The ramp and the curb cut dominate discussions of disability access, particularly around the concept of Universal Design. According to this concept, designs that are accessible to disabled people are also accessible and beneficial to non-disabled people, and the world should thus be designed with a broad range of human variation in mind. Curb cuts, for instance, are accessible to wheelchair users, bicyclists, people pushing carts or strollers, and skateboarders alike. The existence of curb cuts and ramps often serves as evidence for rhetorical claims that Universal Design is possible and desirable. These claims often take for granted that the ramp is a simple, straightforward design feature, rather than a technology emerging at the interface of activism, scientific knowledge, and technological innovation. In this paper, I historicize the ramp as a technoscientific object (e.g. an object emerging through the entanglement of knowledge and making), visiting the design of ramps within the early Independent Living movement in Berkeley, CA. I show that whereas ramps and curb cuts have become ubiquitous and institutionalized, their early development was enacted through experimentation by non-expert designers, including disabled people and their non-disabled allies, who hacked the built environment, employed non-traditional drafting practices,
and sometimes even undertook ³guerrilla² design tactics to make Berkeley accessible. In all of these efforts, ramp makers produced and recorded new
forms of knowledge that would make better accessibility possible. The streets of Berkeley became a laboratory for research and innovation that
would then be abstracted and generalized to a more national context. I argue that history reveals the need to understand the role played by the
tacit and embodied knowledge of disabled makers and hackers in the disability rights movement as epistemological and methodological precursors to contemporary legal access codes.
Aimi Hamraie is an assistant professor of Medicine, Health, & Society at
Vanderbilt University. Trained as a feminist historian and philosopher of
science, Hamraie applies methodologies and concepts from science studies
to analyze the intersections of disability and design. Their book project,
Building Access: Universal Design, technoscience, and epistemological
activism, uses the history of Universal Design to consider the role of
disabled people and disabled bodies in epistemological, methodological,
and technoscientific transformations within architectural and industrial
design in the 20th and 21st centuries.