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Launch an Accessibility “Nudge Unit.” We’re Here to Help.

By: Art Morgan
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Leveraging the Research of Nobel Laureates

The winner of last year’s Nobel Prize in Economics was behavioral economist Richard Thaler, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Professor Thaler is co-author of the best-selling book Nudge, which describes research about how to help people make better decisions. Thaler points out that when left to our own devices we often make irrational decisions, but with help from knowledgeable and well-intentioned “choice architects,” decision-making can be dramatically improved.  What constitutes better decisions is open to interpretation, but Thaler’s research suggests that there are several simple techniques that choice architects can use to help people make decisions that they are happier with, without resorting to mandates or expensive incentives. Thaler calls this approach “libertarian paternalism.”

Building on Thaler’s research, several governments have used the techniques outlined in Nudge to make public policies more efficient. David Halpern, head of the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) that was established by UK Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010, wrote a more recent book called Inside the Nudge Unit, referring to the BIT’s popular nickname. The BIT claims to have saved millions of pounds by influencing small, simple changes in the behavior of UK citizens. Governments, nonprofits, and corporations around the world have since followed suit with their own nudge unit-style projects.

The Accessibility Nudge Unit

To my knowledge, nobody has formally used the term Accessibility Nudge Unit to describe their own accessibility efforts, but there are organizations that are using the same techniques that Thaler and Halpern describe to nudge large organizations in the right direction in terms of accessibility.  The California State University System’s Chancellor’s Office established its Accessible Technology Initiative (ATI) in 2007. The CSU ATI publishes resources and guidelines, holds professional development webinars for faculty and staff, and serves as a thought-leader by presenting and conferences and publishing articles about their approach to nudging one of the world’s largest four-year university systems toward accessible and inclusive policies. Perhaps most importantly, leaders of the CSU ATI team are careful to explain why accessibility is so vitally important to reaching the organization’s goals and how to get executive support for accessibility initiatives.  Accessibility isn’t simply a mandate, it’s a set of choices that faculty and staff make every day in their work, and the ATI’s goal is to make those choices as simple as possible.

A specific example of how the California State University System uses choice architecture to make accessibility nudges is how they make it easy for staff at any of the 23 campuses to make their video content accessible, using captioning, transcription, audio description, and other video accessibility services from AST. Like many universities, they performed a thorough evaluation of video accessibility options and factors before selecting a vendor. But they didn’t stop at simply providing an approved vendor list. The CSU System makes it easy to request and purchase captioning by centralizing the reporting, billing, and account management functions for these services. It’s a classic example of Thaler and Halpern’s choice architecture guidelines; individual departments are still free to choose from a variety of options for making their video accessible, but when the preferred options are also the easiest to choose, users are happier with their decisions and with the results.

Carrots vs. Sticks vs. Nudges

Sometimes your organization will receive something more anxiety-provoking than a friendly nudge. When the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) opens an accessibility or disability rights investigation on your campus, it’s better compared with a stiff shove than a nudge. And the truth is, even organizations that are now known as accessibility leaders, such as the North Carolina State University System, started down the path to accessibility thanks to an OCR investigation. When handled well, an OCR investigation can completely change your campus culture and can actually improve the reputation of your organization. And while some may have thought that the new administration’s dislike of regulations might have slowed down enforcement of existing ADA and Rehabilitation Act regulations, signs seem to indicate that the OCR has not slowed down in the past year.

It’s important to remember that even if your organization is getting pushed rather than nudged toward accessibility, the best approach is not to simply “pass the buck” to your faculty and staff. A calm, rational approach that leverages the principles of an Accessibility Nudge Unit is still the best approach.  As Richard Thaler has shown, humans often make irrational decisions even when they are not under duress. Passing the anxiety on to your staff only serves to increase the number and magnitude of irrational decisions. Providing your staff with a sensible choice architecture around accessibility decisions is the best route to success, both for your staff and for students, parents, and your community as a whole.

We’re Here to Help

So whether you are simply trying to be proactive and move your organization gracefully toward better accessibility in 2018, or you’ve been thrust into the spotlight by legal or enforcement action, it’s time to create an Accessibility Nudge Unit.  Throughout the year we’ll be sending you helpful nudges, along with tips on how you can apply the principles of choice architecture and nudging to accessibility. In the meantime, if you have any video accessibility questions or need any assistance, please contact us. We’re here to help.