Web accessibility and cognitive disabilities

  • Author: Tim Lohman
  • Date: 4 Apr 2014

Access iQ spoke with Stefan Johansson, an accessibility expert at Funka, on the major issues associated with web accessibility and cognitive disabilities.

Access iQ: For people unfamiliar with cognitive disabilities, could you provide a quick overview of what cognitive disability includes?
Stefan Johansson: It’s when your brain doesn’t process information in a way that we are used to. The most common cognitive issue is that we forget things we actually want to remember. Another one is that we can have problem focusing on a specific matter. A third one is about attention or attention disorder. We react in an improper manner when something happens.

Diagnoses that often led to  cognitive issues are:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)/ attention deficit disorder (ADD)
  • Dyslexia
  • Autism or autism-spectrum disorders
  • Intellectual and learning disabilities

But also mental illnesses often have cognitive implications as well as if you are on heavy medication.

What are the major web accessibility issues for people with cognitive disabilities?
There are many issues, but the  main ones include:

  • Too many object displayed at the same time
  • Too much and too difficult text
  • Too small text size and too long rows of text
  • Lack of logic — you try to do the same but the result is different
  • Lack of logic — you try different approaches and no one work
  • Lack of logic — the developers have implemented un-logical features and functions

Are there specific website accessibility issues tied to each cognitive disability?
The personal implications are often more significant than group implications. But the point above is often regarded as problems in all groups. But, for example, persons with autism often have severe problems with how text is formulated. That could also be the case for a dyslexic person. But those two persons will point out completly different difficulties in the text.

Do accessibility issues differ depending on what platform is being used to access a website?
Yes. With a smaller screen some things get more difficult. Navigation, for example. On a small screen you can’t display as many object as on a large one, so you have to prioritise when designing for a small interface. On a bigger screen, on the other hand, you have room for objects to be bigger. For example, buttons can be made bigger, and that is usually a good thing since that makes the clickable area larger.

What practical things can content authors, web developers and web designers be doing to increase the accessibility of websites for people with cognitive disabilities?
They can apply a ’less is more’ approach. If you focus on what’s important for people who have the most difficulty in accessing a site, then the solution you create will be regarded as a good one for everyone. You will never hear someone complaining that, “this is too easy”. It just won’t happen. Website creators can also start using pictures (meaningful ones), videos and sound. Authors can focus on plain simple text organised so that the most important stuff is located in the beginning. Use good heading and use lists to create a good structure for the content. Be sure that you provide a tool for those who want the possibility to listen to text (text to speech synthesiser/screen reader).

[For more on screen readers, see Media Access Australia’s guide on popular screen readers, or Access iQ’s interview with NV Access’s Michael Curran on WAI-ARIA and screen readers.]

At the standards level, what changes or additions need to be made so that websites become more accessible to people with a cognitive disability?
A lot has to be done. Current web standards have almost nothing that really helps. Older standards in ergonomics and national regulations on how to produce understandable texts might be useful. But for modern web standards most of the work is ahead of us.

The list of everything that needs to be done is very long, but here are some examples:

  • How difficult will we allow things to be? The level for when something is too difficult has to be clarified/defined
  • Trust and safety are important issues
  • Logic and understandable interaction
  • Design, colours, patterns
  • The ability to predict what is going to happen based on earlier use

We also have to address when someone is misusing design or misusing commonly known concepts in order to trick or fool you in to doing things you really don’t want to do. This we can call ’evil design’. And a relative to that is design that is harmful, for example solutions that makes you very tired, or very upset, or even hurt you when used for example over a long period of time. In workplaces we now can see employees getting sick through having to use poorly designed internal systems.

Any other thoughts/comments on cognitive disability and website accessibility?
It’s a field where all users will benefit. Something that can be considered as cognitive accessible will probably be regarded as ’user friendly’ by any user. So any changes will immediately be noticed by a large number of users. That’s not always the case when doing something accessible for persons with other disabilities.

Stefan Johansson is Ideologue and Accessibility Expert at Funka, an accessibility organisation based in Sweden. He will be speaking on cognitive disabilities and accessibiltiy at the Funka Accessibility Days, being held 8-9 April in Stockholm, Sweden.

Want to learn more about WCAG 2.0 and web accessibility?

The Professional Certificate in Web Accessibility, a university-accredited online qualification jointly conducted by W3C member Media Access Australia and the University of South Australia, is a fully assessed six-week program that covers both accessibility principles and techniques. The course provides students with all the essentials needed to achieve compliance with international best practice in accessibility. Accessible documents, among many other aspects of WCAG are covered in Access iQ’s complete guides to web accessibility for content authors, web developers and web designers.