The phrase “people with disabilities" is incredibly broad, which leads to some misconceptions about digital accessibility. Ideally, websites and mobile apps would work equally well for everyone — that includes people with hearing and vision disabilities, but also people with mobility limitations, situational disabilities, and cognitive disabilities.
According to the CDC, 10.9% of adults in the U.S. have a cognition disability with serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions. Cognitive disabilities encompass a broad range of conditions including intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorders, persistent mental illness, brain injury, stroke, Alzheimer's disease, and many other conditions.
Not all of those people use assistive technology to use computers and mobile devices. However, assistive technology for cognition (ATC) provides valuable aid to millions of people. By understanding how cognitive technologies work, we can build better content.
Defining Assistive Technology for Cognition
Assistive technology refers to any device or software that enables people to better understand and interact with their environment.
Once again, that’s a broad definition: ATC could refer to a simple browser plug-in that changes the user’s default fonts. It could also refer to speech recognition software, which is much much more complex technology.
Other common examples of ATC include:
- Word prediction software, which assists with the recall of required words to help improve grammar and sentence structure.
- Educational software designed to help those with cognitive limitations learn information. The software may present the information in a variety of formats optimized for people with specific types of cognitive limitations.
- Web browser “reader modes,” which strip away non-essential content to provide a simple, text-based presentation.
- Operating system “focus modes,” which temporarily disable notifications. Some may also add filters to change the device’s color contrast settings or disable certain apps.
- Screen magnifiers, which can limit distractions by allowing the user to focus on one paragraph of text at a time.
Cognitive disabilities affect people in profoundly different ways. As a developer or content creator, your job is to provide an equivalent experience to as many people as possible — regardless of whether they’re using ATC.
Developing Accessible Content for People with Cognitive Disabilities
If you have a website that receives a moderate amount of traffic, there’s a good chance that some of your visitors use assistive technology. Some people may disable the default CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) to use their preferred fonts and color settings. Others may disable multimedia or use a keyboard alone (without a mouse) to browse through your content.
To optimize the experience for all of these users, you’ll need to follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). WCAG is the international standard for digital accessibility for a reason: It’s a principle-based document, written to apply to all types of online media. That includes websites, mobile apps, and web documents.
Here are a few WCAG requirements that can improve experiences for ATC users:
- Write accurate alternative text. If an ATC user disables multimedia, the alternative text explains the purpose of missing images and other non-text content.
- Make sure your website has a responsive design. WCAG requires content to “reflow,” which means that the content matches the user’s viewport. This ensures that if the user changes the font or disables images, your website still appears in order.
- Give users a way to pause, extend, or cancel time limits. Many people with cognitive disabilities require more time to interact with web content, and strict time limits can be frustrating for these users.
- Make sure that your website can be controlled with a keyboard alone.
- Use color thoughtfully. Don’t use color alone to convey meaning, and make sure that your content follows WCAG’s requirements for color contrast.
- Provide consistent navigation mechanisms throughout your website. Make sure navigation tools appear in the same order from page to page.
This isn’t an exhaustive list — to provide the best possible experience, you’ll need to meet all of WCAG’s Level A/AA requirements. That’s an achievable goal, and it pays dividends: When content is accessible for people with disabilities, it works better for every user.
The Bureau of Internet Accessibility can help your business create a sustainable strategy for digital accessibility. To get started, test your website against WCAG Level AA with our free automated analysis or download our free eBook: The Ultimate Guide to Web Accessibility.