Many digital designs overlook people with cognitive disabilities. And yet it’s the most common disability out of the main categories. 

So, what are the inclusive design considerations for cognitive disabilities? In his standing-room-only presentation at California State University, Northridge’s (CSUN) Assistive Technology Conference, Diamond’s Director of Accessibility Dennis Lembrée delves into inclusive design and cognitive disability.

Picture yourself entering a large conference room with many rows of seats, a giant presentation screen, an atmosphere of excitement and electricity in the air, KISS’ “Rock and Roll All Nite” playing on the loudspeaker.

What Are Cognitive Disabilities?

Dennis begins by describing the types of cognitive disabilities, many of which are invisible. Types of cognitive disabilities include the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • Dementia and Alzheimer’s
  • Depression and bipolar disorder
  • Dyslexia and reading disabilities
  • Dyscalculia 
  • Dysgraphia 
  • Learning disabilities
  • Schizophrenia
  • Vestibular disorders

And the newest one to make this non-exhaustive list is COVID-19 brain fog. People who have this struggle to think clearly after having the coronavirus. Symptoms consist of short-term memory loss, difficulty focusing on tasks, blurred vision, and loss of mental acuity. These are common for people with a chronic illness, undergoing menopause, and recovering from cancer treatment.

Here are some statistics presented in Dennis’s talk about cognitive disabilities that may surprise you.

  • Around 50 million people have dementia globally.
  • Vestibular dysfunction affects 35% of American adults aged 40 and older.
  • About 2.2% of adults and almost 2% of children have autism.
  • About 4.4% of adults and 9.4% of children have ADHD.
  • The prevalence of dyscalculia in school populations is anywhere from 3 to 6%.

Additionally, anyone can experience temporary or situational cognitive impairment at any time. A person who doesn’t get a good night’s sleep can easily experience brain fog and attention deficit. Someone experiencing a migraine may not be at their best cognitively. People who have a concussion, a hangover, or a stressful day may have cognitive impairments. 

Tools and Guidelines for Designing for Cognitive Disabilities

People with cognitive disabilities and impairments may use different tools to help navigate digital designs. Here are some of the tools they may find useful.

  • Using screen reader and text-to-speech software.
  • Changing the reading mode and view.
  • Modifying browser and operating system preferences to block pop-ups and animation, to change the color scheme and contrast, or to reduce motion and transparency.
  • Relying on grammar and spell checking tools.
  • Adding word prediction software.

Many of the 17 new success criteria in Web Content Accessibility (WCAG) 2.1 affect those with cognitive disabilities or impairments. WCAG 2.2 has nine new or updated success criteria related to cognitive accessibility.

Additionally, the W3C has a task force focused on cognitive disabilities known as the Cognitive and Learning Disabilities Accessibility Task Force (COGA TF). Among other things, this task force developed and proposed the success criteria for WCAG 2.1. Their goal is to “produce techniques, understanding, and guidance documents, as well as updates to existing related W3C material, that addresses the cognitive space.”

Besides, accessibility efforts improve usability. “Accessibility is just usability but for more people,” says Mark Friend, accessibility lead at PlayStation.

7 Goals and Techniques to Design for Cognitive Disabilities

Dennis shares seven goals to keep in mind when designing for people with cognitive disabilities and impairment. Many of these benefit people with other disabilities and even no disabilities. 

Design should help users:

  1. Find what they need
  2. Understand the content
  3. Read content (legible typography)
  4. Avoid mistakes with forms
  5. Maintain focus
  6. Navigate user interface without relying on memory
  7. Find their way with visual signifiers

Here are a few more tips for enhancing the user experience:

  • Provide captions and transcripts for multimedia
  • Make it easy to get human help and provide feedback
  • Support adaptation and personalization such as using “prefers-reduced-motion” in CSS
  • Avoid CAPTCHA
  • Test with people who have a cognitive disability
  • Remove time limitations or make it adjustable 

With cognitive disabilities being the most common cause of disabilities, it’s critical to design for people with cognitive disabilities and conduct testing with them. Fortunately, many of these goals, techniques, and tips benefit a wide audience. You not only maximize your digital product’s reach but also boost the user experience.

Connect with Diamond

If you’d like to chat about how to ensure your digital products are built accessibly and reach the widest audience possible, please contact us or email