Laws and programs designed to benefit vulnerable groups, such as the disabled or people of color, often end up benefiting all of society.
One evening in the early 1970s, Michael Pachovas and a few friends wheeled themselves to a curb in Berkeley, Calif., poured cement into the form of a crude ramp, and rolled off into the night.1 For Pachovas and his fellow disability advocates, it was a political act, a gesture of defiance. “The police threatened to arrest us,” Pachovas recalls. “But they didn’t.” 2 It was also pragmatic. Despite their unevenness, the makeshift sloping curbs provided the disabled community with something invaluable: mobility.
At the time, getting around Berkeley—or any American city—in a wheelchair was not easy. The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 required government buildings to make themselves universally accessible, but traversing the streets in a wheelchair resembled the running of an obstacle course: Wheel to the driveway in an alley or at a loading dock; roll into the street until you reached another driveway; hope all the while that a truck didn’t pull out. Students with disabilities at the University of California, Berkeley, housed in Cowell Hospital—the only space that could accommodate them3—planned their class schedule according to which class was downhill from the previous one.
Yet this was Berkeley in the era of political activism. There was a Free Speech Movement, an antiwar movement, a civil rights movement. Why not a movement for movement? Pressed by disabled activists, in 1972 the city installed its first official “curb cut” at an intersection on Telegraph Avenue.4 It would become, in the words of a Berkeley advocate, “the slab of concrete heard ’round the world.”5