Nudge factor

The other day I was listening to 99% Invisible, one of my favourite podcasts. It’s about design. It examines what makes our built environment work—or, in some cases, not work.

This particular episode was about revolving doors. People don’t like them. They prefer a regular swinging door because they can just breeze through. Literally. Swinging doors let out eight times more heated or cooled indoor air than revolving doors.

he podcast didn’t discuss people with disabilities, who often find revolving doors a major barrier. However, even sighted people with full mobility don’t like them. When a revolving door and a swinging door are side by side, people opt for the swinging door at least 75 per cent of the time. Research suggests that people don’t like the momentary claustrophobic feeling they get inside a revolving door. They also find them heavier to push.

One simple trick, however, can dramatically change people’s behaviour. Just put up a sign. Yes, when researchers taped a sign on the swinging door with a little arrow pointing to the revolving door, at least 30 per cent more of them obliged. The sign nudged people just enough to interrupt their behaviour.

The 99% Invisible podcast was fresh in my mind this week when I read about Nova Scotia passing its new accessibility legislation. Nova Scotia joins Manitoba and Ontario as the only provinces with such legislation. (The new bill hopes to make Nova Scotia fully accessible by—wait for it—2030. Why do we have to show discrimination such patience?) According to the Cape Breton Post, the bill covers goods and services, information and communication, public transportation and transportation infrastructure, education, employment and the built environment, including outdoor spaces. This is wonderfully comprehensive. Full credit must go to the architects of the bill, including Minister of Community Services Joanne Bernard, and to disability advocates, such as Marcie Shwery- Stanley, who have been pushing for this legislation for decades.

However, as Ontarians know, legislation is not enough. Legislation by itself leads to a “compliance mentality” where too many companies just check the boxes.

This is not the result we’re after. The goal is not accessibility for its own sake. What we want is a fully inclusive society, where people with disabilities are treated with the same respect and given the same opportunities as everyone else. Accessibility simply helps us get there.

Embarrassingly, the ministry responsible for implementing the new legislation in Nova Scotia is itself not fully accessible. According to CBC News, the Department of Justice is housed in a building that does not have accessible washrooms. The province has earmarked $27,000 to address the problem, but that’s just for one washroom on one floor. In the meantime, implementation meetings for the legislation will be held offsite at an accessible location.

It gets worse for the Department of Justice. The department’s building was renovated just last year. That this happened without making the washrooms accessible underscores the importance of the new legislation. That a group of engineers and architects sat down to plan the renovation without considering accessibility tells us something else: There was no one with a visible disability at those meetings. There couldn’t have been. No one would look across the room at someone in a wheelchair and say, “We’re not putting in any washrooms for you.” It simply wouldn’t have happened. The underlying concern here is not the building but the behaviour. We need to change how we go about making these important decisions. We know that our behaviour will change with a little nudge. Something as simple as an arrow sign on a door will do the trick.

In this case, the nudge is obvious: Have people with disabilities in the room. Until people with disabilities are fully represented—not as invited “guests” for the engineers and architects to consult, but among the engineers and architects themselves—our decisions about accessibility and inclusion will never change.

Prof. Cameron Graham
Past Chair,
Canadian Abilities Foundation