Modern Web Accessibility: Designing for Cognitive & Neurological Impairment

Modern Web Accessibility: Designing for Cognitive & Neurological Impairment

The Internet has been a significant factor to the technological progress and where we are today. It is associated with almost every one of us in one or other way. Do note, that it says almost. That’s because not everyone has equal access to the Web being plagued by barriers./

And this is where Web Accessibility comes into the picture. Web Accessibility helps to alleviate the scenario of diverging web access. But, how?

Web Accessibility – What and How

Before we dive into the process, let’s have a quick recap of what Web Accessibility stands for.

Web Accessibility means the right to access the web by every individual irrespective of their disability. That said, Web Accessibility is not just limited to the disability aspect but also diversity. The standard web designs make web access impossible for a certain section of society. A website is composed of text, images, and videos. In some cases, they could even have audio. However, most sites are designed with the standard user in mind who has no issues with their visual and cognitive ability. So, it’s a given that people with different abilities are bound to struggle in such a setup where their experience is limited because of their capabilities. Web Accessibility is the concept of web design that ensures that any content on the Internet is accessible and acknowledgeable by individuals with varying physical abilities and conditions.

The benefits of Web Accessibility are not just limited to the individual level, but also the society and businesses. Correct design and development of the web help to achieve the corresponding goals and gains.

To do that web design needs to address some issues. The issues that need addressing include:

Visual. Visual impairment includes color blindness, blindness, and poor eyesight. Visually impaired people struggle with the visual aspects of a website, i.e. color and context that contains videos and images. The sites should be developed in such a way that it enables support devices integration for site access. In the case of poor eyesight, the site can be made more accessible by the inclusion of magnifying tools to enlarge the site contents for the user. Color blinds will find the site to be more useful if the site makes use of underlines or bold letterings to highlight content and navigation cues while following a pattern for navigation. Also, developers could work on codes for integration of text-to-braille hardware or text-to-speech software for the blind to have access to the site. Thereby, letting the visually impaired access the same content that everyone else does.

Motor/mobility. Motor problems are associated with the loss of muscle function and muscle coordination. So, subtle hand movements become a hindrance. That issue has nothing to do with accessing content. The problem lies with moving from content to content, i.e. navigation. A person with mobility issues will be unable to work with a mouse. In this case, a simple device for navigation (preferably with less than three buttons) something like a joystick would go a long way to help in navigation on the web.

Auditory. A person with hearing issues will be fine with web interaction as long as there’s no sound involved. Websites with media in the form of audio files or videos will be a hurdle for the user. There’s a simple workaround for this issue. If the site has video content, it could have closed captions or sign language cues to help understand the theme of the video. Alternatively, if a site has an audio content, they could provide a text-transcript below the file for the people with hearing issues.

Seizures. Audio or visual content could be stimuli for seizures especially if the content has flash effects. Flash effects trigger seizures in case of epilepsy. Hence, providing a warning or option to switch flash settings on the website would be appropriate. Cognitive and intellectual. These issues make a person incapable of focusing and understanding with difficulty in perception and memory. Hence, something complex like a website’s design and content won’t help the case. For the site to be user-friendly, the design should be simple and highly usable to promote readability and navigation with use of consistent contrast and color schemes.

Web Accessibility aims at enabling differently abled people to interact with the Web as any normal human being does. These people should be able to perceive, understand, navigate the Web as well as contribute to it.

Apart from the earlier issues mentioned, Web Accessibility should stand firm to the challenges from some other issues like changing people’s abilities with age, temporary disabilities like broken arm or glasses, use of mobile and smart devices and slow internet connection. It is not just about the physical incapability of the differently abled people but also the situational aspects. Situational limitations are also a form of handicap or disability albeit a temporary one. Not everyone has a laptop or a desktop to access the Internet. Also, not everyone has a high-speed data connection to access the Internet. One cannot afford to be left behind just because they lack resources or situation in some form or other.

The web is a big part of everything today. Education, jobs, health care, commerce, recreation, you name it, and I bet you will find some form of web interaction in them. Hence, it is essential that the web is accessible to provide equal access and opportunities to everyone irrespective of any disability and diversity. Web Accessibility needs to address the accessibility barriers which are present in the form of visual or auditory or mobility elements.

So, how does the Web Accessibility help?

In the perspective of an individual and society, equal web access keeps them informed and up to date with others with regards to notions and movement in the world. It can be in the form of news, socializing, job opportunity, or education. The possibility is endless.

From a business perspective, it helps brands gain more exposure and reach more people. All help the companies to create a larger customer base. Web Accessibility helps create potential marketing opportunities for businesses.

Here’s a situational example, a blind person wants to know the latest happenings. So, he goes to a news site that has the text-to-speech feature which helps pronounce out the news to the person.


The UN CRPD (United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) has set Access to information and communications technologies as a fundamental human right. In addition to this, there’s WAI.

WAI or Web Accessibility Initiative is a project by World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) which holds the design guidelines for web accessibility.

The WAI came up with WCAG 1.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) in 1999. Then in 2008, it came up with WCAG 2.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) which aimed at technology neutrality of web.

Today, countries have and follow their adaptations of the WCAG.

For example, Canada has:

The Standard on Optimizing Websites and Applications for Mobile Devices

The Standard on Web Usability

The Standard on Web Interoperability

The Canadian government has a WET or Web Experience Toolkit to help build accessible sites.

Spain follows UNE 139803 which is based on the WCAG 1.0.

UK has theBS 8878:2010 Web accessibility. Code of practice. The standard invokes interaction of non-technical professionals in the design process to improve accessibility, usability and user experience for the disabled and elderlies.

Japan follows the JIS or Japan Industrial Standards which got revised in 2010 along the lines of WCAG 2.0. The new standard has four principles, 12 guidelines and 61 success criteria just like the WCAG 2.0.

Having a standard helps align the basic idea of accessibility, but there’s more to equal web access than just standardized guidelines. Apart from guidelines, there’s the need for cooperation between components. Websites, user agents, assistive technologies, authoring tools, user knowledge and experience of the web, developers, all need to come together for Web Accessibility to be more than just a notion.

part from Web Accessibility standards, there are standard guidelines for components like authoring tools, user agents. The following are some of the set of guidelines:

Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG)

User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG)

Planning and Implementation in Design

Now comes the real question – how to go about implementing the idea of Web Accessibility in design and development?

The key to the notion of Web Accessibility is access and interaction. Web access is about the design aspects of the web contents, be it in sites or apps. These are things like color and content layouts. Whereas, interaction purely depends on the assistive methods. Some assistive technologies for the disabled include screen readers, braille terminals, screen magnification, speech recognition, keyboard overlays, closed captions or sign language in videos.

Before starting on the web design and experience, a developer needs to consider the type of users. By users, we are talking about the disabilities the users have. It could be cognitive, learning and neurological impairment or temporary or situational. So, here are some design pointers in aid to the neurological and cognitive disabilities of users:

Proper structuring of information. A webpage needs to to make appropriate use of headings, subheadings, and lists when representing the content. Headings and subheadings highlight the central theme of content while lists ease up the readability of content. All in all, they help the user navigate through the content effortlessly especially for people having difficulty in focusing and processing information.

Short lines. A short line that is about 70-80 characters long is preferable. That’s because shorter lines are easier to read and deduce the meaning.

Maintaining a balance between space and content. It’s never a good idea to fill a whole page with just content. Why? Because it is harder to concentrate on the main content from the background, thus, being a barrier for autistic and ADHD patients. Confining content within a specific space helps structure information and makes for easy understanding of content.

Consistency in colors and layouts. A consistent color and layout results in a pattern which helps for easy navigation around the website. So, as a designer, one needs to maintain uniformity in fonts and links along with placements of media.

Implementation of assistive technologies. In addition to the layout design, a site should incorporate assistive technologies to aid the differently-abled persons in accessing and interacting with the site. Elements like keyboard support, magnifier, make the task of accessing the content of a site simpler for the user.

Providing alternatives to multimedia content. Images, audio files, and videos are good for regular users, but not for people having a visual or auditory impairment. Hence, a site needs to provide alternate text for the images and other multimedia content on the site. Not only it helps the impaired users, but also makes the task of crawling the website easier for search engines. So, it is recommended to include alternate text for images, videos or audio.

In conclusion, there’s a lot that can be done to increase web accessibility. And, with the advancement of technology, we will find new ways to make the differently abled have the same web experiences as us.

author: patrick algrim
About the author

Patrick Algrim is an experienced executive who has spent a number of years in Silicon Valley hiring and coaching some of the world’s most valuable technology teams. Patrick has been a source for Human Resources and career related insights for Forbes, Glassdoor, Entrepreneur,, SparkHire, and many more.


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