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Common Challenges Using the Web with a Cognitive Disability

Most people equate website accessibility with users who have physical impairments such as vision, mobility, or hearing difficulties. However, there is a large segment of the population, including over 14 million Americans with a mental disability, who also encounter challenges when using the Internet.

For someone who is creating websites, it is difficult to know how to address the needs of this population since there is not a lot of specific guidance available and because the spectrum of cognitive disabilities is very large. One of the best ways to start thinking about accessibility for users with cognitive disabilities is to gain perspective into how they are using the web. After reading this, you should have a sense of their experience, know common challenges, and to incorporate empathy into your overall web design.

People with cognitive disabilities have common challenges with using the web based on their functional needs. There is a wide range of cognitive disabilities so designing based on disorder would not be effective. In general, the simpler and clearer a website is, the easier it will be for someone with a cognitive disability to use the website.

Challenge 1. Confusing Forms

There are many steps involved to successfully entering information on a website. You must interpret the requirements of the fields correctly, successfully enter data, pass any security measures, and finally, submit the form. People with cognitive disabilities often struggle to completely fill out forms. There are a few design reasons for this.

  1. Poor Instructions. If the instructions are present only at the top of the form or not present at all, someone with a cognitive disability may forget how to fill out their information.

  2. Unnecessary Information. We tend to over collect and underutilize data. People with disabilities can get overwhelmed by all of the information required and may even fail to understand why certain fields are required.

  3. Confusing Security Authentication. Security authentications are problematic for many disabilities. They are not consistent across websites and their successful use is dependent on the user understanding complex challenges.

  4. Failed Confirmation. When a form does not have a visible and clear ‘submission complete’ screen, a user with or without a cognitive disability may question if the form has been successfully submitted. This gets especially confusing for someone with cognitive delays who needs to know if their information was submitted.

    Challenge 2. Complicated Navigation Menus and Buttons

    Navigational menus are critical to using a website. These menus provide a sense of organization to the website and access to subpages. The navigation menu should include a lot of clear information in a small amount of space. The architecture of the website should be obvious to the user. The less that someone has to figure out on their own, the easier your website will be to navigate. Navigation menus are especially problematic to users with cognitive disabilities when they have inferior design.

  5. No Site Map. A site map allows someone to see how all of the different resources relate to a specific topic When the site does not have a map, the user will have nowhere to go to see all of the information that exists within the website. This can make it hard to develop a broader sense of the website because how the pages are linked or nested is not obvious to the user.
  6. Small Fonts and Purely Aesthetic Design Decisions. Even if the website meets WCAG 2.0 requirements, it might still be difficult to use for someone with a cognitive delay or impairment. A user might have issues if buttons are not clearly marked as buttons and if there is multiple sizes of font and they are some of them are too small to see.

    Challenge 3. Multimedia Content

    While some websites are composed primarily of text, other websites have expanded to include video, images, and infographics. Doing this increases the potential challenge of a user being able to digest information on the website if an alternative representation of the information is not made available. There are ways to use multimedia on your website that improves the experience for all users. Users might experience challenges with:

  7. Interactive Graphs and Statistics. Graphs and statistics should be static and have clear contrast in colors. When these resources are interactive or animated, it increases cognitive load and makes it harder to interpret the information presented. Provide a text description of what the graph shows visually since that may not be obvious to all users.

  8. Decorative Images. Images should only be used when they add something significant to the content. When decorative images are used it distracts from the main content of the website and can cause a user with cognitive disabilities to wonder why that image is there in the first place.
    The WCAG guidelines have enabled great strides to be made with regard to web accessibility. This is especially true for people with vision or hearing difficulties. Unfortunately, users with cognitive disabilities still have to work with websites that are difficult for them to use. Even if a website meets minimum compliance standards, it does not mean that the needs of those with common functional impairments are being met. Having empathy in design is critical for creating a website that can be a positive experience for everyone.