The Needs Of The Few
Popular Science|Winter 2020
Designing with the marginalized in mind can improve all of out lives.
By Eleanor Cummins. Photographs by The Voorhes

In the 1940s, hundreds of thousands of World War II veterans returned home with disabilities. Frustrated by the difficulties they faced, Jack Fisher of Kalamazoo, Michigan, petitioned his city commission to install an experimental curb cut—a gentle slope that brings the end of a sidewalk down to meet the level of the street—at the corners of several blocks downtown. A few months into the pilot project, Fisher reported that even residents without wheelchairs were enjoying the impact of the little ramps: Older adults leaning on canes, parents pushing strollers, and kids pulling wagons benefited from the human-made hills, too.

Today, these shallow slants are an essential feature of the pedestrian landscape across the United States. They’ve also spurred a titular design concept: the “curb-cut effect,” which refers to the fact that supporting marginalized groups of people often ends up helping much larger swaths of society. Whether it’s applied to accessible design, investments in social welfare, or pioneering legislation, study after study shows the effect has the power to uplift us all.

PICTOGRAMS

Painting a picture

The human brain processes images faster than letters, likely because alphabets and other writing systems have only been part of our lives for a few millennia. That’s why the pictogram— a symbol standing in for a word or phrase—is a common tool for helping people with intellectual disabilities. But they can also ease the way for any sighted traveler. People can recognize an image in as little as 13 milliseconds, compared to around 300 milliseconds for a word. Now many of us take for granted that we’ll be able to quickly identify the nearest emergency exit or bathroom in a mall, or determine when it’s safe to cross a busy street, anywhere—even if we don’t speak the local language.

READING MACHINES

Getting the message

In 1976, technologist Ray Kurzweil released a device for the blind and visually impaired that converted images into text it then read aloud—he called it, simply, “the reading machine.” That gadget combined several new tools his eponymous company devised, including one of the first text-tospeech synthesizers, which evolved into an essential part of virtual assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant; smart speakers with those voices are now in roughly one-quarter of US homes. The machine also featured an important component of computer vision called optical character recognition, which, by detecting street signs and house numbers, is helping build the maps that self-driving cars use to navigate the world.

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