What comes to mind when you think about digital technology? Convenience, simplification, entertainment? All of the above and a whole lot more? Truthfully, it’s hard to imagine a world without digital tech holding our lives together. But for people with disabilities which impact vision, sound, speech, mobility, and thinking, it can seem like one big barrier. And technology can be particularly tough on people with cognitive disabilities, which relate to thinking.  

That said, the need for web accessibility will only continue to grow. Cognitive disabilities account for 10% of the U.S. population, and people with a broad range of disabilities are the most significant global minority group. Like most of us, they rely on websites, apps, and mobile devices to succeed in life, school, and business. 

This article looks at ways to make digital tech more cognitively accessible, including some insightful tips. 

But first, let’s take a moment to consider what these fellow citizens go through daily. How does it affect their personal lives? What’s it like for them to use the web, something most of us take for granted? 

Website Pain Points We all Experience 

We all deal with similar difficulties at times, but for people with cognitive disabilities, these difficulties are harder to overcome and more intensive. Concentration, memory, and decision-making can be especially hard for some people. And for others, it can be tough to perceive numbers and printed words. So, a poorly designed website can be frustrating or impossible for people with these challenges. 

We’ve all experienced these website pain points:

  • Poor user-path navigation
  • Broken hyperlinks (404 errors)
  • Lack of color contrast between content and backgrounds
  • Unclear content formatting (weak or buried headlines and supporting copy)
  • Overly complex vocabulary 
  • Convoluted directions 
  • Missing video/audio captions

These are just a few things everyone encounters on websites, and it only takes one bad visit to sour someone permanently. A poor end-user experience is a turn-off for all people. But a site that doesn’t offer accessibility excludes people with disabilities, and that’s bad for business, legally unwise, and ethically unsound.

Below, we give a big picture of how these cognitive issues impact people to better understand how to accommodate them digitally. 

Cognitive Disabilities: The Various Types and Effects

What exactly is a cognitive disability? To begin with, there are two main categories for the types of cognitive impairment: 

  1. Short-Term Impairment: Effects short-term memory (STM), causing people to forget information they just received. Signs of STM loss include repeatedly asking the same question, recently misplacing items, and not recalling recent events.
  2. Cognitive Impairment (CI): This is often connected to critical illnesses that diminish higher mental functions such as memory, attention, calculation, language, orientation, and the rate of info processing. As a result, CI impacts people’s activity and social skills.

ADHD - Autism - Dyslexia

Below we describe the most common examples of cognitive disabilities:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

ADHD is common and typically diagnosed in childhood. But it can last into adulthood. ADHD may make it hard to pay attention and control impulses and cause a person to be overly active

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

    A person with ASD may act, communicate, engage, and learn differently than most other people. Yet, in many cases, their physical appearance doesn’t set them apart. Their abilities also vary considerably. For instance, one person with ASD may excel conversationally, and another may excel in nonverbal ways. Likewise, some need substantial daily support; others thrive with little to no help.

  • Dyslexia

    This common learning disorder affects reading, spelling, writing, and speaking skills. It can also negatively impact spatial and coordination skills. Fortunately, numerous assistive tech tools, including specialized fonts, can significantly improve the online user experience for people with this condition. 

It also helps to understand the terminology for cognitive disabilities to solve related issues (read below). 

Lingo Guide for Developers

Not everyone, including your dev team, can meet or engage with people with cognitive disabilities. The descriptions below summarize their challenges, which should help your team identify and fix digital accessibility issues.

  • Attention: sustained focus on the task at hand
  • Processing Speed: how fast the brain assimilates info
  • Short-Term Memory: temporary info retention 
  • Long-Term Memory: long-term info retention for subsequent use 
  • Logic & Reasoning: the ability to think, prioritize, and plan logically
  • Language Processing: recognition and comprehension of written and spoken words
  • Math Processing: recognition of numbers, symbols, and simple match calculation

Real-Life Example: You’re browsing online for a new guitar. You log on to an online music store using a fingerprint reader and notice a friend is texting you simultaneously. You find the guitar you want and make the purchase. 

What cognitive skills did you use? 

  • Attention: you stayed focused on buying the guitar even though your friend texted you.
  • Processing Speed: this online retailer had no time limitations, so you had time to read the info and make the right decision. 
  • Short-Term Memory: the website content was concise and easy to remember from top to bottom.
  • Logic & Reasoning: you shopped for multiple guitars and weighed the advantages/disadvantages of each one.
  • Language Processing: you recognized and understood the website’s written content and found the “buy” button to complete the transaction. The site also offered assistive tech that reads the content out loud.
  • Math Processing: you recognize the price and calculate if it’s in your budget.  

So, how can you help your company website support people with cognitive disabilities? The five tips below will point you in the right direction. 

5 Tips for Achieving Cognitive Accessibility

1. Provide Posts with Titles and Headings

Provide a distinctive title and heading structure so that users can easily navigate between sections and focus on what they’re reading. In addition, more elaborate, descriptive headings simplify the user experience for people with cognitive conditions. 

2. Provide Numerous Ways to Locate Content

Like most strategies that help people with various disabilities, this one improves the user experience for everyone. Always offer end users more than one way to find the content they want. See examples below:

  • Search bars to keyword search desired content 
  • Category pages with an easy user interface 
  • Post and link tags at the end of every blog or product page
  • Provide sequential search options for blogs and articles

3. Avoid Pop-Up Ads

Avoiding pop-ups is one sure way to prevent cognitive overload for people with mental-related disabilities. To help people with these cognitive problems, provide precise navigation, free of distractions, that naturally drives them to read your blogs, buy your products, etc.

4. Simplify Design and Navigation:

  • A responsive, single-column mobile design, viewable on all digital devices 
  • Highly readable fonts for all written content 
  • Alt image descriptions for people with vision-related disabilities 
  • Ample use of white space to avoid clutter in your site’s look and feel 
  • Keyboard navigation for people whose disability prevents them from using a mouse 

5. Summarize Content for Easier Comprehension 

Simplicity is essential to providing cognitive accessibility. Summarizing each webpage’s content helps convey your content messaging to people of all mental abilities. In addition, it’s a fast, easy way to provide the desired information in the most equitable way possible. 

Let’s Work Together On This

Digital accessibility improves tech for everyone, inspires participation, and spreads goodwill. It can also increase sales for e-Commerce platforms leading to greater profitability for the companies that own them. And let’s not forget the obvious legal implications of an inaccessible website. 

But this isn’t just a cautionary compliance tale or bottom-line business story. It’s about people with cognitive disabilities (and all disabilities) thriving in our digital world. Unfortunately, nearly the entire web is currently inaccessible to this crucial population. Yet numerous assistive technology tools are readily available to all-sized companies with nearly all-sized budgets. 

In any case, we can all support the cause. Whether it’s increasing web accessibility or self-educating for greater awareness, let’s work together to build a more just and equitable world for everyone. 

UserWay: Your Cognitive Accessibility, Compliance Solution

UserWay is committed to creating a more accessible digital world for people of all abilities. The UserWay Widget 4.0 offers a full suite of AI tools to help you achieve digital accessibility for people with disabilities, including those with cognitive impairments. This powerful technology also enables you to conform to ADA and WCAG compliance. 

An excellent place to start? Request a free trial right away!

Common FAQs

What Challenges do People with Cognitive Disabilities Face?

These conditions hinder communication skills, attentiveness, recall abilities, reasoning, and the ability to solve fundamental problems. In more severe cases, people with these conditions struggle to complete daily functions and identify people or material things. 

Are Cognitive Disabilities Curable?

Most of these disabilities aren’t diseases and, therefore, not curable. However, early prognosis and ongoing interventions can enhance adaptability from the formative to adult years. With continual support, people with cognitive disabilities can accomplish many endeavors. 

How do Cognitive and Intellectual Disabilities Differ?

Cognition describes the knowledge acquisition process, while intelligence describes the ability to comprehend concepts and information. Cognitive disabilities may include learning disabilities like dyslexia and ADHD—but these are not viewed as intellectual disabilities like Down Syndrome and autism.