Perhaps the most difficult challenge in digital accessibility is making content and applications accessible for people with cognitive disabilities. While all people are different, and thus all people with disabilities are different, the nature of what is defined as a cognitive disability adds a dimension of uniqueness to the equation that makes it almost impossible to define.

There are similarities between and among people with sensory differences that allow developers and designer to build applications and content in a way that works well with the various assistive technologies designed to improve the users’ function. But because cognitive disabilities can affect the input of information, the output of information, the processing of information and any combination of the three, the design challenge is magnified.

Cognitive disabilities appear to mean many different things to different people. Indeed, when I sought to find a universal definition online, I found many, but like the condition itself, no two were the same.

Others have defined cognitive disabilities to include: Developmental Disorders, Intellectual Disabilities (previously referred to as mental retardation), Autism Spectrum Disorders, Specific Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia, and congenital or acquired brain disorders or injuries. It is noted that there are disorders of the central nervous system that  are not included in this definition as they affect only sensory and motor systems.

But all that said, a task force of devoted souls is attempting to come up with a guidance document for the World Wide Web Consortia (W3C) on how to “Making Content Usable for People with Cognitive and Learning Disabilities.” The working draft, which is many pages long and contains six appendices, was published on July 17, 2020 and is being funded by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute on Disability Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR).

The Cognitive and Learning Disabilities Accessibility Task Force (Coga TF) who have developed this draft used as their source materials additional references from W3C documents including a 2015 report on Cognitive Accessibility User Research. That document concludes:

Different people with cognitive disabilities may have problems in the following areas:

  • Memory – Including: Working Memory, Short-Term Memory, Long-Term Memory, Visual Memory, Visuo-spatial Memory, Auditory Memory (memory for sound patterns and others).

  • Executive Functions – Including: Emotional Control and Self-Monitoring; Planning/Organization and Execution; and Judgment.

  • Reasoning – Including: Fluid Reasoning (logical reasoning), Mathematical Intelligence, Seriation, Crystallized Intelligence, and Abstraction.

  • Attention – Including: Selective Attention, and Sustained Attention.

  • Language – Including: Speech Perception, Auditory Discrimination, Naming Skills, and Morphosyntax.

  • Understanding Figurative Language – Including: similes, personification, oxymorons, idioms, and puns.

  • Literacy – Depends upon functions including: Speech Perception, Visual Perception, Phoneme Processing, and Cross-Modal Association (association of sign and concept).

  • Other Perception – Including: Motor Perception, Psychomotor Perception.

  • Knowledge – Including: Cultural Knowledge, Jargon (subject matter); Web Jargon and Technology; Metaphors and Idioms; Symbols Knowledge (such as icons); and Mathematical Knowledge.

  • Behavioral – Including: Understanding Social Cues.

The newly released Abstract of the Making Content Usable for People with Cognitive and Learning Disabilities states:

This document is for people who make Web content (Web pages) and Web applications. It gives advice on how to make content usable for people with cognitive and learning disabilities.

This document has content about:

  • people with learning and cognitive disabilities,
  • aims and objectives for usable content,
  • design patterns (ways) to make content usable,
  • including users in design and testing activities, and
  • personas (examples) and user needs.

The Objectives and Patterns presented here provide supplemental guidance beyond the requirements of WCAG. Following the guidance in this document is not required for conformance to WCAG. However, following this guidance will increase accessibility for people with cognitive and learning disabilities

The Cognitive and Learning Disabilities Accessibility Task Force (Coga TF)  encourages feedback on any aspect of the document. All comments are welcome. Some comments may not be addressed in the first Working Group Note, but will be considered for a later version of the Note.

I am not sure I will respond, but in posting this here I hope some you will.

Link the complete Cognitive and Learning Disabilities Accessibility Task Force working draft…

WebAIM Resource on Cognitive Disabilities and accessible web design…


Photo credit: Image licensed through Creative Commons by Abhijit Bhaduri