Cognitive Disabilities Digital Accessibility Guide For Web/App Designers

Cognitive disabilities is a very broad term for disabilities that affect the way our brain functions. This can include the way we think, communicate, process emotions, and our memory function. In the US, over 10% of adults have a cognitive disability. Some common cognitive disabilities include intellectual disabilities, autism, ADHD, and Alzheimer’s.

Often web designers simply focus on visual and audio accessibility practices. However, your website is not accessible unless you consider all types of disabilities during the design process. As many individuals with cognitive disabilities have trouble concentrating, making decisions, and remembering information, it’s important that your digital content accommodates these things.

An inaccessible website is not only morally wrong, but it also has the potential to become a legal issue. Many companies with inaccessible websites have been sued. Not only is this detrimental to the company financially, but it can also negatively affect your company’s reputation. So, it’s in everyone’s best interest that you prioritize web accessibility.

It can be difficult to know where to start. Particularly because cognitive disabilities are unfortunately not given the same accessibility focus that other disabilities are. That’s where we come in. We’ve compiled a list of suggestions that can make your website more friendly for users who have cognitive disabilities. For more details on each suggestion, please head over to the WCAG guidelines.

No Flashing Images

We’ve put this at the top because it’s by far the most important. Do not use flashing images anywhere on your website. It can be fatal.

Worldwide, more than 65 million people have epilepsy. Within this, around 3% have photosensitive epilepsy. This is when an epileptic seizure can be triggered by flashing/flickering lights or high-contrast patterns. Whilst it varies from person to person, 3-30 hertz (flashes per second) is the rate most likely to trigger seizures.

Each year in the US, around 3000 unexpected sudden deaths happen during epileptic seizures. For every 1000 people with epilepsy, at least one is likely to die from a seizure.

Using flashing images on a website can kill. Never do it.

Provide Clear Explanations

Accessibility is about making things easier. For people with cognitive disabilities, navigating and understanding certain digital content may be confusing. However, you can reduce this by making your content as clear as possible. Show your audience what everything is and how to use it.

Start by making sure everything is labeled correctly. All buttons and links should have a text description that details exactly what the component does or where it takes you. Your text descriptions should be accurate and succinct. Be mindful that overly detailed descriptions only create more confusion. Difficulties with reading are common in cognitive disabilities. If appropriate, add a symbol alongside your text to provide a visual indicator of what the component does. This can help to reduce cognitive load.

Some people with cognitive disabilities may not be able to follow complex instructions. Break every step up and simplify your content as much as possible. When giving instructions, be straightforward. We often pad sentences with filler words when we want to be polite. However, for people with reading difficulties, these simply cause more problems. If you’re giving instructions, be straight to the point.

For example:

  • Don’t say: We recommend that you enter through the library doors at the front.
  • Do say: Enter library through front doors.

Assistive Technology Compatible

Assistive technology describes the tools used by people with disabilities and impairments that allow them to use the web independently. These include tools such as screen readers, speech recognition, screen magnifiers, and eye-tracking navigation.

The key to creating an accessible website is to design it so that it operates well even when it’s used in different ways.

Use Plain English

Some people with cognitive disabilities have difficulties with reading. To make your content more accessible, write in plain English.

Plain English is English that’s written clearly and concisely. It avoids jargon, euphemisms, and colloquialisms. Its purpose is to convey important information as simply as possible.

Using plain English is not just good accessibility practice, it’s also good business practice. It’s been shown that 80% of people prefer reading sentences written in plain English. Customers are less likely to complain if your content is written in plain English as they’re more likely to understand it.

So, how do we do it?

  • Use simple words and phrases.
  • Keep sentences short.
  • Put important information first.
  • Use headings and lists to break down information.
  • Define any abbreviations.
  • Explain any technical terms used.

For further guidance, use our Content Creators Guide: How to Write in Plain English.

Simple, Predictable Layout

People with cognitive disabilities often rely on patterns and repetition to navigate digital content. That’s why predictability is a part of WCAG guidelines.

Your webpage or app should have a clean simple design. Everything should be well-organized and sufficiently spaced out. By keeping the design on the minimalist side, you eliminate distractions and make your website more accessible for people with cognitive disabilities such as ADHD.

Make sure that everything on your digital platform is in a spot that makes sense. For example, menus are usually found at the top of a page. If you were to put your menu at the bottom of the page, then it might take people some time to realize this. For people with cognitive disabilities, recognizing this change can be even more difficult.

To reduce confusion, put components in their most common spots. Use your muscle memory if you aren’t sure where this would be. Where do you instinctively want to click when thinking about a certain component? If you are still unsure, look at other websites.

Some examples of websites with great accessibility include:

Use Remember Password

Memory problems are common for people with cognitive disabilities. This can make unavoidable digital tasks such as remembering a password very hard.

When designing for cognitive disabilities, make sure your digital components never rely on memory. Having to memorize a specific password for each site is categorized as a cognitive function test. This is only made more difficult if there are strict password requirements such as needing to include numbers or special characters.

Include features such as ‘keep me signed in’ and ‘remember password’. This makes signing in easier for everyone. Note that many individuals with memory problems will keep their usernames and passwords in a Word document. Your system should also accept using copy and paste on your sign-in fields.

Auto-fill Forms

Filling out forms is a long and boring process. For people with cognitive disabilities, it can also be a difficult process. Forms rely on several functions that people with cognitive disabilities may have issues with. These include focus, accurate spelling, and remembering large amounts of personal information. Like passwords, they can also be considered a cognitive function test.

The auto-fill composite control makes the form-filling process easier for everyone. In addition to people with cognitive disabilities, it can be particularly useful for individuals with mobility issues or people with vision impairment.

No Time Limits

Time limits on websites can be a great source of stress. They are also usually unneeded. No one person is the same. Everyone will take a different amount of time to complete the same task. For people with cognitive disabilities, time limits can make difficult tasks near impossible.

Consider whether a time limit is needed. If the answer is no, then remove it. Alternatively, if a time limit is needed for security purposes, then allow the user to adjust their time limit. You should also warn users of any time limits in advance. Users must be given an option to extend their time. According to WCAG guidelines, they must be given at least 20 seconds to choose to extend the time limit.

Provide Context Reminders

Many people with cognitive disabilities have issues with memory. This can cause difficulties when completing online tasks with several steps.

For example, buying an item online takes multiple steps. This usually includes entering your shipping details, putting in payment information, and then confirming your details. Someone with memory loss may get the second step and want to go back. However, if the label only says ‘back’ or ‘last step’, then the individual may not remember the last step. This then throws off their task entirely. Therefore, it’s important that you provide context reminders.

Make sure that you label each step or item with an accurate description of what it does or where it takes you. For example, instead of labeling the previous step ‘back’, label it as ‘back to shipping details’. This allows users to retrace their steps clearly.

Limit Choices

Too many options can make decision-making an impossible task. Particularly for people who are prone to cognitive overload.

A common example of being overwhelmed by choice is when you must scroll down to your country from a drop-down box. The information becomes difficult to consume, making the decision-making process lengthy. This process could be made easier by only providing relative options after the user begins typing.

Limiting choices prevents the user from becoming overwhelmed or confused. By narrowing down choices, the user is more likely to stay focused on their task.

Avoid Popups

There’s nothing more annoying than being attacked by popups. They slow you down and ruin the user experience. More so, they’re a big accessibility issue.

Not only are they problematic for people who use screen readers, but they also present issues for individuals with cognitive disabilities. Issues with focus are common with cognitive disabilities. Popups interrupt the original content that the user was consuming and distract them from their original task. For people with memory problems, popups can also make it difficult to remember what the original task was.

If possible, avoid using popups altogether.

No Puzzle CAPTCHAs

As detailed previously, cognitive function tests are a big no-no when designing for users with cognitive disabilities. That’s why most CAPTCHAs are an accessibility nightmare.

CAPTCHA stands for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. In other words, it’s a test that detects if it’s a person or a robot using the site. Usually, the test shows a distorted sequence of numbers or letters and asks the user to type this. There is also an audio alternative. Showing zoomed-in images and asking the user to identify them is another popular form of CAPTCHA.

However, it has commonly been noted that CAPTCHA are inaccessible to many people with disabilities. Even, alternative “accessible” options present problems.

People with cognitive disabilities may struggle with CAPTCHA that rely on solving puzzles. This includes the two most popular CAPTCHA forms which are distorted words and blown-up images. More so because often these images and distortions can be interpreted in several different ways. Similarly, these visual CAPTCHA are inaccessible to people with vision impairment.

CAPTCHA that have audio components are not an ideal alternative. Often to prevent robots from processing them, they whisper the text or add background noises. They also do not come with alt-text. This makes them inaccessible to people with both hearing and vision impairments.

Human reasoning tests present massive problems for people that have difficulties with reasoning skills. Even people who don’t have a disability or impairment find CAPTCHA difficult to use. There are several better alternatives that are more accessible. Biometrics can prevent the user from having to answer any questions, making them a good choice. A more common option is a checkbox that confirms the user is not a robot.

Backup Text with Images

All cognitive disabilities exist on a spectrum. Some people with cognitive disabilities have the most limited levels of functioning. Often in these cases, literacy comprehension is very low. For many, identifying an image may be easier than identifying text.

If appropriate, consider backing up your text with an image. Since this method can quickly make things cluttered, only do this for important text content. Otherwise, this method becomes inaccessible to people who have issues with concentration.

A successful example of using images can be seen in the Instagram app. The navigation bar only uses symbols. Without having to read anything, you know instantly where each page is going to take you.

However, be mindful that in making an aspect accessible for one individual, you may be making it inaccessible to another. If you are using images alongside text, then be sure to provide alt-text. Without it, your content becomes inaccessible to people who use screen readers.

Use Multiple Media Forms

One of the most important rules of accessibility is providing choice. Not everyone can, or wants to, consume the same type of media.

Cognitive disabilities is an umbrella term, but it describes a very wide and varied set of disabilities. No two people are the same. Nor do any two people experience their disability identically. What works for some people will not work for others. Therefore, providing different ways of consuming your content is essential.

This includes providing video, audio, visual, and text alternatives to all your content.