An Accessibility Solution for Cognitive Disabilities

Cognitive, learning, and neurological disabilities are often overlooked when addressing accessibility because most designers and developers are focused on other forms of disabilities, such as visual and hearing impairments. Those who have cognitive and intellectual disabilities often find it difficult to complete certain mental tasks that may come easier to other users.  We’ve seen rapid progress in the field of digital accessibility in recent years, but more effort is needed to create and design better solutions for people with cognitive, learning, and neurological disabilities.

There are many different types of cognitive, learning, and neurological disabilities which cover a large spectrum.  These types of disabilities impact how people process information such as perception, memory, attention, problem solving, and comprehension. Some may be momentary, temporary, or permanent conditions. Examples include:

  • Aphasia
  • Speech and language
  • Autism
  • Dyslexia
  • Dyscalculia  
  • Dementia
  • Alzheimer's

At first, being able to implement cognitive accessibility may feel too complex due to the wide range of cognitive disabilities, but rather than attempting to modify a site or product for each cognitive condition, organizations should choose to focus on shared categories of challenges underlying these impairments: attention, comprehension, memory, and processing speed. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 have included new accessibility guidance for users with cognitive or learning disabilities that should be considered when determining accessibility solutions.

As an instructional designer and a person with cognitive disabilities, I work toward creating products and training that are accessible to everyone.  My current New Editions project is to improve the DHS Trusted Tester for Web course.  My first task was to create videos to help users who struggle with the complexity of the material in the course, which is mostly textural. Images, graphics, and visual content have been proven to help users with cognitive impairments. For example, people with Dyslexia may find it challenging and time consuming to learn when only textual information is presented. This can be simply addressed with the use of relevant images and/or video.

In addition to providing videos for users who struggle to learn by textual information, our team also ensured that there are no accessibility blockers for other types of disability. To ensure that the videos were accessible for everyone, we also addressed:

  • Word complexity – Difficult and complex words are avoided.
  • Simplified directions – Each step is broken down to simplify content.
  • Audio Description – The script has visual information described and is clearly labeled and associated to what is being seen.
  • Captions – Captions are needed for the hearing impaired, but also some users with cognitive disabilities find is easier learn with captioning. There is also the ability to turn captions off because for other users, the captions can be distracting.
  • Player – The controls for the video player are easy to use and follow all accessibility guidelines to ensure that everyone is able to use them regardless of disability.
  • WCAG – All aspects of the videos passed all of the guidelines and success criteria.

As we continue to improve the DHS Trusted Tester for Web course, New Editions will work to ensure that all of the content is not only accessible to users who have visual and hearing impairments, but is accessible for people who have cognitive, learning, and neurological disabilities.