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

Jan 23, 2023

“Cognitive disabilities" refers to a range of conditions that change different aspects of cognition. That includes conditions that affect memory, learning, communication, emotional regulation, and concentration. 

The scope of cognitive disabilities is wide and includes everything from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to the long-term effects of COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 10.8 percent of U.S. adults have serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions — and those people often 

Below, we’ll explain how web design decisions can impact people with cognitive disabilities. 

First, a quick (but important) note: The term cognitive disabilities may imply that people are less capable than people without cognitive conditions — this isn’t always true. 

In this article, we’re using common terminology (including the term cognitive disabilities) to discuss digital accessibility. However, terms like neurocognitive differences and neurodiversity more accurately describe the different ways that people perceive and process information.

Cognitive Conditions and the Internet: How Web Design Creates Barriers

When people think about digital accessibility, they often focus on two groups: People with low vision and the Deaf community. 

If you’re building a website for everyone, you certainly can’t afford to ignore these people — you need to make sure that your content works well with screen readers (software that converts text to audio or braille), that you’re providing captions and transcripts for videos, and that your website doesn’t lock out users based on their sensory abilities.

However, web accessibility isn’t only for people who are blind or deaf. You’ll also need to consider users with ADHD, autism, memory impairments, stress disorders, and other conditions. 

That can seem overwhelming, particularly if you’re new to the concepts of digital accessibility. Every design decision may introduce barriers for your users. For example: 

  • Flashing or blinking images may distract people with attention disorders. In some situations, flashing content can also trigger seizures or other reactions for people with photosensitivity.

  • Some users may ignore your website’s cascading style sheets (CSS) to change the appearance of text. If you don’t follow the best practices of web design, your text may block other content or become unreadable when resized.

  • Some people with attention disorders zoom in on text to limit distractions. If your content can’t scale to 200% or more without losing functionality, the user experience suffers.

  • Some people browse with images disabled. Without accurate alternative text (also called alt text), these users may not understand the purpose or function of your website’s images.

You can avoid all of these issues — and dozens of others — by following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG provides simple guidance for creating content that works for a wide variety of users.

Related: How to Make Your Website More Accessible for People with ADHD

Think about users with cognitive differences when designing your content

Every organization has a responsibility to consider the needs, preferences, and expectations of its users. Most businesses also have a legal obligation: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other non-discrimination laws require accessible digital products.

WCAG provides a framework for designing inclusive content. Some tips for using WCAG effectively:

  • Start thinking about accessibility during the first stages of the design process. Consider creating user experience (UX) personas, which should include personas with neurocognitive differences and other conditions that affect their browsing behavior.

  • Set a clear goal. Most organizations should aim for Level AA conformance with the latest version of WCAG; read more about WCAG conformance levels.

  • Test your content regularly. Most organizations should perform accessibility audits every few months, but you may need more frequent testing if you have complex or dynamic content.

  • Don’t assign all of the work to a single person. Digital accessibility should be a team effort, and every member of your organization can play a role.

To start building your accessibility initiative, send us a message to connect with a subject matter expert or download our free eBook: Developing the Accessibility Mindset.

Use our free Website Accessibility Checker to scan your site for ADA and WCAG compliance.

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