Why Cognitive Function Tests Create Accessibility Issues

December 10, 2021

Is your website accessible for people with cognitive disabilities? If not, you’re limiting your audience. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 26% of adults have some type of disability. Of that group, 10.8% of adults have cognitive conditions that affect their ability to concentrate, remember, or make decisions.

Every creator has a responsibility to adopt the best practices of digital accessibility, and the accessible design has substantial benefits. Unfortunately, many websites create accidental barriers for people with cognitive and learning disabilities. Cognitive function tests are an especially common (and frustrating) accessibility barrier. In this article, we’ll explain how cognitive function tests cause problems — and how avoiding them can improve your content.

What is a cognitive function test, and how can it affect people with disabilities?

In the context of digital accessibility, a cognitive function test refers to a task that requires a user to remember, manipulate, or transcribe information. Some people have conditions that make these tasks difficult or impossible.

Here are some examples of cognitive function tests: 

  • A login field requires a user to remember their username and password.
  • An authentication process requires users to identify images.
  • To access part of a website, a user needs to “prove they’re not a robot" by solving math problems.

When websites require users to complete these types of tasks without providing alternatives, the user experience can suffer. If you use a computer regularly, you’ve probably experienced some frustration as a result of a cognitive function test — you may have forgotten login credentials, or you weren’t able to accurately identify a word or image in an authentication test.

People with neurocognitive- and learning-related disabilities may encounter these frustrating situations frequently. Cognitive function tests can be especially difficult for users who have memory issues, perception-processing issues, dyslexia, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Fortunately, most websites can address this problem without sacrificing user security or privacy. 

Some cognitive function tests are essential, but webmasters can offer accommodations

Cognitive function tests are typically used as authentication mechanisms. If your site requires users to remember a password, you’re taking that step for a reason: You need to maintain secure access to private information, and login credentials are an extremely common solution. However, if you’re requiring users to complete certain tasks, make sure you’re offering them alternatives. 

Published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the consensus standard for digital accessibility. The guidelines address cognitive function tests under WCAG 2.1 Success Criterion (SC) 3.3.7, “Accessible Authentication,” which reads:

For each step in an authentication process that relies on a cognitive function test, at least one other authentication method is available that does not rely on a cognitive function test, or a mechanism is available to assist the user in completing the cognitive function test.

In other words, give people options. You don’t need to completely overhaul your website’s authentication processes, but you need to accommodate the real-world preferences of your users. 

Some tips to keep in mind:

  • Avoid introducing cognitive function tests if they’re unnecessary. 
  • Many people with cognitive conditions use password managers to automatically fill in login credentials. Make sure your website uses proper markup to allow password managers to complete this task.
  • Your users may store their login credentials in offline documents or password managers. Avoid blocking copy-and-paste functionality unless doing so is necessary for security. 
  • Consider offering alternative authentication and authorization methods. Web Authentication (WebAuthn) and Open Authorization (OAuth) are popular options.
  • CAPTCHAs (or Completely Automated Public Turing Tests) and CAPTCHA alternatives must be accessible for all users including people with hearing, vision, mobility, and neurocognitive disabilities.

For more detailed guidance and information about third-party authorization protocols, read our article: How To Make Your Website's Authentication Process Accessible.

By limiting cognitive function tests, you can reach a wider audience

From a business perspective, improving your website’s authentication process has obvious benefits. According to one survey performed by Beyond Identity, an authentication solution provider, 84% of consumers report experiencing “password fatigue" when creating accounts with online retailers. When authentication procedures are confusing or frustrating, user retention suffers. Websites that provide alternatives to cognitive function tests can grow their audiences more effectively.

And as we’ve pointed out on this blog, the best practices of accessibility improve the internet for everyone — not just people with specific disabilities. By designing with an accessible mindset and testing your content regularly, you can remove the barriers that affect your real-world users.

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