Accessibility for Cognitive Loss

Cognitive: Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia, Distractibility

Cognitive and neurological disabilities involve disorders of any part of the nervous system, including the brain and the peripheral nervous system. This can impact how well people hear, move, see, speak, understand information, and inability to remember or focus on large amounts of information. Cognitive and neurological disabilities do not necessarily affect the intelligence of a person. It is estimated that about 8.5% of adult Canadians have a cognitive or neurological disability (About 3.9% Mental/psychological, 2.3% Memory, and 2.3% Learning). These can be grouped as:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Learning disabilities
  • Mental health disabilities
  • Memory impairments
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Perceptual disabilities, and
  • Seizure disorders.

Cognitive Challenges

Complex navigation mechanisms and page layouts can be difficult to understand and use for many people. When a navigation system is vast and complex, finding the link a user may want becomes problematic, especially with the added dexterity issues that fly out menus can present. If a site is responsive, it is not uncommon for some users (including users with low vision) to either resize the window to a smaller mobile size or zoom content to trigger a responsive layout where navigation is packed away behind a menu button and content is presented in a single column layout making it easier to navigate for some. However, following on from the idea that what works for some won’t work for all. That is, this may not be the preferred strategy for someone who finds scrolling distracting. This is why sites must be flexible so people have a choice.

Inclusive web design is concerned with the four common problem areas in cognitive and neurological disability:

  • Perception and processing: This refers to an individual's ability to identify, perceive, and integrate visual and auditory information into meaningful chunks. The inclusive design solutions involve techniques like using the clearest and simplest language appropriate for the content, pairing graphics with text, allowing fonts to be enlarged, providing text contrast, and adding white space to the page.
  • Memory: The inclusive design must consider techniques like navigation that is consistent across the site and over time, the use of obvious breadcrumbs, and consistent use of style to denote hypertext links such as a blue underline.
  • Problem solving: The inclusive design must consider techniques like testing the user interface interactive components for users with a low threshold of frustration, checking for valid links on a regular basis, making sure the forms work properly, avoiding pop-ups, and providing a mechanism to answer questions or providing support to the user if needed.
  • Attention: The inclusive design must consider user distractions, such as scrolling text and blinking icons that can make it difficult to interacte with the web environment.

Reading text can be a challenge for a variety of reasons. It can be to small, too big, the line height to narrow, the style hard to read or the colours difficult to see. A key strategy for people with cognition and learning disabilities is to adapt the page to suit their needs using browser controls or custom style sheets. This allows people to adjust font styles, font and background colours, customize borders, increase line spacing, adjust margins, and so on. All this is only possible as long as the website has been coded in such a way as to allow people to make such customization.

Complex sentences that are difficult to read and unusual words that are difficult to understand can prevent users understanding content and context. Additionally, use of metaphors and slang can be difficult for some people who do not understand nuance. Walls of text can also be equally difficult to understand. Ideally long passages of text should make good use of headings, sub headings, bulleted and numbered lists as well as images, graphs or other illustrations to help explain and reinforce information contained with the text.

Image can be both helpful or distracting depending on how they are used. Icons need to be clearly recognisable and consistent with what people will recognise from around the Web. But for some icons can always be difficult to understand so presenting a visible text label next to an icon can help with understanding. For example a delete icon has a visible ‘Delete’ text label adjacent to it. Text within images however could be hard for users to understand. A news website with text within an image may be too busy and distracting to read. Especially if there are multiple images of text on the page. But when used in a balanced way images can make improve comprehension of a page by providing a secondary way to convey information already in text and reinforce meaning.

Moving, blinking, or flickering content, video or audio that autoplays and cannot be turned off can be distracting for users. Content like this is designed to grab the users attention, to promote products and push adverts. As such, while they may act as an annoyance for some they can be a huge challenge to others. Movement and animation should be avoided, or come to a rest after a short time. Alternatively a stop, pause or mute button can be provided to stop the animation or media.

Cognitive Resources