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The Importance of Curb-Cuts in Learning


Wed Apr 05 2023

The Importance of Curb-Cuts in Learning

Here’s a riddle for you: a skateboarder, an elderly woman with a cane, and a stroller-pushing dad cross the street. What’s one thing they all need?

The answer is a curb-cut—a ubiquitous, frequently painted, and sometimes bumpy ramp that cuts into the sidewalk. The curb-cut effect is when a support meant for one vulnerable member or group benefits society as a whole. Such support promotes a sense of belonging for those who need it, and because it’s accessible to everyone, it helps achieve equity.


Further, the support’s existence does not impede anyone who needs it. As Angela Glover Blackwell wrote in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the curb-cut effect is “animated by the idea of equity” and that “\[equity\] means promoting just and fair inclusion throughout society and creating the conditions in which everyone can participate, prosper, and reach his or her full potential.”

To design effective learning environments, we must consider the potential diversity in our audience and the barriers they may face in pursuit of improvement. The educational framework Universal Design for Learning (UDL) acknowledges the infinite variability between learners while directing our attention to the key points of learning differences. This helps us provide learning curb-cuts of our own. Here are some examples:

  • Closed captions: Adding closed captions to video content benefits not only deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals but also those who prefer to read along or who are learning a new language.

  • Assistive technology: Assistive technology tools, such as text-to-speech software or screen readers, benefit individuals with visual impairments or dyslexia, but they can also help those who prefer to listen to information rather than read it.

  • Mind mapping: Mind mapping is a visual tool that helps individuals organize and understand complex information. It can benefit individuals with learning disabilities, but it can also help anyone who wants to improve their critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

  • Flexible scheduling: Flexible scheduling can benefit individuals with disabilities who may need breaks or work at different times of the day, but it can also benefit individuals who work better at different times or who have other responsibilities outside of work or school.

By applying the curb-cut effect to learning and development, we can create solutions that are more inclusive, accessible, and effective for a wider range of learners. UDL can help us pinpoint likely places for learning curb-cuts. Leveraging research in cognitive neuroscience and psychology, UDL emphasizes the importance of removing barriers between learners and the why, what, and how of learning. It does this through the application of three principles:

  • Engagement (the WHY of learning): UDL asks us to consider how to help every learner find value in the learning content and process, maintain expectations for success, regulate their behaviors, and ultimately take ownership of the results and their aspirations for further learning.

  • Representation (the WHAT of learning): UDL helps us anticipate and address barriers so that every person can receive the content (for example, by providing closed captions), make sense of that information, and connect it to their prior learning as well as the big picture and context.

  • Action and expression (the HOW of learning): UDL helps us look at the tools and pathways for expressing and applying new learning so we can make sure everyone can leverage their newfound knowledge and skills to solve problems and get hard things done well.

What Makes Learning Inclusive

Inclusive learning is when a person enters a learning experience—a presentation, an online course, a brainstorming session, etc.—and thinks, “Wow, creators thought about people like me while putting this together.” That applies to however they describe “people like me”—middle managers, people of color, people under stress, or all of the above. Curb-cuts are what bring inclusive feelings to the most people. You’re not going to know exactly what each person needs, but you can anticipate that someone will need a curb-cut for some reason, and when the support is there waiting for them, they will be more successful, feel more included, and be more confident of their success.

Ultimately, the curb-cuts you implement should be based on your learners, content, context, and constraints. You don’t have to solve problems you don’t have—as the saying goes, you can only do your best with what you have where you are. But don’t get complacent; there’s always room for improvement. Talk to your people, and see what’s working for them and what isn’t. Tweak, experiment, observe, reflect, and refine.


The curb-cut effect demonstrates how support for one vulnerable group can benefit all members of society. By applying this concept to learning and development through UDL, we can create more inclusive, accessible, and effective solutions for a wider range of learners. UDL directs our attention to the key points of learning differences and emphasizes the importance of removing barriers between learners and the why, what, and how of learning. By implementing learning curb-cuts based on our learners, content, context, and constraints, we can create learning experiences that make everyone feel valued, included, and confident in their success. Let’s continue to tweak, experiment, observe, reflect, and refine to improve our learning environments and promote just and fair inclusion throughout society.

For a deeper dive on UDL, join me at the ATD 2023 International Conference & EXPO for the session Expert Learning: Fire Up Your People for Organizational Success.

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