Web Accessibility for People with Cognitive Disabilities

Much of the work in the web accessibility space has been centered around visual disabilities and blindness, but an important demographic has been largely neglected.


Web accessibility for cognitive disabilities is often neglected and yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 10% of U.S. adults have a cognitive disability with significant difficulties in concentration, memory, and decision-making.

Cognitive impairments are often the least understood of all disability categories but this statistic highlights the urgent need to prioritize cognitive accessibility in website design and development.

What Are Cognitive Disabilities?

Definitions and diagnostic criteria for different types of cognitive disabilities have changed over time and the term “cognitive disability” can include a range of conditions. Cognitive disability examples include conditions such as Down syndrome, traumatic brain injury, dementia, and intellectual (learning) disabilities.

Cognitive disabilities can impact individuals differently and to varying degrees. While two people may have the same diagnosis, they may have different levels of impairment and experience varying challenges in processing information. In many ways, it can be more beneficial to prioritize individual user needs rather than diagnoses when addressing web accessibility for individuals with cognitive disabilities.

Here is a list of some of the most common cognitive disabilities:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): A disorder characterized by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): A developmental disorder that affects social communication, behavior, and sensory processing.
  • Dyslexia: A learning disorder that affects a person's reading, writing, and spelling ability.
  • Intellectual Disability (ID): One of the defining features of Intellectual Disability (ID) is the presence of substantial deficits in both intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior.
  • Memory Impairment: A condition that affects a person's ability to remember information, events, and experiences.
  • Cognitive Processing Disorder: A condition that affects a person's ability to process information efficiently.

What Barriers to Digital Accessibility Do People with Cognitive Disabilities Face?

Navigating the internet can be a challenging experience for many of us, but for individuals with cognitive disabilities, it can be especially difficult. It's important to understand the unique struggles users may face when accessing digital content.

Cognitive accessibility definitions are far-reaching and a major challenge when considering web accessibility for users is the diversity of abilities and experiences among individuals. With such a complex issue, a one-size-all approach to cognitive accessibility will not suffice. For example, some individuals may have difficulty processing large amounts of information or may struggle with abstract concepts. Others may experience difficulties with navigation and may require clear and concise instructions.

Here are some examples of how cognitive disabilities can impact web use:

  • Difficulty with memory: People with cognitive disabilities may have difficulty remembering information they have seen on a web page, such as instructions or key details. This can make it challenging for them to complete tasks or navigate to different pages.
  • Attention deficits: People with attention deficits, such as those with ADHD, may struggle to maintain focus on a web page and may become distracted easily. This can make it difficult for them to complete tasks or follow along with content.
  • Processing information: People with cognitive disabilities may have difficulty processing and understanding digital content presented on a web page. This can make it challenging for them to follow instructions, understand the purpose of the page, or identify key information.
  • Difficulty with navigation: People with cognitive disabilities may have difficulty navigating web pages and finding the information they need. This can be due to difficulty with spatial orientation, understanding links and buttons, or other factors.
  • Sensory processing issues: Some people with cognitive disabilities may have sensory processing issues, such as sensitivity to bright colors or flashing lights. This can make it challenging for them to use web pages with certain design elements.

It's important to recognize that these cognitive disabilities are not mutually exclusive and can overlap; a person with an intellectual disability or an acquired brain injury may experience some level of impairment in all these areas.

When designing digital content for cognitive accessibility, consider how these different areas of cognitive function interact with each other and how they may impact the user's ability to access your website. By understanding these overlaps, web designers and developers can create more effective solutions that address the specific needs of individuals with cognitive disabilities.

H2: Understanding the Role of WCAG in Cognitive Accessibility

Making content accessible for people with cognitive disabilities is not an arbitrary action. Following web accessibility guidelines such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) can help ensure that digital content is accessible to people with cognitive disabilities. So, how does WCAG contribute to improving web accessibility for individuals with cognitive disabilities?

There are three levels of WCAG compliance: A, AA, and AAA, where each level adds more detailed accessibility requirements, building upon the previous one.

Level A compliance includes the most basic requirements for accessibility, such as providing alternative text for images and ensuring that all content is understandable when presented in different ways.

Level AA compliance includes additional requirements, such as providing captions and audio descriptions for videos, making sure that the content can be navigated using a keyboard, and using clear and simple language.

Level AAA compliance includes the highest level of requirements, such as providing sign language interpretation for videos and ensuring that the content can be understood by individuals with different cognitive abilities.

It should be highlighted that, while WCAG was not designed exclusively for cognitive disabilities, it does acknowledge that it provides some level of accommodation for individuals with cognitive limitations and learning disabilities. However, with the release of WCAG 2.1 and 2.2, more specific success criteria have been introduced or upgraded to better address different user needs.

6 Tips for Designing for Cognitive Disabilities

Designing for cognitive disabilities is a critical aspect of web accessibility. The design elements used in a website or app can have a significant impact on the ability of users with cognitive disabilities to understand, navigate and engage with the content. Creating online user experiences that are inclusive of individuals with cognitive disabilities should be a top priority for web designers and developers. Here are 6 ways to design digital content for cognitive accessibility:

  1. Use clear and simple language: WCAG guidelines require that content is written in clear and simple language. This can benefit people with cognitive disabilities who may have difficulty understanding complex instructions. Avoid using jargon, acronyms, and complicated terms. Instead, use plain language that is easy to understand.
  1. Provide consistent navigation: Websites that comply with WCAG guidelines are designed to be easy to navigate. This can improve the user experience for people who may struggle with complex navigation. Use clear headings and subheadings to help users navigate your website. Make sure that navigation menus are consistent across all pages and that links are simple and descriptive.
  1. Keep design simple: WCAG guidelines require that content is clear and devoid of cluttered and complex designs. Use a clean and simple layout with plenty of white space. This will make it easier for users to focus on the content and avoid distractions.
  1. Consistent design: Websites that comply with WCAG guidelines use consistent design and formatting, which can benefit people with cognitive disabilities who may have difficulty processing information that is presented in different ways.
  1. Provide alternative formats: Provide alternative formats for content such as audio or video recordings, as well as text formats such as PDF or HTML. This will allow users to access the content in a format that works best for them. Avoid pop-up ads to prevent cognitive overload and support a distraction-free user experience.
  1. Test with users: Test your website or digital content with users who have cognitive disabilities. This will help you identify any barriers or challenges and make improvements to ensure that the content is accessible to all users.

How Assistive Technology Can Improve Web Accessibility for Cognitive Disabilities

Assistive Technology refers to any device or tool that helps individuals with disabilities perform tasks that they would otherwise find challenging or impossible. These tools play a huge role in supporting people with cognitive disabilities. Here are a few examples:

  • Screen readers: Screen readers are software programs that read the text on a screen aloud. They can help individuals who have difficulty reading or comprehending written text.
  • Text-to-speech software: This software converts written text into spoken words. It can be particularly helpful for individuals with difficulty reading or visual impairments.
  • Speech recognition software: This software allows users to control their computer or device using voice commands. It can be particularly helpful for individuals who have limited mobility or who have difficulty using a mouse or keyboard.
  • Word prediction software: This software can help individuals who struggle with spelling and typing. It suggests words as the user types, making it easier to write and communicate.
  • Graphic organizers and mind-mapping tools: These are tools that can help individuals with cognitive disabilities organize their thoughts and ideas. They can also be useful for people who struggle with memory or attention.
  • Simplified web browsers: Simplified web browsers can provide a more user-friendly interface for individuals with cognitive disabilities. These browsers often have fewer options and simpler navigation menus, which can make it easier for individuals to find and access the content they need.
  • Cognitive support software: This software provides various types of support for individuals with cognitive disabilities, such as tools for organizing information or remembering tasks.

Creating an inclusive digital environment by implementing assistive technology not only improves accessibility for users with disabilities but also boosts the user experience for all website visitors. So what does the future hold in web accessibility for people with cognitive disabilities? 

Long Road Ahead: Building Cognitive Accessibility in the Digital World

While tools and guidelines are available to provide support for different types of cognitive disabilities, many websites remain inaccessible to people with cognitive disabilities. Although progress has been made, many challenges still need to be addressed to build and design for cognitive accessibility in the digital world. The good news is that different pockets of society are actively working towards digital inclusion for people with cognitive disabilities. These efforts will contribute to making web content user-friendly, inclusive and easy to navigate for everyone, regardless of cognitive disabilities. By prioritizing cognitive accessibility in the design and development of digital assets, it is possible to start on a journey to creating barrier-free user experiences for all.

Top 5 Accessibility