This blog was contributed by Gershon Blackmore, Senior Accessibility Analyst at Level Access

A few years ago, I was working with two colleagues at Level Access to evaluate the accessibility of a web page. When they began discussing an interactive icon on the page, there was a problem: I could not see what they were seeing. For them, the icon was clearly there. For me, it was not there. I was stumped. After nearly 45 minutes of back-and-forth, I suddenly realized what they were talking about. As if by magic, an icon appeared right in the center of the page. What was going on?

These kinds of situations aren’t new to me. Over the years, I’ve gotten used to other people seeing things that I do not see. Even though I have sharp vision, I have Post Trauma Vision Syndrome due to accidents in childhood. I also have dysgraphia (difficulty writing by hand), dyscalculia (math blindness), and visual integration difficulties relating to autism. All of this means I score poorly on cognitive tests—at least in comparison to what I’ve been able to accomplish in my career so far. It also means that navigating web pages has always been a challenge for me.

I’m hardly alone in the barriers I face online: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 12.8% of adults in the U.S. (approximately 33 million people) have some type of cognitive disability. Any organization committed to inclusion needs to account for these users to ensure that everyone can successfully navigate their website. But here’s the challenge: unlike other types of disabilities, there are few formal standards for cognitive disability and digital accessibility. In fact, the Worldwide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) has just begun to touch on cognitive differences in the most recent version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). When it comes to creating accessible websites for users like me, it can be tough to know where to begin.

In this blog, while acknowledging just how wide-ranging the category of cognitive disability is, I’ll discuss some commonalities in how I—and many others with cognitive disabilities—interact with online information. I’ll also offer some advice for making digital experiences more accessible for users with cognitive disabilities.

The diversity of cognitive disability

One reason for the lack of clear accessibility standards and guidelines for people with cognitive disabilities is that the range of these disabilities is huge. It includes:

  • Perceptual disabilities, such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia, as well as limitations in memory
  • Developmental disabilities including autism and Down syndrome
  • Cognitive and perceptual differences related to brain injuries
  • Cognitive differences related to aging

Some, but not all, individuals who are neurodivergent also self-identify as having cognitive disabilities. For more examples, the WAI provides a comprehensive list of cognitive disabilities on its website.

Cognitive disability and digital accessibility: How do people with cognitive disabilities navigate online?

Because the range of cognitive disability is so broad, experts have avoided one-size-fits-all formulas for describing how users with cognitive disabilities navigate online. Every user interacts with digital information differently, depending on their unique experience of cognitive disability. But over the course of my career—both at Level Access, and in decades of disability-focused education and counseling before that—I’ve had an opportunity to explore whether there is a common pattern in how people with cognitive disabilities use the web.

I’ve come to the understanding that for many users with cognitive disabilities, including myself, the brain has to “gate down” visual stimuli to a manageable level. We protect ourselves from overload by limiting what we take in. Before I see a web page, my brain unconsciously decides what is—and isn’t—important enough to see. In the case of the icon that I “couldn’t see” in that discussion with my colleagues, by the time that I consciously saw that page, my brain had already decided that the icon was unimportant.

Here’s how this works in my case. Even though I’ve had sharp vision for most of my life, my visual field of focus is extremely narrow. Most people have a two-degree field of focus, which covers a person’s entire face. I have a field of focus of 1/10 of a degree, about the size of a pore on someone’s nose. That’s because my brain does not have the bandwidth to take in more than this tiny sliver of visual information at once. “Gating down” is my brain’s way of solving a problem: making sense of a lot of information, with limited bandwidth.

Tips for making your website accessible to users with cognitive disabilities

People with cognitive disabilities who “gate down” use a variety of problem-solving methods to filter out unimportant information and focus on what matters. To be accessible to users with cognitive disabilities, web pages need to flow with—not against—these methods. Here are a few pieces of advice for accounting for cognitive disability and digital accessibility in web design.

Use patterns logically and consistently

Users with cognitive disabilities rely heavily on patterns to make meaning from the fire hose of information on any given web page. When applying patterns—such as the order of form fields, colors, and borders—to different elements of your website, it’s important to do so in a meaningful way.

Associate distinct patterns with specific forms, or specific types of tasks. Make sure to adhere to these same patterns across all pages of your website, and to introduce them early and consistently within user flows (the series of tasks that a user performs to complete a goal, like logging in or completing a purchase). For example, if form fields are presented in a particular pattern on the first page that a user visits to book an airline ticket, the fields should be presented in the same pattern on the following pages that the user navigates to finish booking. Sudden switches in patterns can leave users “stranded” and unsure how to proceed.

Ideally, this concept should apply to your entire design system: all similar components (like all radio buttons and checkboxes) should adhere to consistent patterns in functionality and styling. Having wildly different components and page layouts puts more cognitive load on the user and may result in a disruptive experience for an individual with a cognitive disability.

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Pay attention to mental mapping

When you think of a website’s main navigation bar, chances are, a particular order of information comes to mind. There’s a “home” button on the left, maybe a “log in” button on the right, with buttons to access different parts of the website in the middle. And if you were asked to place this imaginary menu bar on a web page, you’d probably put it right at the top. That’s because, since the early days of the internet, most web designers have followed a particular template for creating menu bars. And users have developed a shared understanding of how menu bars are structured: that is, we have a mental map for these elements.

People with cognitive disabilities take time to move from one mental map to another, and we tend to seek out maps that are familiar to us. Already used to making perceptual decisions based on very little information, we’re prone to jumping to conclusions about what is there. So, when designing web elements, use objects and patterns that will be easily recognizable to users.

Make important things look important

Patterns and mental mapping aren’t the only strategies that people with cognitive disabilities use to identify crucial information and filter out distractions. The size of elements, and their brightness, play a key role in how users discern what matters. Because of this, web designers should aim to make important information and functionality brighter in color, and larger, than less important functionality. Size and brightness are especially critical when it comes to elements linked to key tasks. An essential next step in a user flow shouldn’t be a tiny, dim icon.

While bright colors are helpful for calling a user’s attention, designers should be mindful to use them deliberately. The over-use of bright colors and bold patterns can be a burden for some people with sensory and cognitive disabilities. To provide the most accessible, intuitive user experience, designers should reserve the accent color in their design system for interactive elements like buttons and links. This reduces cognitive load while providing users with a clear direction as they navigate your site.

In addition to size and brightness, the placement of elements relative to surrounding content may determine how a user with a cognitive disability perceives their importance. If an actionable icon is surrounded by decorative material, a user may unconsciously assume it’s decorative. In fact, that’s what happened with the icon that I mentioned at the beginning of the blog: because it was located inside the type of horizontal bar that often divides content blocks, my brain registered it as unimportant.

Of course, this doesn’t mean web designers can’t be decorative and creative. People with cognitive disabilities like an engaging, stylish web experience as much as the next person. But what really matters is that designers use decorative elements in a meaningful, intentional way to help guide users along their journey.

Additional considerations

  • Ensure there is adequate color contrast between text and background elements, and for all meaningful objects on a page. As a rule, follow WCAG, which recommends a 4.5:1 color contrast ratio for small text, and a 3:1 ratio for large text and user interface (UI) components. This helps ensure all important information can be perceived by users who “gate down.”
  • Make intuitive choices about colors and icons. Avoid color choices that conflict with a user’s expectations, like an error banner appearing in green, and steer clear of unusual iconography.Counter-intuitive style choices may make it more challenging for users, especially those with cognitive disabilities, to decipher the importance and meaning of elements on a web page.
  • Use a consistent pattern for visual focus indicators. Sudden changes in a focus indicator’s type or style may cause users with cognitive disabilities to lose their place on a page. Avoid focus indicators that rely on slight changes in shades of color.
  • Don’t assume users have the same information that you do. For example, if your site copy contains abbreviations, be sure to spell out what these abbreviations refer to. This minimizes confusion for all users and can be particularly important for those with cognitive disabilities.

Accessible websites are more intuitive for everyone

Digital accessibility doesn’t just benefit people with disabilities. It improves user experiences for everyone, and this is especially true when it comes to accessibility for those of us with cognitive disabilities. Incorporating the considerations above into your website’s content and design will result in more logical, intuitive, and enjoyable journey for all users—enabling your organization to engage a broader audience and demonstrate a genuine commitment to inclusion.

About Gershon Blackmore

Gershon Blackmore is a Senior Accessibility Analyst at Level Access. Prior to joining the company in 2014, he held a wide range of roles, including serving in the pulpit as clergy, working as a supervising psychotherapist, and teaching religion and medical ethics courses in university. He has also trained and worked in chaplaincy, serving as a police and hospice chaplain. All through this journey, he has used computers as assistive technology for his disabilities. He lives in Syracuse, New York, with his daughter and son-in-law and three cats.

Additional resources

Level Access’s online Academy offers expert-led, on-demand training for designers, content creators, and other key roles. To learn more about cognitive disability and digital accessibility, check out the following courses:

  • Introduction to Digital Accessibility: This introductory course focuses on the different types of disabilities and how these disabilities can affect a person’s ability to access digital content. It also explores the differences between accommodation and accessibility, and why it’s important to design for everyone.
  • Understanding Accessible Design: This introduction to accessibility equips designers to incorporate accessibility into their work from the beginning, preventing retrofits and redesigns.
  • Disability Etiquette: This course covers appropriate ways to interact with individuals with disabilities. It provides information about the different types of disabilities that people may have and introduces best practices for communicating and engaging with people with disabilities.
  • Understanding Accessible Experiences: This course offers an overview of various accessible experiences. It covers how everyone benefits from accessible experiences and debunks accessibility myths to help learners begin overcoming bias.

Want expert advice on how to incorporate accessibility for people with cognitive disabilities into your organization’s digital experiences? Engage with our team today to get started.