Cognitive Disability and Web Accessibility: Carving The Path Ahead

Shailesh Shukla November 2, 2020
We live in a digitally dependent world. The Internet is a binding factor that eliminates geographical boundaries and distances. In such a scenario, web accessibility gains utmost importance. Website accessibility is an inclusive practice that enables people with disabilities to use websites, tools, and technologies effectively. It removes barriers in digital products, content, and environments to provide a better user experience. “The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.” – Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web. As sight and hearing disabilities are most commonly focused on while talking about web accessibility, it is high time to spotlight cognitive disabilities. Since 15.2 million Americans have a cognitive, emotional, or mental functioning disability, it is critical to cater to accessible web designs that do not exclude this population section.
What Are Cognitive Disabilities?
Cognitive disabilities can be defined as any or all conditions that impair a person’s mental processes. It impacts how people process information and deals with perception, language, memory, attention span, and comprehension. Various terminologies are used for cognitive disability disorders. Some common ones include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, depression, dementia, and schizophrenia.   
Designing For Cognitive Disabilities: Essential Requirements
Cognitive impairments are the least understood by web designers and pose a great challenge while designing accessible digital content. Some common issues that are faced by users with cognitive disabilities include:
  • Different objects that are displayed at the same time
  • Lengthy and difficult text with no white space
  • Text that is too small in size and displayed in long rows
  • Issues in the user experience due to conflicting actions and lack of logic (e.g., same action leading to different results)
Implementing an inclusive design, accessible content, and the best coding practices can go a long way in providing a better user experience to people with cognitive disabilities. Here are some aspects for developers and designers to keep in mind while creating accessible websites for cognitively impaired sections of society:  
  • Keep the Cognitive Load Less: Keep it simple and make sure not to overwhelm your users. Your approach should be, “Less is more.” Use proper headings or lists to organize information and present it properly.
  • Maintain Consistency: Minimize confusion by maintaining consistency in your webpage. Make sure that similar user interface elements and interactions produce similar and predictable results.Remain consistent with the font size, colors, and location of page elements.
  • Break Content Into Manageable Portions: It is vital to break chunky content into smaller portions. Incorporate white space in your design to reduce the mental stimulation of cognitively impaired users.
  • Limit Typography: Keep the number of typefaces to a minimum. To improve performance and usability, use only one or two typefaces and varying weights if needed.
  • Adequate Timing: Users with cognitive disabilities may need extra time to interact with and access the content on your webpage. With timed content, provide the user with options to request more time as per their requirement.
  • Simple Forms: Avoid creating lengthy and all-in-one forms that may be difficult to comprehend for cognitively impaired users. Try to incorporate short and multi-stage forms for complex interactions.
  • Feedback Option: Provide adequate prompts and feedback options for users with cognitive impairment get back on track if they have made a navigation error.
  • Multiple Formats: Consider providing access to content in multiple formats as it may improve the experience for users with varying motor control issues.
  According to Hudson, Weakley & Firminger (2005), “People with cognitive disabilities difficulties appear to have slipped through the cracks to a large extent when it comes to website accessibility .” Since web accessibility initiatives primarily focus on visual and auditory impairments, users with cognitive disabilities often remain in the background.  If you are working on your accessibility strategy, do not forget users with cognitive disabilities. Focus on creating a user-centered design by implementing the best practices to build a website that will cater to diverse audiences worldwide!  

Shailesh Shukla

works as an Accessibility Consultant in the Content Engineering Business unit of Ed Services & is involved in accessibility testing and consulting.