuries such as broken bones and sprains. In short, it benefits virtually everyone at one time in their lives or another.

We see the proliferation of this idea–sometimes referred to as universal design–in the shift in language from handicapped to accessible when it comes to physical infrastructure. For example, larger parking spaces closer to a building’s entrance are called accessible spaces. Bathrooms with a power door opener and enough space to accommodate a wheelchair are accessible bathrooms. This includes people with permanent disabilities, temporary disabilities, age-related mobility issues, sensory challenges and more. Rather than targeting a specific group of people–a group often labeled and categorized by policy-makers rather than by the people themselves–the focus is on making such spaces usable by as many people as possible regardless of their needs.

We can approach building for the web in the same way.

Ability is a Spectrum

For example, a user otherwise accustomed to working with a mouse or trackpad breaks their dominant arm and needs to navigate via keystrokes with their non-dominant hand for six weeks. A new parent is significantly sleep deprived for the first several months of their child’s life, and the speed at which they’re able to process information is temporarily diminished. As another user ages, their eyesight worsens and they require the option to increase text size. Ability is a spectrum and many people move back and forth along it throughout their lives. Why not build websites and applications on the assumption that we could all, at some point in our lives, require accessible features?

Studies indicate that roughly 20 percent of the general population have a disability. But that doesn’t capture the whole picture. As The A11y Collective’s masterclass  on the business case for accessible design points out, that 20 percent doesn’t include people who are temporarily disabled or those with usual age-related impairments, and it doesn’t include those who don’t self-identify as disabled, but who may live with factors that impact their ability to use the internet, such as dyslexia or colour blindness. When you add up all those people, you’re probably looking at a much larger portion of the population.

Digital Accessibility is for You

While we tend to think of web accessibility in terms of physical accessibility, focusing on keyboard patterns, scalable text and focus states, there is more we can do to improve accessibility for users with cognitive disabilities, with dyslexia and dyscalculia, and those with mental health challenges such as anxiety or sleep disorders. This even extends beyond design and code to the marketing choices businesses make on their websites. Marketing decisions such as playing on FOMO (24 hours left! Only 3 spots remaining! One-time only offer!) or using dark patterns designed to trick users into taking actions they didn’t intend, can make websites and applications inaccessible for people with anxiety disorders and brain injuries.

Whether you live with a permanent disability or you’re just trying to order cat food on your phone while your toddler screams in the background, accessible, human-centred design makes life better for everyone.

Curious about how to make your current site more accessible? Send us a message at to talk about an accessibility audit!


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