Cognitive Disabilities Digital Accessibility Guide For Web/App Designers

Jul 31, 2023

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

Web designers often only focus on visual and audio accessibility practices. However, your website is not accessible unless you design it with all disabilities in mind. Many people with cognitive disabilities have trouble concentrating, making decisions, and remembering information. You must consider this during your design process.

It can be difficult to know where to start. Web accessibility for cognitive disabilities never gets much focus. That’s where we come in. These suggestions aim to improve web experience for users with cognitive disabilities. For more details on each suggestion, please check WCAG guidelines.

This list is part of a series. Lists are separated by the type of disability the suggestions are aimed toward.

You can find all lists here.

No Flashing Images

This is at the top because it’s the most important. Do not use flashing images anywhere on your website. It can be fatal.

Worldwide, more than 65 million people have epilepsy. Around 3% of these people have photosensitive epilepsy. This is when flashing lights or high-contrast patterns trigger seizures. It’s different for everyone, but 3-30 hertz (flashes per second) is the most common trigger rate.

There are 3000 sudden deaths during seizures every year in the US. For every 1000 people, at least one will die.

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

Provide Clear Explanations

Accessibility is about making things easier. Understanding and navigating certain content can be confusing for people with cognitive disabilities. 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 giving everything an accurate label. All buttons and links need to have a text description of what they do or where they take you. Text descriptions should be short and clear. Too much information can increase confusion. Reading difficulties are common in cognitive disabilities. Adding symbols helps show people what different components do. This can help to reduce cognitive load.

Complex instructions can be difficult for people with cognitive disabilities. Break up every step. Make your content easier to follow. Be straightforward with your instructions. We often pad sentences with filler words to sound more polite, but this just makes things wordy. Keep it short and sweet.

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 helps people with disabilities perform different tasks. One use of them is to access the web independently. Tools that support this includes screen readers, speech recognition, screen magnifiers, and eye trackers.

Your website must be compatible with assistive technology. This means that the site still operates well when used in different ways with different tools.

Find more information on how to do this here.

Use Plain English

Some people with cognitive disabilities have difficulties with reading. Write in plain English to make your content easier to understand.

Plain English is English that’s clear and concise. It avoids jargon, euphemisms, and colloquialisms. It conveys important information in a way that everyone can understand.

Using plain English has a lot of pros. On top of being good for accessibility, it’s also good business practice. It’s recorded that 80% of people prefer reading sentences written in plain English. Customers are less likely to complain or ask questions when information is clear.

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 use patterns and repetition to navigate websites. That’s why WCAG guidelines say your site must be easy to predict.

Make sure that everything on your digital platform is in a spot that makes sense. For example, menus are usually at the top of a page. People would be confused if it was then moved to the bottom. Recognizing this change can be even more difficult for people with cognitive disabilities.

Put components in their most common spots to reduce confusion. Use your muscle memory if you aren’t sure where this would be. Where does it feel natural to click for each component? Look at other websites if you’re still unsure.

Your webpage or app should also have a clean, simple design. Organize and space everything well. A minimalist website gets rid of distractions, which can be helpful for people with ADHD.

Some examples of websites with great accessibility include:

Use Remember Password

Memory problems are common with cognitive disabilities. This can make basic digital tasks like remembering a password very hard.

Make sure digital components never rely on memory. Having to remember a specific password for each site counts as a cognitive function test. Strict password requirements like needing numbers or special characters make this even worse.

Use features like ‘keep me signed in’ and ‘remember password’. This prevents stress and hassle. Many people with memory problems use Word to store their sign-in info. Your sign-in field should also accept copy-and-pasted text.

Auto-fill Forms

Filling out forms is a long and boring process. This can pose a lot of problems for people with cognitive disabilities. It requires many things that they often have issues with. This includes focus, accurate spelling, and remembering large amounts of personal information. Like passwords, they can also count as a cognitive function test.

Having auto-fill makes filling out forms easier for everyone. On top of reducing cognitive load, they’re particularly useful for individuals with mobility issues or visual impairments.

No Time Limits

Time limits can take essential tasks from difficult to nearly impossible. People with cognitive disabilities often need more time to finish things like web forms. Adding a time limit creates needless stress, especially because they’re usually pointless.

Consider whether you need a time limit. More often than not, the answer is no. Any time limits which are essential for security purposes must be extendable. You must notify users of any limits in place beforehand. WCAG guidelines state users should have at least 20 seconds to choose to extend any time limits.

Provide Context Reminders

Many people with cognitive disabilities have issues with memory. This can pose challenges when completing tasks with several steps.

For example, buying something online takes a few steps. This includes adding shipping details, entering payment information, and confirming everything. Someone with memory loss may get to the second step and need to go back. However, they may be unable to remember the last step if the label only says ‘back’ or ’last step’. This throws off the entire task.

Label each step with a clear description of where it takes you. Let’s take the example of a payment page. We know labeling a link back is unhelpful. However, giving a description like ‘shipping details’ or ‘payment details’ lets users retrace their steps. Context reminders are key.

Limit Choices

Too many options can be overwhelming, particularly for people who have trouble with decision-making. Limit options by only showing relevant information.

For example, scrolling to your country on a drop-down box can seem endless. You can avoid overwhelming users by letting them type into the box. Countries that match typed letters then show in a much smaller list. This makes finding and selecting a country much easier.

Avoiding irrelevant information lets users stay focused on tasks. It also makes it easier to identify what they need, which helps to avoid cognitive fatigue.

Avoid Pop-ups

Pop-ups cause massive issues for people will different disabilities. In fact, WCAG 2.1 bans all pop-ups without alerting the user beforehand.

Issues with focus and memory are common among cognitive disabilities. Pop-ups distract users from what they were originally meant to be doing. Some will forget the task entirely. This can result in essential to-do’s being left undone. The worst cases of this will lead to unpaid bills, failure to complete legal documents, and being unable to buy essential items.

Avoid pop-ups at all costs. Honestly, very few people engage with them anyway. Yet the problems that they cause for people with disabilities are infinite. People hate them, so don’t bother with them.

No Puzzle CAPTCHAs

We know that cognitive function tests are a big no-no. That’s why CAPTCHAs can be 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.

There are three common CAPTCHA. The first includes distorted numbers and letters that the user needs to recognize and type into a box. The second shows blown-up images, asking the user to identify specific items. The third involves solving some kind of puzzle.

Many of these rely on reasoning and identification skills. This can present problems for people with cognitive disabilities. This is only made worse by the fact that CAPTCHA can be interpreted in multiple ways.

CAPTCHA’s ‘accessible’ alternatives can be just as bad. A common alternative is audio CAPTCHA. These add background noises or whisper to ward off robots. However, these can be confusing and difficult to discern. They don’t come with alt-text either which adds to the problem.

There are much better alternatives that are less confusing and just as sound. Biometrics are a good option as they only require someone’s presence to work. Another popular option includes ticking a checkbox to confirm the user is not a robot. These are far more accessible and cause a lot less stress.

Backup Text with Images

All cognitive disabilities exist on a spectrum. Some people have severe cognitive impairment. This can mean low literacy levels. Sometimes this means identifying a picture is easier than reading text. Consider backing up your text with an image or symbol if it’s appropriate. This can become cluttered very quickly so only do this for important content.

A successful example of this is Instagram. The navigation bar only uses symbols. Without text, it’s clear where each page is going to take you.

Be mindful that making things accessible for one group may be making them inaccessible for another. If you use images, then you must use alt-text. Otherwise, your content becomes inaccessible to people who use screen readers.

Use Multiple Media Forms

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

Cognitive disabilities is an umbrella term, but it describes a very wide and varied set of disabilities. No two people are the same. People do not experience disability in the same way either. What works for some people will not work for others. So you should provide different ways to consume your content.

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