2. Introduction

Making websites and applications that are friendly for people with cognitive impairments affects every part of design and development.

Traditionally, accessibility focused on making the interface usable for people with sensory and physical impairments (vision, hearing and/or mobility). Some accessibility features will help people with cognitive impairments. Often the issues that affect people with cognitive and learning disabilities include design, context, structure, language, usability, and other factors that are difficult to include in general guidelines.

Some design patterns create barriers for people with disabilities. The patterns presented in this document have been designed to avoid such barriers for people with cognitive and learning disabilities. While this guidance may improve usability for all, these patterns are essential for some people with cognitive and learning impairments to be able to use content independently.

The Objectives and Patterns build on the:

The Objectives and Patterns presented here provide supplemental guidance beyond the requirements of WCAG. They address accessibility barriers that could not be included in the normative WCAG 2.x specification and may not otherwise be addressed.

2.1 How to Use this Document

This document provides information on the development process and design options for making websites and applications that are more usable and accessible for people with cognitive impairments. It is organized by high level objectives which are listed along with user stories in Section 3.

This document is divided into parts. Each part can be used when needed by different groups in the development team. Following the advice in this document as much as possible will be particularly valuable for Web content and applications that address:

  • individual safety concerns,
  • health,
  • critical services,
  • autonomy,
  • care-giving,
  • social integration, and
  • workplace needs.

2.2 Background about People with Learning and Cognitive Disabilities and the Web

Cognitive and learning disabilities include long-term, short-term, and permanent difficulties relating to cognitive functions, such as:

  • Perception, memory and attention;
  • Learning and orientation; and
  • Visual, verbal or numerical thinking.

Design, structure and language choices can make content inaccessible to people with cognitive and learning disabilities. Examples may include:

  • People with impaired short term memory may be unable to recall passwords or copy access codes. They may have trouble or be unable to remember new symbols and interface paradigms;
  • People with impaired working memory will only be able to hold one to three items in their memory at the same time. This can make it difficult to hold information temporarily or copy access codes.
  • People with different processing speed capabilities may need additional time to understand the design relationships and volume of information on screen;
  • People with language related disabilities may need simple clear language and instructions. Some may rely on supporting graphics and familiar symbols to understand content;
  • People with social and/or communication disabilities may need clear literal language and may not understand metaphors or non-literal text and symbols;
  • People with impairments that affect or comprehending mathematical concepts may not understand or confuse numerical references such as percentages;
  • People who have issues with keeping or regaining focus may have difficulty completing a simple task if there are a lot of distractions and interruptions. They may need headers and signposts to help them regain the context after their attention has been lost (including in multimedia);
  • Many groups will need support to minimize errors and complete their task. They will struggle with cognitive fatigue when completing complex, multi-stage processes such as filling out forms or entering data correctly or finding the content or feature that they need.

These difficulties may sometimes also be experienced by users in the general population due to environmental or situational barriers, such as when they are trying to use a website when they are distracted. For example, working on a mobile device while in an unfamiliar or noisy situation can place an additional cognitive load on users by splitting their attention. However, for users with cognitive and learning disabilities, these difficulties are likely to be persistent and significant. As a result, they could be unable to access content and complete these tasks independently.

Cognitive and learning disabilities are usually hidden difficulties and may be age related. The terminology and definitions used for cognitive disabilities varies between countries and users are less likely to have a formal diagnosis of a disability than individuals with physical and sensory difficulties. Often, only some functions are impaired while other cognitive functions are unaffected. For example, someone with dyslexia may be a fantastic engineer. Sometimes, cognitive disability may include intellectual impairments that affect comprehension alongside written and spoken expression. People may also experience more than one type of cognitive and learning disability.

Mental health issues can also result in cognitive difficulties, such as difficulty focusing, cognitive fatigue or reduced memory. Overall, by addressing barriers to accessibility for users with cognitive and learning disabilities, improvements to digital technologies can be achieved and there is the potential to improve user experience for everyone.

Diagram showing the union of Usability and Accessibility with both contained within User Experience.

2.3 Building the User into the Development Process

Some aspects of making web content and applications friendly for people with cognitive and learning disabilities are best dealt with as part of the overall design process. For most organizations there should be scope included for a user-centered design process.

Key parts of this process for people with cognitive and learning disabilities should be:

  • Including the needs of users with cognitive and learning disabilities in the context of user needs and requirements;
  • Including people with cognitive and learning disabilities in research methods such as usability testing.
  • Including people with cognitive and learning disabilities in the design and development team.

If people with cognitive impairments are included in the usability testing and their feedback is accounted for, the website will be easier to use for everyone, including people who are experiencing stress or mental health issues.