Accessibility and cognitive challenges on the Web

Web accessibility for people with cognitive disabilities is an important and difficult issue. These users have very different abilities and needs, and taking all this into account is not a trivial matter! Nevertheless, there are principles and knowledge already available, that will help many more people to enjoy using the Web. I have collected some of this information in this article.

Story by: Morten Tollefsen - 11.01.2010

For many, Web site accessibility is all about screen readers for the blind [8]. Experience clearly shows that sites that are accessible for the blind also work well for the general population, but serious focus on Universal Design means of course that other user groups should be accommodated. The number of people with impaired cognitive function is actually greater than those with physical and / or sensory disabilities [1]. Yet there is little material on Web accessibility for people with impaired cognitive function [2], [8]. Results from an extensive literature review are presented in [3]. Valuable knowledge has been collected in at least three projects led by NR / Karde [5], [6] and [7].

In the KOGNETT project [6] guidelines will be drawn up for the development of Web sites which are appropriate for people with impaired cognitive abilities. In the project "Universal user competence" [13] one of the goals is to define the skills that are required of users to be able to use these sites.

What do we mean by reduced cognitive abilities?

Cognitive challenges include learning difficulties, reading and writing difficulties, difficulties with problem solving, concentration and attention problems, impaired orientation, etc. [4]. Cognitive challenges / disabilities are therefore a collective term for a variety of human conditions. Approximately 30% of workers have challenges related to reading and writing, concentration or memory [7].

Important principles

Much advice related to cognitive accessibility is about general good practice for design of user interfaces [8]. We find an example of this in [1] where the following main principles for cognitive accessibility are set up:

  • Simple
  • Consistent
  • Clear
  • Multi-modal
  • Error tolerant
  • Attention Focusing

Everyone will benefit from focusing on these principles. In [1] a check list is then given with seven main points:

1. Assistive technology compatibility

2. Consistency in navigation and user interface

3. Transformability (e.g. text size can be changed and the page is still readable)

4. Multi-modality (e.g. subtitling of videos, and graphics to give visual aid)

5. Focus and Structure (e.g. white spacing between different elements)

6. The use of simple language and good readability

7. Providing orientation (e.g. breadcrumbs) and intelligent error prevention/recovery

This checklist is a good tool. Many useful tips are also collected in [8].

Keep it short and simple (KISS)

"Don't make me think" Krug [10].

Simplicity is not just a trivial concept. What seems quite obvious to some people, may be incomprehensible to others. It can therefore be useful to define which assumptions a user must have to use a specific site [11]. One assumption may be, for example, that you can read. Language is important, and should be as simple as possible. Some important points in [8] include:

  • Use plain language in short, concise sentences. Line length should not exceed 70-80 characters
  • Provide shorter versions of content
  • Use graphics to enhance understanding
  • Start with the most important information
  • Include headings that are easy to understand

It may be appropriate to translate content to symbols on some sites. There is also an online service for English which translates automatically to symbols [12], but how helpful this service is for people with cognitive impairments may vary greatly.


If you can't find the way you are lost!

Easy navigation is an advantage for everyone! People think differently and work differently on the Web, and there aren't standards for navigation. Many recommendations, including WCAG 2.0 [9], give you the possibility to choose your navigation method: menu, search, site map etc. It is important that freedom of choice does not lead to increased complexity! In [8] we find the following points:

  • Standardize controls, features, and navigation within a website
  • Use short menus and clear labels and signs
  • Provide ways to backtrack or start again. The use of breadcrumbs can help.
  • Provide a site map
  • Provide feedback to let users know if they made the correct choice and help them get back on track when they make an error
  • Use larger size for clickable areas
  • Limit the number of options to avoid cognitive overload
  • Avoid simultaneous tasks

A little about freedom of choice

Allow user control of as many aspects of the website as possible [8].

It may be theoretically correct that users themselves decide most aspects with respect to appearance etc. And by using style sheets (CSS), it is possible to implement this to a large extent. The danger is that this can soon be very complicated for the users if there are lots of options: for fonts, font size, colour, line thickness on the grid of symbols, the spacing between sections, the location of the main menu etc. ... The number of "options" is almost infinite! There are no standards that enable these kinds of settings to be stored once and for all so that they work for all sites. As a result, each site has its own way to adapt the user interface. This is not beneficial for people with impaired cognitive abilities! It may therefore be better to make Web pages as simple as possible and offer a few ready-made layouts.

User Testing

User testing is always important when new products and services are being developed. The Web is of course no exception here, and for a Web site to be really good, representative users should be involved in the development process. This is also true for people with cognitive disabilities. Because of the large diversity in this group it will be of great benefit to use accessibility experts in the development of new sites.


1: Evaluating Cognitive Web Accessibility

2: Overview of Steppingstones Cognitive Research

3: Cognitive and Learning Disabilities Literature Review

4: IKT og kognitive utfordringer

5: DIADEM project

6: KOGNETT i et nøtteskall

7: UNIMOD - Universell Utforming i Multimodale Grensesnitt

8: Cognitive Disabilities and the Web: Where Accessibility and Usability Meet?

9: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

10: Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability.
Krug, S, Indianapolis, IN: New Riders

11: Designing for users with Cognitive Disabilities

12: Communicate: Webwide

13: Universal User Competence (UUC)

News archive