When people discuss digital accessibility, they often focus on individuals with sensory limitations. As we’ve discussed in other articles, web accessibility isn’t just for people who are blind or hearing impaired — the scope of disabilities is wide, and it’s important to consider individuals with learning differences and other conditions that affect their online behavior.
The term learning difference describes people who have dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or other conditions that affect the way that they acquire and/or process information.
We’re using the phrase “learning difference" on this blog, the term “learning disability" is probably more common — but according to many educators, describing neurocognitive differences as disabilities may send the wrong message. People with learning differences are just as capable of learning as others, but they may prefer information to be presented in a different way.
That’s important in education, and it’s also important in digital accessibility discussions. In the United States, about 1 in 5 people have learning and/or attention issues — that’s about 65.6 million people.
By following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), you can provide those individuals with better online experiences. Here’s an overview of four barriers that might affect internet users with learning differences (and how to avoid those issues).
1. Time Limitations
Time limits can be frustrating for all users, but they’re especially problematic for people with attention and memory disorders. If someone gets kicked out of a checkout process or loses their place in a ticket sale because of an arbitrary time limit, they may not come back to your site — or, at least, they won’t leave with a good impression.
Some time limits are essential, but you should give users the option to turn off, extend, or adjust the time limit wherever possible. If a time limit is essential to the process, make sure to tell your audience before they begin the process.
WCAG 2.1 Success Criterion (SC), “Timing Adjustable,” provides additional guidance for checking your time limits for accessibility.
2. Flashing Graphics and Autoplay
In the early days of the internet, blinking buttons and flashing GIFs were everywhere. Those days are mostly over, but some websites still use motion graphics and multimedia to try to keep users' attention.
But flashing graphics can have the opposite effect: They can distract users, preventing them from completing important processes. This is an especially substantial problem for people with ADHD and other attention disorders.
Flashing graphics may also trigger reactions in photosensitive users, so wherever possible, the best practice is to avoid autoplay media. If you must use autoplay, make sure that users can pause or stop the playback (and that the controls are accessible with a keyboard alone).
To follow WCAG 2.1 SC 2.3.1, “Three Flashes or Below Threshold,” ensure that your content does not flash any more than three times in any one second period.
3. Tasks That Rely on Memory
According to one study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 12.7% of adults aged 60 or older report memory issues. Memory impairments can make web browsing much more difficult — particularly when websites require users to remember complex passwords or follow long, multi-page processes.
You can provide your users with a better experience by keeping your content simple and avoiding jargon. When tasks rely on memory, give people options. For example, a user authentication process might require users to remember passwords, but if your website allows people to copy and paste in the password field, users can avoid manual typing — which can make an enormous difference.
4. Content That Doesn’t Reflow
People with learning differences may magnify portions of their screen, which can help them block out distractions to focus on small parts of your content. Content that does not reflow is not responsive: When the user’s viewport changes, some content may appear out-of-order or disappear entirely.
WCAG 2.1 Success Criterion (SC) 1.4.10, “Reflow,” requires that content can be presented “without loss of information or functionality, and without requiring scrolling in two dimensions.” Of course, responsive design benefits every user, not just people with learning differences — if your website isn’t responsive, it may be time to consider a redesign.
Provide people with options, and be ready to listen
We’ve covered several common web accessibility barriers for people with learning differences, but this is not a comprehensive list. To provide your audience with the best possible experience, aim for conformance with all Level AA success criteria of WCAG (read about WCAG conformance levels here).
Once you’ve taken steps to remove barriers, look for other ways to help your users. Try to present people with options, particularly on important pages (for instance, checkout processes). Publish an accessibility statement and listen to your users' feedback.
An accessible website can help you attract more users, improve search engine optimization, and create a stronger brand, and WCAG offers guidance for accommodating as many people as possible.