Digital Accessibility for Cognitive Disabled

In the area of ​​accessibility for digital systems, the focus is still primarily on the physically handicapped. There is a great need for action and research for this very large group. We know that deaf persons usually get along better when using videos with sign language. We also know that persons with intellectual disabilities benefit from plain language content. The fact that both are only made available to a limited extent today is another matter. However, we do not yet know exactly how to support persons with cognitive disabilities.

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What are cognitive disabilities?

Defining cognitive disabilities is difficult for many reasons. This is not only due to the fact that many of those affected would not describe themselves as disabled. Other terms like disorder, disability, or illness are even more fuzzy, so let's just take a look at what constitutes a cognitive disability.

A very rough distinction can be made between two forms of limitation: The physical or sensory disability restricts the sensory perception or mobility of the person concerned. Cognitive disability limits the person's ability to process information in the brain. In our context, it does not matter whether this limitation is congenital or acquired.

This area can include a whole range of diseases. Examples include certain forms of autism, dementia, attention disorders (ADHD), learning disorders or certain forms of mental illnesses such as anxiety disorders. Diseases typical of old age, such as dementia, are on the increase.

Of course, there are very different forms of disabilities, illnesses, disorders or however you want to call it. However, the results for human-computer interaction are quite similar. Here are some important aspects:

  • poor short and long term memory
  • low level of abstraction
  • limited linguistic-verbal or visual understanding
  • limited ability to deal with unforeseen events such as error messages
  • related difficulties in developing complex problem-solving strategies

Some solutions

Derived from these problem situations, a few solution approaches can be described.

A website needs to be thought from an outsider's point of view if it is to be truly user-friendly. An outsider is topic oriented and doesn't care how the company is structured unless they want to apply there or spy on it.

A website must be structured logically and consistently. Visitors always need to know where they are, how to get back and where to go next. Research shows that experienced users no longer use websites and their search engines, but always return to Google to find something on a particular website. It speaks for itself that this is much faster than finding something on the website itself.

There must be different ways of indexing the content. If you want to know how good a website is, try its search engine. How high quality are the results it throws out? Are the results weighted according to relevance or just listed without meaning. Is the snippet long enough to determine if a result is relevant or not? A sitemap often offers more clarity than navigation.

The texts must be shorter and easier to understand. Occasionally there are attempts for a citizen-friendly administrative language, but these usually do not go beyond pilot projects. Banks are not authorities at all, but seem to have discovered official language enriched with financial jargon for themselves.

Visualization is another piece of the puzzle, to conjure up more comprehensibility in texts. They are part of Easy Language and AAC. persons who have trouble understanding text often benefit from visual illustrations.


All users with and without disabilities benefit from these improvements. The attention of a mobile website user is less than with a desktop device, he has less overview and therefore benefits from a simple page structure. Well-done visualizations help visually oriented users.

Visually impaired and blind persons have to memorize the page structure because they can never completely overview a whole web page. In other words, we are all affected by cognitive disabilities from time to time. All users benefit from improvements that benefit the cognitively disabled.

There is still a great need for research. For example, the W3C Accessibility Initiative launched a task force on this topic. Dementia diseases in particular are expected to increase due to demographic change. Therefore, it is desirable that we gain clearer insights on the subject.

In the meantime, there are recommendations from the W3C for the cognitively disabled. It is still a working draft, but it should be passed essentially unchanged. Many of the recommendations correspond to the requirements for usability and user-oriented design, so that we hardly have to remember new requirements.

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