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Last modified November 29, 2011 at 10:18 PM

Those WCAG Forgot: Designing for the Cognitively Disabled

Allie Richardson
The World Wide Web Consortium promises that the WCAG 2.0 guidelines “will make content accessible to a wider range of people” and “work together to provide guidance on how to create more accessible content (Caldwell et al.)” and in some ways this is true. WCAG 2.0 does make the web accessible to a wider range of people. It also provides guidance on how to make the web more accessible for people with cognitive disabilities; but it is just that, merely Priority AAA guidance. But the required success criteria are primarily designated for individuals with sight, hearing, and motor impairments, while those for cognitive impairment typically remain priority AAA criteria that may or may not be implemented.

1. WCAG 2.0 Background

            The World Wide Web Consortium defined ‘web accessibility’ as “the practice of making websites useable by people of all abilities.” More specifically, it means that any person with a disability can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the web and can contribute to the web (Caldwell et al.). Web accessibility encompasses all disabilities that affect a person’s access to the web including visual, auditory, motor, speech, cognitive, and neurological. The World Wide Web Consortium created the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to aid web developers in making their technology more available to people with disabilities.

The current guidelines, WCAG 2.0, were published in December of 2008. They contain four main principles; a website must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.  Under each principle is a set of guidelines, 12 guidelines in all. Under each guideline is a set of success criteria. The success criteria are ranked on a priority scale, Priority one (priority A) which a web developer must adhere to, Priority two (priority AA) which a web developer should adhere to, and Priority three (priority AAA) which a web developer may adhere to if they so choose. WCAG contains sixty-one very specific success criteria all together, twenty-five of which are Priority A (Caldwell et al.).

2. The Problem with WCAG 2.0

            Despite having sixty-one requirements, twenty-five of which must be satisfied, WCAG 2.0 lacks adequate provisions for users with cognitive disabilities and learning difficulties. The World Wide Web Consortium claims in the abstract to WCAG 2.0:

Following these guidelines will make content accessible to a wider range of people with disabilities including blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, learning disabilities, cognitive limitations, limited movement, speech disabilities, and photosensitivity (my emphasis) (Caldwell et al.).

This is not strictly true, however.  Five sections later in the same document it states:

Note that even content that conforms at the highest level (AAA) will not be accessible to individuals with all types, degrees, or combinations of disability, particularly in the cognitive language and learning areas (Caldwell et al.).

Of those twenty-five required Priority A success criteria, only five of them pertain solely to cognitive disabilities. Another four may serve the dual purpose of aiding sight, hearing, or motor impaired users along with cognitively disabled users. Most of the success criteria pertaining to cognitive disabilities are placed at Priority AAA.

For example, Criterion 1.4.1, which is Priority A and must be adhered to, requires that color is not used as the only visual means of conveying information, indicating an action, prompting a response, or distinguishing a visual element, which aids users with visual disabilities such as color blindness. Whereas Criterion 1.4.8., which suggests that visual presentations not be justified and are modifiable in size, color, width, and spacing, all of which would be very helpful to someone with a cognitive disability, is only a Priority AAA criterion and can essentially be ignored (Caldwell et al.).

Not only is their insufficient Priority A success criteria for accommodating users with cognitive disabilities, some Priority A criteria may actually be detrimental to them. Success Criterion 3.3.1 is Priority A and covers error identification: If an input error is automatically detected, the item that is in error is identified and the error is described to the user in text (Caldwell et al.). Many people with cognitive disabilities have difficulty deciphering text by itself, especially if the text contains abbreviations or jargon. Therefore, relying on text alone to understand and correct an error may be extremely frustrating or impossible. So it seems that the needs of a large disability group are slipping through the cracks.


3. Common Difficulties Encountered by the Cognitively Disabled

The U.S. department of Health and Human Services estimates that two to three percent of Americans experience some level of cognitive disability. This may seem insignificant but that is seven to eight million people in the United States who may not have adequate access to the web, including 614,000 school-aged children (U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services).

            The term ‘cognitive disability’ ranges from mild to severe impairments. It encompasses learning disabilities, such as attention deficit (hyperactive) disorder, dyslexia, and dyscalculia; brain injuries, such as stroke, tumors, or aphasia; genetic disorders, such as Down’s syndrome, autism and Asperger’s syndrome, and dementia; and mental retardation. An individual is considered to have mental retardation if his or her IQ score is 75 or lower and if he or she has significant limitations in two or more adaptive areas such as communication, home living ability, social skills, self-direction, and functional academics (U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services).

            Individuals with cognitive disabilities experience a wide variety of complications when accessing the web. They often encounter trouble when viewing a detailed display. Many of these individuals, especially those with learning disabilities, have short attention spans and become easily distracted by large or complex screen layouts (Jiwnani).

Several cognitively disabled people experience some form of short term memory loss. As a result, entering input, i.e. filling out a form, may be complicated. They may have trouble following sequential operations or have difficulty recalling steps in a process. Large sets of information can be overwhelming to someone with a cognitive disability and therefore they may have difficulty selecting from numerous choices (Jiwnani).

            Cognitively disabled individuals often experience confusion while deciphering large amounts of text. Consequently, they may have problems navigating a site that relies heavily on text labels alone. These individuals often need a contextual framework to guide their understanding. As a result, buttons or controls that perform more than one function are extremely problematic for their comprehension.

They also may experience difficulty understanding forms of auditory output. Background noises may be distracting and prevent them from effectively hearing. Many have difficulty retaining information that is presented rapidly or is unrepeatable. Timed instructions or responses can cause extreme anxiety in a person with a cognitive disability. They often do not have enough time to process what is expected of them before being forced to move on (Jiwnani).


 4. Designing for the Cognitively Disabled

            Web users with cognitive disabilities encounter many problems that differ from those of a person with any other disability. Therefore, these unique issues require a specific set of design standards. Content, navigation, site design, and user input each have their own concerns and corrections.


4.1 Typography

            Typography is one of the most overlooked design elements. Success criterion 1.4.8 is the only WCAG guideline that comes close and it deals only with line spacing and text justification. The actual letters themselves, however, can pose issues for a cognitively disabled user.

            The minimum recommended text size is 12-point font.  Printable materials should always be available at this size. Some users may have difficulty reading 12-point, so text should be easily enlargeable.  Sans-serif font styles are most often easier for the cognitively disabled to read, especially dyslexic users. Commonly used font styles are Arial, Verdana, Helvetica, Tahoma, and Trebuchet. The “tails” of serif fonts, like Times New Roman, can cause the letters to appear to run together, making them extremely difficult to read. It is important to note that not all cognitively disabled users have trouble with serif fonts if given enough character and line space (Millon 147). Inserting 0.5 to one point of space between characters and double spacing lines can make serif fonts more manageable.

            Avoid using capitalization to emphasize portions of text. Extensive capitalized sections are difficult to read (and not just for disabled users). Capitalized words also give the impression of shouting or reprimanding, which can be unsettling for users with autism or Asperger’s syndrome (Millon 148).

Moving or blinking words should also be avoided as well. It creates a severe problem because the text does not stay still long enough for a user to focus on the message, making understanding nearly impossible. Italicized words are also difficult to read (Millon 147). The slanting causes the letters to look run together, especially with serif fonts.

            Blocks of text should always be left justified with the right side left ragged. Justifying text so that both margins are smooth causes awkward spacing between words and leads to what page designers call “rivers of white.” These patterns of white space can be difficult to ignore, consequently distracting readers and making comprehension tricky (Millon 150).


4.2 Navigation

            Cognitively disabled people sometimes have problems navigating a website. Short term memory problems are common and can cause them to forget where they were headed and how they got to where they are currently. They may also have difficulty deciphering where the information they need might be located due to a vast amount of potential choices, lack of advanced reading skills, or insufficient problem solving skills. The solution: make navigation as simple as possible.

            Remove the need for advanced reading and writing skills in browsing by using graphic representations of navigation labels and headings in addition to textual cues. Navigational labels and page titles should be clear and descriptive of their content. A web page should also be labeled as similarly as possible to its navigational link. This connects the two and enforces that the user ended up where they thought they would (Krug 73).

            In addition to similar labels, navigational feedback such as breadcrumbs can provide ongoing confirmation of the user’s location and navigational choices. Provide easy ways to navigate backward or start over completely if the user does happen to make an incorrect choice. This helps eliminate anxiety over failure. Multi-sensory feedback, simple tones for positive choices or errors and color coded alert messages, can help users with severely compromised understanding navigate a site (Hudson, Weakley, and Firminger). Alert messages should stay on the screen until they are dismissed manually.

            Some cognitively disabled users encounter spatial orientation difficulty.  As a result they may have difficultly using a mouse pointer as effectively as necessary. Increasing the clickable area size around links can help make navigating with a mouse easier (Hudson, Weakley, and Firminger).

Allow for multiple routes to access information. A cognitively impaired user may not remember how to navigate back to specific information, especially if the journey involved multiple steps. Provide a search technique that is easy to find and use to enable users to locate information without involving complex thought processes (Krug 67). 

            Divide navigation components into small, easily digestible, related groups. This greatly decreases the number of choices a user has to consider at one time. ‘Side by side’ navigation is considered universally best for accessibility. It shows the hierarchical relationships between categories and shows the user the path they followed. Consistent positioning of navigational elements can also aid the user’s memory by grounding them in a solid context (Hudson, Weakley, and Firminger).


4.3 Written Content

            Many members of the cognitively disabled community have limited reading and writing ability. As a result, they have difficulty decoding text quickly. Since the majority of information presented on a web page is text based, it is particularly important to attend to text content when designing for those with cognitive disabilities.

            Written sections should be highly organized and mechanically correct. They should contain precise and meaningful headings. Spelling and grammar mistakes should be avoided at all costs. These kinds of simple errors can degrade the clarity of written work quite quickly.

Use the ‘inverted pyramid’ style of writing. Start with a summary of the most important information at the top of each paragraph.  This is good for readers who get distracted easily while trying to read extensive spans of text, like someone with ADHD (Hudson, Weakley, and Firminger).

            Present information in small chunks with one idea per paragraph. This gives the user time to process the information thoroughly before moving on to something new. Related information should be put into lists rather than prose. This eliminates unnecessary reading that can further complicate complex associations (Hudson, Weakley, and Firminger).

             People rarely read a web page. Instead, they scan for keywords related to their topic of interest. In this interest, keep spans of text as short as possible.  Line length should not exceed seventy to eighty characters (Krug 178).

            Some cognitively disabled users experience severely compromised literacy levels. As a result, the reading level of written text should not exceed the equivalent of six years of schooling. Implementing mouse over or clickable highlighting or underlining of text, paragraphs, or rows in a table, may also aid users who have problems reading due to difficulty negotiating lines of text (Hudson, Weakley, and Firminger).

            Eliminate confusing jargon wherever possible. Provide in-line definitions or explanations for technical terms, abbreviations, or acronyms if introducing them cannot be avoided. A glossary of terms may also be beneficial, especially if inserting a definition in-line would degrade the clarity of the prose.

            Some metaphors or colloquialisms have connotations that differ from their actual meaning. Individuals affected with autism or Asperger’s syndrome have particular difficultly understanding figures of speech. They have a tendency to focus on the literal meaning of a phrase, rather than its intended meaning. A phrase such as “It’s raining cats and dogs” can therefore be confusing. The literal text makes no sense in the context. Domestic animals have nothing to do with precipitation. Providing alternatives can help eliminate some of this confusion (Hudson, Weakley, and Firminger).


4.4 Site Presentation

            Complex or intricate site presentations can be cognitively overloading. Clutter can be overwhelming and divert the user from the content on the page. Design with simplicity in mind.  Display important information prominently to draw the user’s eye away from distracting details (Krug 38).

            Stay away from using patterned or textured backgrounds. Text is harder to read against these types of surroundings. Stick to plain colors with a high contrast to the text color (Millon 150).

Some designs may be more functional or comfortable for one user than another. Allow the user to alter the background color, an off-white background can sometimes be easier to read text against than white; the contrast, some individuals prefer a higher contrast than others; invert the text and background color, some users prefer white text on a black background; or make other design-oriented changes (Millon 150). Provide the option of viewing content on a text-only browser if the user functions better with no site design at all. Again, however, limit the number of available choices. Too many choices can be just as problematic as not enough (Jiwnani). 


4.5 User Input

            Web input is becoming more and more prominent as the internet evolves. Due to their sequential nature, online forms can be challenging for cognitively impaired users. When designing forms, create fields designed for short, simple data entry. Small increments help users to stay focused on the task at hand (Jiwnani). If complex data entry is necessary, use pictographic symbols in addition to text to help users construct answers.

            Cue actions required from the user. They may have difficulty reading and following the steps themselves, especially if there are several. Whenever possible, display and vocalize directions. Allow the user to repeat directions if necessary (Jiwnani).

            Avoid applications whose text appears when the mouse cursor touches an area of the screen and disappears when the mouse moves away. This can be disorienting if information is continually vanishing when they need it. It can be especially troublesome if directions are presented in this manner because some cognitively disabled users may need to read the directions multiple times as they perform the action. They cannot do this if the instructions are gone as soon as they move the mouse (Jiwnani).

            In the case of forms, there is a high chance of input errors. Include a spell checking technology of some sort to correct simple errors before moving on. In the event of an error, provide prompts to inform the user about the source of a problem and guide them step by step through actions to correct the issue. Ideally this should take place as the user is inputting information so they do not have to navigate backward and risk losing their place (Jiwnani).

            Changes in a site’s appearance can be disconcerting to a user, particularly when they are unaware that the change will take place until after it has already occurred. If the user clicks on something and suddenly the page looks drastically different from the page they just came from, they will often automatically assume they did something incorrectly and try to start over in an attempt to correct the error. For that reason, any activation of a control that can initiate a change in the context of a site should be signaled with a textual and/or pictorial alert and possibly an auditory cue (Jiwnani).   This will let the user know that something will change when they follow through with their action and allow them to adjust accordingly.


5. Conclusion

            Cognitive disabilities give rise to problems that differ drastically from those of the visually, auditory, or motor impaired. Difficulty remembering sequences, deciphering text, understanding social cues, and following complex thought processes can make using the web a tedious and frustrating process. Many websites are not built to accommodate these types of issues. As a result, many cognitively disabled people cannot participate to the fullest extent in everything the web has to offer. Often they are shut out completely.

            These individuals require content be catered specifically to their needs. The World Wide Web Consortium promises that the WCAG 2.0 guidelines “will make content accessible to a wider range of people” and “work together to provide guidance on how to create more accessible content (Caldwell et al.)” and in some ways this is true. WCAG 2.0 does make the web accessible to a wider range of people. It also provides guidance on how to make the web more accessible for people with cognitive disabilities; but it is just that, merely Priority AAA guidance. In fact “it is not recommended that level AAA conformance be required (Caldwell et al.).” The required success criteria are primarily designated for individuals with sight, hearing, and motor impairments, while those for cognitive impairment typically remain priority AAA criteria that may or may not be implemented.

            Designing websites to accommodate the cognitively impaired may look challenging and time consuming, but many of the modifications, increased line space, adjustable page design, and consistent navigation etc., are common courtesies that should be afforded to all websites regardless of their accessibility intentions. If implemented correctly, these design adaptations will not only benefit cognitively disabled users, but the general web browsing public as a whole.
















Works Cited

Caldwell, Ben, et al., ed. “Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0.” W3C. 11 Dec. 2008 Web. Nov. 2010.

Hudson, Roger, Russ Weakley, and Peter Firminger. “An Accessibility Frontier: Cognitive disabilities and learning difficulties.” Web Usability, 2004. Web. Nov. 2010.

Jiwnani, Kanta. “Designing for users with Cognitive Disabilities.” Universal Usability in Practice. The University of Maryland, 2001. Web. Nov 2010.

Krug, Steve. Don’t Make Me Think! A Common Sense Approach to Web Design. New York, New York: New Riders, 2006. Print.

Millon, Marc. Creative Content for the Web. Exeter, England: Intellect Books, 1999. Print.


Allie Richardson
Last modified November 29, 2011 at 10:18 PM

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