Accessibility features have a tendency to benefit everyone, with or without a disability. That dynamic is widespread and predictable. It’s been documented often enough to have its own name: The curb cut effect.
While the term comes to us from architecture’s universal design movement, the curb cut effect also applies to digital systems, from your company website to the latest mobile app.
If you’re struggling to get buy-in for web accessibility at your organization, the curb cut effect is a strong argument for the cause. Here’s what it means, how it manifests in digital spaces, and what you can do to start delivering the benefits of the curb cut effect.
The Curb Cut Effect: A Concise Definition
If you’ve used a sidewalk, you’ve probably used a curb cut. In the wake of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, this architectural feature became widespread in the U.S. Prior to that, curb cuts were rare, and usually the result of tough battles waged by disability rights advocates. Once they were required by federal legislation, however, curb cuts became commonplace enough to begin measuring their effect.
These ramps did improve access for people who use wheelchairs. They also made life easier for countless other pedestrians. As Angela Glover Blackwell writes in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “When the wall of exclusion came down, everybody benefitted—not only people in wheelchairs.”
Parents could push strollers without navigating dangerous ledges. Delivery workers could move carts faster, with less risk. People on skateboards, rollerblades, and—eventually—e-scooters traveled more freely. Even pedestrians with empty hands began to make a beeline for the curb cut.
According to an architect who studied foot traffic at a Florida shopping mall, 90% of “unencumbered pedestrians” changed course to use a curb cut. They made travel easier for everyone. Something similar occurs when we commit to accessible digital design.
Digital Accessibility and the Curb Cut Effect
Many digital accessibility features have broad appeal beyond the populations they built to support. For example, closed captioning was originally developed to grant full access to video content for people with hearing loss or deafness — but, today, they’re not the only ones using subtitles.
In September 2022, the Wall Street Journal asked, “Why Do All These 20-Somethings Have Closed Captions Turned On?” The story reported on a 2022 Preply survey that found nearly 90% percent of viewers have used subtitles while watching video content. The younger the viewer, the more likely they were to use this accessibility feature: 53% of Millennials said they use subtitles “most of the time.” Among Gen Z viewers, that figure was 70%.
People listed lots of reasons for using closed captioning: Either the audio is poor quality, or characters have unfamiliar accents, or the viewer’s watching content silently to avoid disturbing family or roommates. Nearly 30% said subtitles helped them focus on the screen, while almost 20% used closed captioning along with audio to learn a new language.
This example illustrates the digital curb cut effect: When we provide accessibility features, people find surprising new ways to use them. User experiences improve across the board.
That’s not to diminish the experiences of people with disabilities. Inclusivity remains the core goal of accessible design. But it’s good for people with disabilities when broader populations benefit from accessibility features. That drives up demand, and can help contribute to a more accessible internet for all.
Where Accessible Design and Universal Design Intersect
The goal of accessible web design is to remove barriers for users with disabilities. Universal design, on the other hand, focuses on making products or websites easy to use for as many people as possible, regardless of ability, language, or cultural background. In short, accessible design contributes to universal design—but keeps the focus on equal access for people with disabilities.
To understand this relationship, let’s look at a few items from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the leading authority on accessible web design. These aren’t the only elements of WCAG that demonstrate the digital curb cut effect, but they’re fair examples:
- Text Alternatives: For all images and other non-text content, WCAG asks developers to include a descriptive text alternative, like alt-text for images. That allows people who use screen readers to understand the visual content—but it also gives context to anyone when an image fails to load.
- Captions: According to WCAG, video content should include text captions for people with deafness or hearing loss. As explored above, however, many users prefer using captions to support comprehension or provide an audio-free experience.
- Section Headings: People who use screen readers rely on heading tags (H1, H2, H3, etc.) to scan online content. That’s why WCAG recommends structuring these tags logically, in sequential order. A well-organized page also supports quick comprehension for visual readers—and sends appropriate SEO signals to search engines.
The digital curb cut effect manifests when users experiment with accessibility features, finding their own ways to craft the ideal, personalized experience. Odds are, the more accessible you make your website, the more users will be pleased with the outcome. That’s great for accessibility and user experiences more broadly.
So how do you begin to improve accessibility on your website? Start with BOIA’s free, confidential website accessibility scan. We’ll send a graded report that measures your compliance against WCAG A and AA success levels—so you can start creating better experiences for all users.