How Wheelchair Accessibility Ramped Up

Ramps evolved from a Greek tool for dragging ships to the front lines of disability activism. An Object Lesson.

An iconic ramp at the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley, California (Tim Griffith / Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects)

Stephanie Woodward just wanted to meet her friends for a drink. It was a bar she’d never visited, and she was excited. But going anywhere new for Woodward requires a vetting process. She uses a wheelchair, so building access is always a worry. Research on Google Street View proved promising in this case: A ramp led up into the entryway. That evening, Woodward entered the front door without trouble. But once inside, a single step stood between her and the bar.

It was one step, but for Woodward it may as well have been a wall. “I’m in the front lobby, but to get any sort of service, to even be seen, I had to call the staff,” she says. “I can’t visit this business independently. I’m a strong wheelchair user, but hopping steps is not an easy task.”

Thanks to decades of disability activism culminating in the passage of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) in 1990, the ramp has become both a tool for accessibility and opportunity for architectural innovation. In the modern built environment, the ramp services people bound to wheelchairs or strollers—making those bodies newly visible in the process. Yet, despite their apparent success, ramps remain contested sites for equal access.

* * *

The ramp is believed to have moved the materials that built the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge. The ancient Greeks constructed a paved ramp known as the Diolkos to drag ships across the Isthmus of Corinth. In 1600, Galileo hailed the inclined plane as one of the six simple machines in his work Le Meccaniche.

The ramp’s ability to move objects shouldn’t overshadow its astounding ability to move people. The ramp was retooled as a highly effective “people mover” 300 years after Galileo, in the design of New York’s Grand Central Terminal. The Vanderbilt family, who operated the rail lines the terminal would service, promised New Yorkers an innovative train hub to accommodate newly electrified tracks. They hired the Minnesota-based architecture firm Reed & Stem to get the job done. “Its innovative scheme featured pedestrian ramps inside, and a ramp-like roadway outside that wrapped around the building to connect the northern and southern halves of Park Avenue,” explains the New York Transit Museum.

As design moved forward, engineers built mock-ups at various slopes and, according to the New-York Tribune, studied “the gait and gasping limit of lean men … fat men … women with babies… and all other types of travelers” to determine the ideal grade. It wasn’t a pointless exercise: When the terminal opened in 1913, it was billed as the first great “stairless” station, in the words of Grand Central historian Sam Roberts. The flow of passengers with luggage, strollers and wheelchairs was swift; the “Red Cap” attendees could move their wheeled carriers with ease. The system remains one of the most celebrated in American transit terminals; modern travelers move as easily up and down the ramps, just with less fanfare.

One frequent passenger to Grand Central Terminal was Presidential Franklin D. Roosevelt, who utilized a “secret platform” and elevator to ascend from the lower-level tracks directly up to the Presidential Suite at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. At the time, he was hiding his disability and wheelchair from the American public; Grand Central’s ramps were of no use to him. “The first president with a disability was a great advocate for the rehabilitation of people with disabilities,” explains the Anti-Defamation League. “But [he] still operated under the notion that a disability was an abnormal, shameful condition, and should be medically cured or fixed.”

* * *

This sentiment began to change in the 1940s and 1950s. Many World War II veterans returned home with mobility-related injuries. There was little accommodation for wheelchair users at the time, particularly within public spaces. According to a study by the historian Julie Peterson, disabled veterans attending the University of Illinois often hitched rides on service trucks to avoid sidewalks without accessible ramps.

Returning vets planted the seeds for the disability-rights movement, and activism grew alongside the other social movements of the 1960s. Protesters took to the streets, smashing curbs to create their own accessible ramps. In the 1970s, founders of the Independent Living Movement in Berkeley, California, established a wheelchair route through the University of California campus and its vicinity. According to Peterson, they even rolled their own curb ramps, “covertly laying asphalt in the middle of the night.”

Disability activists lobbied Congress and marched on Washington to include their rights in a major affirmative-action bill that would prohibit employment discrimination by the federal government. The so-called Rehabilitation Act was passed in 1973, and for the first time in history, the civil rights of people with disabilities were protected by law. In ensuing years, activists sought to consolidate various pieces of legislation into a single civil-rights statute, much like the 1964 Civil Rights Acts had done for race. But it wasn’t until 1990 that the government passed the Americans with Disability Act, making way for the contemporary, ramped environment. While the law protected the civil rights of disabled Americans, it also required businesses provide accommodations to people with disabilities, and ensured public spaces would receive modifications to become wheelchair accessible.

Architectural, design, and planning practices had to adapt after the ADA. It wasn’t—and still isn’t—an easy shift. Annie Boivin, a designer (and wheelchair user) with the architecture firm Perkins+Will, tells me that the Swiss architect Le Corbusier is partly to blame. In the early 20th century, Le Corbusier created the fictitious character Le Modulor—an able-bodied man, of average height and dimension, around whom Le Corbusier believed standardized design should revolve. Whole cities were designed by the able-bodied men on which Le Modulor was modeled. It was a period with no distinction between what are now known as the two models of disability: medical and social. The medical model views disabled bodies as impaired, the social model points out the environment was never built for them in the first place.

ADA standardization has attempted to remedy the situation. Architects rely on tools like elevators, lifts, and automatic doors. The ramp, the most visible architectural element of the post-ADA period, is also the most important to wheelchair users. Woodward compares the ramp to a “dependable boyfriend who will never leave us.”

Reliable though it might be, the ADA is hardly a cure-all. All buildings constructed or renovated after the law’s passage must follow standards for accessible design, but many older structures still have relics of inaccessibility—like the single-step entrance that kept Woodward from entering the bar. Disability activists I spoke with say that it’s common for building owners to ignore ADA requirements, and pressing them to follow the rules can be difficult. Just this year, a bill was introduced in Congress that would make it harder to sue building owners who fail to remove so-called “architectural barriers.”

* * *

The problem of the single-step entryway inspired the design researcher Sara Hendren to build her own ramp, called Slope Intercept. It can nest, stack, and move on casters. Hendren bemoans an enduring “compliance culture” within architecture, in which ramps are tacked onto buildings with little imagination. Mia Ives-Rublee, who led the disability caucus for the Washington, D.C., Women’s March, says that ramps are often hard to find, placed in the back of buildings, difficult to navigate, or lead to locked doors. She adds that searching for ramps and finding them along the back of buildings “makes you feel like a second-class citizen.”

Those persistent difficulties impact the visibility of disabled bodies in public spaces. “It can become so tiring,” Ives-Rublee tells me. “A lot of people with disabilities won’t go to new places.”

Hendren, eager to show the creative potential that stemmed from one of Galileo’s simple machines, partnered with the dancer Alice Sheppard to design a ramp Sheppard could use onstage with her wheelchair. Sheppard came to the table no stranger to the failure of ramp design. “Why the hell are these eyesores?” she asked. “Compliance-oriented design tends to miss the aesthetic and physical experience of going down a ramp. It should be beautiful, it should participate.”

Attitudes might be starting to change. In 2001, the architect William Leddy was asked to design the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley, California. The campus, which opened in 2010, is named after the founder of Berkeley’s Center for Independent Living—the group that installed their own ramps, in the dead of night, throughout the city in the 1970s. It needed to serve as “a symbol of universal design to the community,” according to Leddy. Universal design, he explains, is a design philosophy that strives to create buildings and products usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without any need for adaptation.

At the Ed Roberts Campus, the firm designed a helical, bright-red ramp, a dramatic focal point emerging from the middle of the first-floor lobby. At a width of seven feet, there is space for a row of friends or colleagues to traverse it together. Leddy once stumbled upon a wedding ceremony on the ramp, and he vividly recalled a conversation with a wheelchair user who said this was the first building he could move through seamlessly, without asking for any help. The campus, inspired by the design, integrated the ramp into its logo.

Stephanie Woodward is doing her part, too, as Director of Advocacy for New York’s Center for Disability Rights. Upon encountering a non-compliant business—like the bar she couldn’t access—the group writes a letter offering to assist in improving accessibility. If they get no response, they organize protests around the business. “A lawsuit can take seven years to get one ramp in front of a building, one protest could result in a ramp there next week,” she says.

The organization has only started one lawsuit against a non-compliant business, but it’s not how Woodward wants to win her battles. “We shouldn't have to start a lawsuit to have the same access and everyone else,” she says. “We don’t want to sue, we just want to get in.”

This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.