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.
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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.