Designing Websites with Consideration for People with Cognitive Impairments and Learning Difficulties: Researching Some Solutions

Today is Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Day. I learnt something today while frying some pancakes at tea-time; bananas do not fry. They melt, then melt some more and end up a big pile of goop.

Something I have been learning on a more long-term basis is how to design websites while considering people with cognitive impairments and learning difficulties, an aspect of Web accessibility that designers seem to forget about sometimes. Recently, I have been on the look out for more resources on this topic. Here are a few things I have found.

There have been some notable articles and discussions over the past couple of weeks, which I have found insightful. At the end of January, Gez Lemon posted an overview of a recent article published by Web Usability called “An Accessibility Frontier: Cognitive disabilities and learning difficulties” (by Roger Hudson, Russ Weakley and Peter Firminger). It provides some useful advice and examples, but should not be used as definitive solutions. I don’t think there are any definitive solutions.

While researching, I have found something that I have not seen publicised very much, possibly because it may be a little old now. Mencap (the leading UK charity working with and for people with a learning disability) have a publication called “Am I making myself clear?” (first printed in 2000 and last reprinted in 2002), which gives some advice about how to write with consideration for people with cognitive impairments and learning difficulties.

This guide is available from the Accessibility category of Mencap’s online publications library. It’s free from copyright and so is freely distributable. Mencap’s website is a little too dependent on JavaScript for my liking, so here is a direct link to the (rather large) download: “Am I making myself clear?” (PDF, 947 KB). Mencap have also published a guide to making websites easy to use for people with a learning disability called “Making your website accessible” (PDF, 81.7 KB).

I’ve noted that Mr Olsson and Mr Wellock are in the process of assembling a nice resource. I look forward to the release of this nearer the summer.

What I Have Learned So Far

There’s quite a lot you can do to make content more accessible and accommodate people with cognitive disabilities or learning difficulties. However, it is debatable whether or not such measures are always necessary. Writing content in the simplest language possible is a good start, but it may not always be appropriate to do so.

You can supplement paragraphs of text with an appropriate image. In my opinion, this is not something that should be forced. If an idea for a supporting photo or graphic comes to mind then fine, but otherwise, you might just be making things worse, not better! If you aim for one or two main points per paragraph, your content stands a better chance of being understood. The thing to remember is that such images are not decorative. They should have purpose and be part of the content, not displayed via CSS.

Similarly, information can be supported by audio or even video. However, facilitating understanding through such enhancements is not required in many situations and is often out of range for the majority of project budgets. Making video accessible for the Web is a minefield in itself, so I won’t go into that. I have my reservations about supplementary audio, but I will cover that in the second part of this article, “Thinking About More Advanced Solutions”.

Web accessibility can be strengthened through providing options. A variety of style-switcher methods can be used to give users the chance to configure a website to better suit their individual preferences. Offering a choice of font sizes, font types, colour combinations, layouts, etc through flexible use of CSS can help make your websites more accessible. But, to borrow a phrase used by Patrick H. Lauke, the onus is also on the user. In other words, the functionality offered by style-switchers can often be found as features in modern browsers and users should be able to familiarise themselves with their browser enough to make style-switchers redundant. There is more discussion along these lines on Accessify Forum.

Some Other Resources

Here are some other slightly older resources that I’ve used:

Where Now?

As yet, I haven’t really developed an approach to implementing the techniques discussed in these resources. However, I have taken the advice on board and have begun to pay more attention to such issues when building a site. Gradually, through trying out different techniques and assessing their effectiveness, making content easier to understand might come naturally.

I would like to get more of a “feel” for this. How do others view the techniques mentioned in these articles? Do any of you use a specific approach to accommodate users with cognitive disabilities?


3 Mar 2005

Also worth a mention is the Plain English Campaign and the free guides they publish on their website. One guide in particular gives some advice on building clear websites, but nothing particularly new for most designers.

I have also found some information at the Easy Info project. It’s not the most accessible of websites, but some of the information is helpful and the site seems to be kept up to date.

18 Apr 2005

Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about posting more on this. I’ve just been too busy to finish writing it up. It’s a complicated topic and I’m finding it quite difficult to research, but I hope to write more soon. In the meantime, WebAIM‘s information on Cognitive Disabilities is very useful. Also, Gez Lemon is a great thinker in this area and his posts make very interesting reading.

20 Oct 2006

I have fixed broken links and made minor updates to the text.

12 Apr 2007

Further fixes to broken links.