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Curb Cuts Come to Kalamazoo

Jack H. Fisher and the Push for Accessibility

“Quick, what is the gradual slope on sidewalks that allows individuals in wheelchairs or on bicycles and skateboards to smoothly transition from the street to the walkway called? If you guessed the “sidewalk slide,” you’re wrong. The correct answer is “curb cut.”–Encore Magazine, July 2015, page 12

Born and raised in Kalamazoo, former attorney and veteran advocate, Jack H. Fisher has the distinction of being associated with a city-wide feature that most of us take for granted, and one we rarely take notice of their existence–the curb-cut.

Jack H. Fisher, 11 September 1945. Kalamazoo Gazette

Fisher was born on 17 September 1918 to Herman and Rose Fisher, the children of German and Polish immigrants. Herman arrived along with his German parents in 1890, and later became president of Fisher-Graff Iron and Metal Corporation. The young Jack grew up in the Edison Neighborhood at 1405 Portage Street, and found the culturally and religiously mixed character of the neighborhood to his liking. He developed an early interest in currency and coins that would last his entire life, becoming quite the expert on the subject. He regularly visited the Washington Square Branch of the Kalamazoo Public Library, developing a deep knowledge of culture and history.

After attending Kalamazoo College, Fisher went on to attend the University of Illinois, and then Harvard University. His time at Harvard was interrupted by the outbreak of war in 1941. In 1943, while serving on a military base in Oklahoma, Fisher suffered serious injuries to his entire body after a jeep accident. While recovering from the accident, Fisher began to seriously ruminate on issues pertaining to physical disabilities and the law. It was likely this experience that fostered in Fisher an abiding empathy for those with personal and physical hardships. Upon being discharged from the hospital and the military, Fisher went back to Harvard and completed his degree with the notion that like his fellow graduates, he would be hired by a prestigious law firm. Finding it difficult to get work because of his Jewish identity and physical challenges, Fisher returned to Kalamazoo to open his own law practice. In the late 1940s, many of his clients were disabled veterans, whom Fisher refused to charge for representing them. Fisher understood that even someone like himself–Harvard educated and gainfully employed, was subject to forms of discrimination and obstacles related to access and movement.

“Standard attorney fees were $5.00 per hour at this time. Fisher did not charge disabled veterans when working on their disability problems with government agencies, assisting them to obtain employment, assisting with disability related marital and family problems. This resulted in about 25% of this time being pro bono. His first year in practice his secretary worked half the hours he did and received about twice Fisher’s weekly earnings.” (Brown, 1999)

Corner of West Michigan Avenue and North Church Street. The site of the last known of the original curb cuts and hand rails

By 1945, it was not uncommon throughout the country to witness returning soldiers needing prostheses and the aid of a wheelchair. At this time, most cities were not equipped with sidewalks that would allow greater ease of movement for these veterans. Fisher’s growing discontent with the status quo, impelled him as representative of the Buck-Crosby Chapter No. 6 of the Disable American Veterans to testify before the city of Kalamazoo on September 7th, asking commissioners to make the necessary changes to sidewalks and building entrances, that would make them more accessible to those requiring the use of wheelchairs and leg braces. The city listened, and then they acted. In addition to carving out a portion of the sidewalk, Kalamazoo’s curb ramps came with hand rails. According to Sharon Ferarro, former Historic Preservation Coordinator of the City of Kalamazoo, the last known, original curb cut with a handrail was located on the northeast corner of N. Church and and West Michigan Avenue.

“City Manager Edward S. Clark, whose adult son used a wheelchair and understood the problem first-hand. The City Commission authorized the construction of cement ramps with safety rails in the central business district.” (Brown, 1999)

Fisher likely observed the instituting of curb cuts in Battle Creek in the summer of 1945 while visiting clients at the government-operated Percy Jones Army Hospital (a rehabilitative hospital for amputees), a place he was familiar with, having once been a patient. Over the course of several years after he successfully petitioned the City of Kalamazoo to modify the sidewalks, Fisher and his fellow veterans monitored the usage of the brand new curb features, saying, “these cement ramps in many instances mean the difference between disabled veterans and disabled non-veterans having employment, as with the ramps a person confined to a wheelchair, on crutches or wearing an artificial limb is able to get to a place of employment unaided. The ramps thus enable many so called unemployable persons to become employable persons, and not only benefits the disabled person alone, but benefits the community at large as well.”

Despite failing to be mentioned in his obituary, or an editorial tribute to Fisher by Gazette staff, his advocacy for the disabled represents a significant stride toward progress that culminated decades later in the form of the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990).

 

Written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, March 2023

Sources

Articles

“The curb ramps of Kalamazoo: discovering our unrecorded history”
Steven E. Brown, Independent Living Institute, 1999

“Creating curb cuts: Southwest Michigan lays claim to historic innovation”
Encore Magazine, July 2015, page 12

“Paving the way for barrier-free access”
Museon, Winter 2020, page 14

“Jack Fisher’s life enriched Kalamazoo”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 4 April 2003, page A6, column 1


Local History Room Files

Name File: Fisher, Jack H.

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