What Is Cognitive Accessibility?

October 7, 2021

The term “cognitive accessibility" refers to inclusive practices that remove barriers for people whose disabilities affect how they process information. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in 4 U.S. adults lives with some type of disability, and 10.8 percent of those people have a cognitive disability. 

Many of those people have trouble with remembering information, concentrating, or making decisions. Needless to say, cognitive accessibility is an important consideration for digital content creators.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide guidance for accommodating people with neurocognitive differences, intellectual disabilities, and other conditions. To make your content more accessible, you’ll need to make sure that your website conforms with WCAG and consider how your design decisions affect real-world users. 

Why Creators Should Prioritize Cognitive Accessibility 

Conditions like autism, dyslexia, and memory loss can profoundly affect the way that people use digital content. When accessibility isn’t a priority, people with cognitive differences may not be able to use a website as intended. For example:

  • Many websites require users to remember passwords and other information. If a user has memory impairments, they may not be able to complete processes comfortably.
  • Some people with neurocognitive differences may prefer to avoid videos, podcasts, or other non-text content. If a website fails to provide text alternatives, these users may look elsewhere.
  • Blinking pictures and other distracting elements can draw the user’s attention away from important information.
  • When forms have time limitations, some users may become confused or frustrated when the time limit elapses.

All organizations have an ethical responsibility to consider the experiences of real-world users. Many businesses also have a legal responsibility to create accessible content — the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination on basis of disability, and in lawsuits, courts have generally interpreted the ADA as applicable to websites and internet-connected applications.

And while legal compliance is important, organizations have many other reasons to create accessible content: When a site is accessible for people with cognitive differences, it may perform better in search rankings. Accessibility can improve customer retention and expand your audience.

Avoid Common Barriers That Affect People with Cognitive Disabilities

By prioritizing cognitive accessibility, your organization can reach more people — and WCAG provides an excellent framework for building effectively. WCAG success criteria follow four principles: Content should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.

Webmasters who understand these principles can avoid mistakes that affect people with cognitive disabilities. Here are several useful tactics. 

Write clear, concise content and avoid jargon

Complex writing may be necessary — but that’s rarely the case. By using basic terminology and simple language, you can create content that appeals to more of your readers. WCAG Success Criteria (SC) 3.1.5, “Reading Level,” recommends writing text at a lower secondary education level.

To meet that goal, clearly define any complex terms (such as industry-specific jargon). Consider offering a glossary if your content regularly uses these types of words and phrases. Break up content with headings, unordered lists, and media, where appropriate; if your text is “scannable,” users will be able to find the exact information they need without reading every word.

Read: Writing Clearer Content That Benefits Accessibility Expands Your Audience

Make your website predictable

People with conditions like Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and autism may have trouble navigating a website with distracting elements. Make sure your pages flow in a logical way. Hyperlinks should have clear, relevant text and should be visually distinct from other elements of your page.

Use pop-ups sparingly (or avoid them entirely). If the user encounters a pop-up, make sure they have clear controls for exiting the pop-up and returning to the page. 

Finally, be aware of how your design choices could distract or confuse your users. For example, flashing graphics may disorient visitors and prevent them from finding the information they need. Flashing graphics can also present a seizure risk: WCAG SC 2.3.2 requires web pages to avoid flashes that occur more than three times in any one-second period.

Avoid processes that rely on memory

Many people with cognitive disabilities have trouble remembering information from page to page. To accommodate these users, make sure your forms auto-fill information that the user has already provided (for example, a company’s employee login portal requires users to enter their name more than once). 

Rather than requiring users to remember passwords, consider using accessible authentication methods. Avoid using CAPTCHA tests that require users to complete puzzles or identify images. Finally, if your website uses time limits, provide users with clear information about those limits; allow them to turn off the timer wherever possible.

Read: 4 Principles for Designing Websites for Users with Memory Impairments

Provide options and help resources for people with disabilities

Your users should be able to access help resources without navigating complicated menus. Offer options; some people may prefer to address issues through an onsite chat dialog, while others might prefer reading text help resources or speaking with a real person. The Bureau of Internet Accessibility offers live 24/7 accessibility support, which can be useful for providing additional help resources to your visitors.

Websites should also offer a variety of ways to access content. If you publish a tutorial video, offer a descriptive text transcript. Make sure your users will be able to understand all of the information presented visibly. This also applies to content published on social media platforms. Remember, every website has users with disabilities, and by offering plenty of ways to access your content, you’ll reach a wider audience.

Read: Make Sure Your Website’s Help Resources Are Available And Accessible

WCAG Provides a Framework for Accessible Digital Content

Digital accessibility isn’t about serving the needs of one specific group of people. WCAG empowers content creators to make more useful websites for everyone — including people who don’t have disabilities that affect their browsing behavior. Cognitive accessibility should be considered within a larger conversation about digital accessibility. However, by understanding cognitive disabilities, you can make better decisions to create helpful, engaging content for all of your visitors. 

To learn more about cognitive accessibility, we recommend visiting the Web Accessibility Initiative’s (WAI) Cognitive Accessibility guide. WAI’s resources explain the various ways that accessibility barriers affect real people, which can be extremely helpful when developing your organization’s digital accessibility strategy.

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