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Including Neurodiversity in Digital Accessibility Conversations

Apr 13, 2023

Often, conversations about digital accessibility focus on ensuring that online content is accessible for people with visual and auditory impairments. 

Since web content is usually presented visually (text and images displayed on a screen) and/or aurally (audio played through speakers), the popular association between digital accessibility and these two disability categories makes some sense. 

However, not all barriers to digital accessibility involve visual or auditory disabilities. Some web design decisions simply fail to accommodate the diverse ways in which humans experience and interact with the world around them.

Including neurodiversity in digital accessibility conversations is an important step toward making the internet accessible to everyone. Below, we'll discuss the origin of the term and its implications.

Related: What Are Cognitive Disabilities, and Why Are They Important for Web Accessibility?

What is neurodiversity, and why is it important?

Neurodiversity refers broadly to the range of differences in individual humans' neurology. It recognizes those differences as equally valid ways of being, rather than illnesses (or pathologies). 

Australian sociologist and autism rights advocate Judy Singer coined the term in 1998 as an alternative to the prevailing concept of the time, which held that atypical ways of thinking were problems that needed to be solved. 

This new neurodiversity paradigm gave voice to many autistic people who recognized themselves as neurologically different, but who did not identify as “disabled.”

In the years since, the neurodiversity paradigm has gained popularity both within and outside of the autism rights movement. Neurodiversity recognizes not only the challenges of atypical neurologies, but also their strengths. 

Within the paradigm, neurologies are sometimes divided into "neurodivergent" — those with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and other neurological conditions like ADHD and dyslexia — and "neurotypical" — those that display neurologies generally recognized as the "typical" way the human brain functions. 

It is important to keep in mind, however, that these are not medical terms. The conversation around neurodiversity is still ongoing, and some advocates believe that other models of disability may be more practically beneficial.

Related: 4 Myths About Internet Users with Autism

3 Common Digital Accessibility Barriers for Neurodivergent People

While the neurodiversity paradigm may represent a significant shift in the way we understand neurological differences among people, this framework is perfectly compatible with the goal of making the internet accessible to everyone — whatever their level of ability or neurotype. 

Though every individual has their own unique set of strengths and challenges, there are some common web design issues that frequently affect online accessibility among neurodivergent people. For example:

  1. Not Having Enough Time

For many neurodivergent people, time-dependent content is a common source of frustration. ADHD, memory disorders, and a variety of other neurodivergences may contribute to the time that users spend interacting with web content. 

While time limits are sometimes necessary, you should avoid them when possible. In cases where a time limit is needed, make sure to inform users before they begin the process, and give them the ability to turn off or extend the time limit when possible. 

Related: Web Accessibility Tips: Give People Enough Time

    2. Autoplay

Media that plays automatically can be a significant distraction for neurodivergent people and can prevent users from navigating a website with ease. 

Additionally, if this media includes loud sounds or flashing or blinking video, it has the potential to trigger seizures or other physical reactions among people with neurological conditions like epilepsy.

The best practice is to avoid autoplay. If autoplay is absolutely necessary, ensure that users are able to easily pause or stop playback. You should also provide warnings and ways to opt out of content that may trigger adverse reactions like seizures or migraines.

Related: Why Autoplay Is an Accessibility No-No  

    3. Content That Doesn't Zoom Properly

For some neurodivergent users, scaling (or “zooming") text is a convenient way to minimize distractions while reading. Unfortunately, many websites aren't designed with this functionality in mind, resulting in improperly displayed content when zoomed.

When designing a website, ensure that text can be resized without assistive technology up to 200%. All content and functionality should be present when the page is zoomed.

Related: Give Yourself an Accessibility Test: Zoom Your Page to 200%

Making the Internet Accessible to Everyone

We've mentioned a few of the most common accessibility barriers for neurodivergent people, but dozens of other issues can affect online experiences.

By meeting the Level A/AA guidelines of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), you can provide a better experience for a neurodiverse audience — and provide a better experience for all users, including individuals who don’t have disabilities.

To learn more, get started with a free automated accessibility analysis or download our eBook: The Ultimate Guide to Web Accessibility

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