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What is Cognitive Accessibility & How to Apply on Your Website

Life without the world wide web is unthinkable today. We use websites and apps for everything from learning to shopping to communicating and even navigating our cities. But imagine if the internet was a hard-to-navigate maze; buttons confusingly placed, text and images hard to decipher, and every link acting as a hurdle.

For many of the 200 million people across the world who are grappling with various cognitive disabilities, this continues to be the unfortunate reality of web surfing. That’s why cognitive accessibility is a critical aspect of web design that ensures everyone, including those with learning and intellectual disabilities, can freely access digital content.

What is Cognitive Accessibility?

Cognitive accessibility, in simple terms, is about making the internet friendly and easy to use for everyone, including people who think or learn differently because of conditions like Autism, ADHD, or Dyslexia.

Just like ramps make buildings physically accessible for people who use wheelchairs, cognitive accessibility aims to remove barriers on the internet for those with various cognitive disabilities. It ensures that websites are designed in such a way that everyone can understand, interact with, and enjoy the content.

This includes things like reducing distractions on a webpage, offering different ways to consume content (like text, audio, or video), and making sure instructions are clear and easy to follow. The goal is to make the internet a welcoming place for everyone, regardless of how their brain processes information.

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Types of Cognitive and Learning Disabilities

A cognitive disability refers to a condition that affects the way a person’s brain processes information. These disabilities can influence how a person learns, remembers, problem-solves, and interacts with others. Learning disabilities, on the other hand, specifically relate to difficulties in learning specific skills such as reading, writing, and math. They don’t have any impact on one’s intelligence.

Some of the most common types of cognitive and learning impairments that can affect a person’s experience on the internet include:


Some people with autism have an amazing ability to focus on details, while others are easily distracted by too much information or activity on a screen. For instance, flashy ads, pop-up windows, or a busy website layout could be overwhelming.


Those who have dyslexia have trouble with reading and understanding written text. When browsing the web, dyslexic users might struggle with large blocks of text, certain font types or sizes, or poor color contrast between text and background. They could also have difficulty with reading comprehension and spelling, which may hinder them when typing queries into a search engine, filling out online forms, or writing emails.


This is a math-related learning disability where people have trouble performing simple arithmetic, telling time on an analog clock, or understanding mathematical concepts. If your website or app requires any kind of numerical input or understanding of numbers (such as in online banking or shopping), people with dyscalculia may find it difficult. Visual representations of numerical concepts can be helpful here.


People with dysgraphia can have a hard time expressing their thoughts in written form or may struggle with the fine motor control necessary for typing. Completing online forms, typing in chat boxes, or writing emails can be particularly challenging.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

ADHD usually makes it difficult for people to maintain focus. Pop-up notifications, ads, or even moving elements on a webpage can be very distracting, making it difficult to concentrate on the main content.


This condition affects memory and cognitive abilities. Complex navigation structures or procedures on sites and apps can pose challenges. They might find it hard to remember the steps involved in a process or even recall the purpose of their online visit.

In the context of digital accessibility, both cognitive and learning disabilities are important to consider. For instance, a website or an app should be designed to cater to people who process information at a slower pace, have difficulty reading text, or are easily distracted. By understanding cognitive disabilities and doing your best to facilitate cognitive access, you can ensure that your digital platform is usable for all.

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How to Make Your Website Accessible for Users with Cognitive Disabilities?

Create accessible content

Websites are often the first point of contact between a business or organization and its users. However, if the content on these platforms is full of technical jargon or complex sentence structures, it can become a significant barrier. When creating content for your site, you should aim to make it easily understandable by as many users as possible. Here’s how to do it:

  • Avoid technical terms and industry jargon and instead use plain, everyday language
  • Try to keep your sentences short and to the point
  • Organize the content with bullet points, subheadings, and plenty of white spaces
  • Whenever an acronym or abbreviation is used, make sure to explain it in the first instance; don’t assume that your users know what these stand for
  • If you’re using specific words or phrases to describe something on your website, stick with that terminology throughout the site

Offer multiple content formats

The way information is presented on a website can play a crucial role in how effectively it’s received and understood by the audience. While written content is a staple, it might not be the most accessible format for all users, especially those with certain cognitive impairments. You want to give users the flexibility to consume information in the way they find most comfortable. Here’s how you can diversify your content presentation:


Consider providing audio versions of your text content. This could be especially helpful for users with dyslexia or other reading difficulties. Having the option to listen to the content rather than read it can greatly improve their user experience. For instance, you could offer a podcast version of a blog article or an audio narration of a story.


Videos, when designed well, can be a powerful tool to communicate information. They can combine visual cues, audio, and text, which can make complex topics more understandable. For users with ADHD, videos can be more engaging than text-based content. Remember to add captions to your videos to make them accessible for users with hearing impairments.


Infographics can break down complex topics into digestible chunks, making the information easier to process. They can be particularly helpful for users with attention disorders who may struggle to focus on long paragraphs of text.

Text alternatives

Make sure you’re not neglecting text alternatives. For any audio or visual content, provide a text-based alternative such as a transcript or detailed description so it is accessible to people who can’t perceive the primary content format, like those with hearing or visual impairments.

Limit distractions

The digital environment can be a significant source of distraction with pop-ups, animations, auto-playing media, or other dynamic elements causing a cognitive overload. When a user’s attention is split between multiple on-screen elements, it becomes more challenging to concentrate on the primary task, whether it’s reading an article or completing a form.

Your goal should be to help the users focus on their desired tasks without unnecessary interruptions. To create a distraction-free website, follow these tips:

  • Minimize the use of pop-ups and unexpected animations, or if they are necessary, ensure users can easily close/disable them
  • Don’t change the layout of your website or move key navigation elements on a regular basis; keep it consistent and predictable
  • Avoid videos or audio clips that play automatically when a user lands on a page, as this can trigger anxiety or confusion for those who have sensory processing disorders. At the very least, give them control over such media by requiring them to click ‘play.’
  • Use plenty of white space or empty space around text and graphics

Provide clear instructions

Some people with cognitive disabilities find it challenging to complete tasks without specific, step-by-step guidance. This can apply to various actions on your website, such as subscribing to a newsletter, completing a purchase, filling out a form, or navigating to different sections.

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Step-by-step instructions

Break down complicated tasks into smaller, manageable steps. When guiding a user to subscribe to your newsletter, for instance, instead of simply stating, “Subscribe to our newsletter,” consider using a more detailed instruction like, “Step 1: Enter your email in the box below. Step 2: Click the ‘Subscribe’ button.”

Use plain language

Keep your instructions extremely simple and concise, and avoid using any technical jargon. Use commonly understood phrases to describe actions or information on your website. Remember, what’s clear to you as a website developer or owner might not be clear to all users.

Visual aids

Consider using visual aids, like arrows, symbols, or images, alongside text to help clarify your instructions. For example, an arrow pointing to the ‘Subscribe’ button can reinforce the written instructions.

Consistent instructions

The instructions should be consistent throughout your website. If you use “Click here” as a prompt on one page, avoid using “Select this” on another page for the same action.

Feedback on actions

After a user completes an action, provide clear feedback. This can be a simple confirmation message like “Subscription successful!” or a noticeable change in the interface, such as graying out a clicked button.

Error handling

If the user makes an error, provide specific feedback about what went wrong and how to correct it. Avoid vague messages like “Invalid input.” Instead, specify the issue: “Email address format is incorrect. Please include an ‘@’ symbol.”

Implement auto-complete in forms

Auto-complete, or autofill, is a feature that predicts what a user is typing into a form field and suggests possible completions. This function can significantly enhance the user experience, especially for those with dyslexia or dysgraphia who may struggle with accurate typing. There are several ways you can utilize auto-complete on your website:

  • Implement predictive text to help users by suggesting the possible completion of the word they are typing
  • For returning users, store information from their previous visits; give the users option to save important information like shipping address or email address for future autofill
  • Make sure all form fields are clearly labeled with the type of information required
  • Not all users might feel comfortable with autofill features, especially when it involves personal data due to privacy concerns, so provide an option to turn off autofill

Auto-complete can really ease site navigation and interaction for users but remember to respect user privacy and data security guidelines.

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Adhere to WCAG 2.1 guidelines

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1, created by the World Wide Web Consortium, are a series of internationally recognized standards for making digital content accessible to a wider range of people with disabilities. Following these guidelines will not only ensure your site is truly user-friendly but also improve the user experience.

The WCAG is organized into four main principles:

  • Perceivable: Users should be able to perceive and recognize all content. An example could be adding text descriptions to images.
  • Operable: Users should be able to interact with all controls and features, such as being able to navigate a website without a mouse.
  • Understandable: Information should be clear and concise, like using simple phrases and consistent navigation menus.
  • Robust: Content should remain accessible as technologies advance, like ensuring compatibility with assistive technologies like screen readers.

These guidelines also provide a number of success criteria to improve accessibility that you can start implementing right away. Here are some key WCAG 2.1 standards related to cognitive disabilities, grouped by conformance levels:

Use of color (1.4.1, Level A)

Don’t rely only on color to provide information or to indicate actions. Make sure your site communicates in other ways as well, such as with different shapes, text, or textures. This helps people who have trouble distinguishing colors.

Resize text (1.4.4, Level AA)

Make sure users can increase your website’s text size up to 200% without it interfering with the site’s functionality or content.

Multiple ways (2.4.5, Level AA)

Give users multiple ways to find different web pages, like a search bar, site map, or breadcrumbs.

Visual presentation (1.4.8, Level AAA)

This one is basically about giving users control over the visual presentation of text. Let users change foreground and background colors, limit your text width to improve readability, don’t justify text (align text to both margins), and use plenty of white space (spacing between lines and paragraphs).

As you can see, the different conformance levels (A, AA, AAA) represent different degrees of accessibility, with A being the minimum and AAA being the most comprehensive. While aiming for AAA conformance across your entire website would maximize accessibility, it would most likely be unrealistic due to the extensive criteria involved. So, like the majority of organizations, just try to meet at least level AA across your website, and you’ll be good.

Enable easy login methods

Consider integrating a variety of login methods that don’t rely solely on remembering a traditional username-password combination. Biometric login options, such as fingerprint or face recognition, are becoming increasingly popular. By simply scanning a fingerprint or a face, the user can gain access to their account without the need to remember or type any information.

Another great login option is through social media platforms, commonly known as Social Login. This allows people to log in using their existing accounts on platforms like Facebook, Google, or Twitter.

Create a Barrier-Free Web Experience for All Users with Accessibly

What if we told you there is a digital tool you can integrate into your website so it meets accessibility standards like Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), WCAG 2.1, ADA, Section 508, and EN 301549 – with just a few clicks?

Accessibly was developed with one aim in mind – to make websites universally accessible, especially for those with cognitive, visual, physical, and sensory disabilities. It has a plethora of features, such as:

  • Text resizing
  • Highlighting links
  • Making fonts more readable
  • Modifying color contrast
  • Enabling text-to-speech functions
  • And much more

With Accessibly, you can remove the accessibility barriers and tailor the browsing experience to suit the individual user’s needs, making the content more perceivable and the website’s interface more operable. Get started with a FREE 7-day trial today – no credit card needed.

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Article by Kaspars Milbergs

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