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Guest Post: Lessons from the Curb-Cut Effect

By: Ian Moura

Thanks to advances in fields like science, technology and communication, we live in an era of incredible possibility. At the same time, we live in an age of pronounced inequality, meaning that those opportunities are far from evenly distributed.

While the value of diversity is increasingly recognized, with diverse leaders and workforces linked to better financial performance, successful organizations still fail to represent an adequate variety of human experiences. Even among those companies that are taking an active approach to inclusive hiring, disability is often omitted from conversations about diversity. This is especially unfortunate given that taking steps to improve disability inclusion throughout the hiring process offers many ways to increase other kinds of diversity as well.

Ideally, we want the job interview process to be fair and equitable, and for companies to consistently choose the most qualified person for a given position. Even if that was how hiring always worked, however, there are plenty of ways in which disability can adversely impact a job interview, even for stellar candidates.

A recent story from NPR highlighted the difficulties Deaf applicants – even those who are highly qualified – face in securing employment. Interviewing for jobs while disabled comes with its own attendant complications – like deciding if and when to disclose a disability or request accommodations, and dealing with the subsequent logistics – that other job seekers never have to consider.

Companies often talk about “attracting” the best talent, but we should think instead about making employment accessible to the best talent – even when the person who commands that talent does not fit someone else’s mental image of what capability looks like. With disabled people comprising about 20% of the U.S. population, the kinds of awareness campaigns that have commanded media attention and dominated the corporate landscape are insufficient. By focusing on acceptance, and by making accommodations easy to obtain and an ingrained part of the hiring process, companies will be well-positioned to increase their diversity not only with regard to disability, but also in terms of factors like race, gender, and other life experiences.

Sometimes we think of accommodations as benefitting a single, discrete group, but in reality, changes to standard procedures often have positive impacts for a broad range of people. The classic example of this is curb-cuts; in fact, the phenomenon of adaptations serving individuals far beyond those they were originally designed for is sometimes referred to as the curb-cut effect.

Curb-cuts –sloping cut-outs which create a ramp from the sidewalk to the street – were initially intended to benefit wheelchair users. However, they also aid cyclists, skateboarders, and anyone pushing a stroller or pulling a wheeled suitcase. A design intended to improve access for a very specific group of people now makes sidewalks more usable for a wide range of citizens.

Similarly, the kinds of accommodations that can benefit disabled people can be instrumental in creating a more fair and inclusive hiring process and work environment for a plurality of employees. Asking applicants to complete a task when they apply for a job and describe their process when they interview not only gives companies a better sense of prospective employees’ skills, it also helps many autistic people (who often struggle with the kinds of open-ended questions typical of traditional interviews), and allows interviewers to judge candidate by the quality of their work (rather than other factors, such as the college they attended, or even the racial identity implied by their name). Similarly, flexible hours and the option to telecommute – routinely offered by many companies – support both disabled employees and working parents.

With a billion people worldwide experiencing some form of disability, the question isn’t whether or not a company should consider disabled people in creating and refining their hiring process. Rather, the question is which companies are smart enough to realize how much talent they can attract and retain by putting accessibility on their agenda.

Ian Moura has had a variety of jobs, including working as a laboratory assistant, doing Human Computer Interactions research, and teaching fourth and seventh graders. Most recently, he designed and taught a class on working-class life in Victorian England. He enjoys reading, board games, rock climbing, and playing Irish fiddle.