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Everyday Objects

Drop Kerbs

Do you ever worry that you’re lazy, and not meeting your full potential? Well hold on just a moment friend, I’m about to make you feel a whole lot more pointless with the story behind the drop kerb.

Originally introduced in the UK in the 1930s, drop kerbs were used to help mums with prams move easily between the road and the pavement – very helpful if you’re lugging a hefty bairn! But the good old United States was a bit behind us in using the drop kerb. Enter Ed Roberts: disability rights activist, father of the Independent Living movement, and possibly the coolest person you’ll ever hear about. 

Ed Roberts contracted polio at the age of 14, leaving him completely paralysed below the neck, only able to move two fingers on his left hand, and having to sleep in an iron lung. But Roberts spit in the face of all the difficulties life threw at him by fighting tirelessly for the rights of disabled people. After being admitted to the University of California in Berkeley, Roberts joined a group of students with disabilities who called themselves the ‘Rolling Quads’, a name which puts any biker gang to shame. The Quads really stuck it to the man by demanding improvements to accessibility across the Berkeley campus, including drop kerbs. 

Roberts and the Quads soon reached superstar status for their awesome campaigning, and got to fund the Physically Disabled Student’s Program (PDSP): the first disability services programme led by students in the USA. Here’s the part where you will feel a bit embarrassed about your recent achievements. Roberts, in an incredible move, travelled from California to Washington D.C. – that’s 3,000 miles – without any breathing equipment. Ever one to defy limits, Roberts survived outside of his iron lung by ‘frog-breathing’, a technique where you use your neck and face muscles to force air into your lungs. Now I feel guilty getting out of breath going up a couple flights of stairs! 

This trip ended up with Roberts getting funding for the PDSP. But this wasn’t enough – soon poor Robert and the Quads were getting calls from disabled people who weren’t even students, and feeling the full weight of a system that just didn’t care about them. Well, Roberts wasn’t having any of that. He and the Quads soon created the Berkeley Centre for Independent Living (CIL), and they worked with other activists to install drop kerbs all across Berkeley. With all this amazing activism the government finally clocked that their treatment of disabled people was vile…so municipal authorities voluntarily added drop kerbs to their streets, and took Robert and the Quads’ credit for being so considerate. 

Roberts, the Quads and all the activists they worked with paved the way for the Americans with Disabilities Act to be signed into law in 1990, an action that came far too late – but better late than never. Without their determination and hard work, accessibility in the USA and across the world would not be where it is today.

Words by Quinn Clark
Research by Stephanie Crowe
Illustration by Noni Farragher-Hanks