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Cognitive Disabilities


Posted January 02, 1970

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Cognitive disabilities impact the difficulty a person has performing mental tasks. The disabilities are based on a spectrum, given that concept is broad and does not have a clear definition. Cognitive disabilities have been linked to the biology and physiology of the brain. The biology and physiology of the brain can be affected by congenital and developmental conditions, traumatic injury, infection, and chemical imbalances.

Functional cognitive disabilities are less severe than clinical cognitive disabilities. Functional cognitive disabilities can include general learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, dyslexia, and dyscalculia. Clinical cognitive disabilities can include traumatic brain injuries, Down Syndrome, autism, and dementia or Alzheimer’s.

People with cognitive disabilities experience a wide range of difficulties with:

  • Attention,
  • Comprehension,
  • Memory, and
  • Problem-Solving.

Each person may experience the difficulties differently and some may overlap. When interacting with the web, people with cognitive disabilities may not be able to process and navigate through a website.


People with cognitive disabilities may have attention deficit, where they are unable to focus on one task for an extended period of time. They may be prone to distractions within their own thoughts or to outside influences when trying to complete a task. When they are on a website, they may find outside influences, such as popups and ads distracting. Distractions can also include scrolling text and blinking icons. When they are distracted they may not be able to remember what the original task was or where they were in their task. The distractions can also lead to cognitive overload for the user.

Cognitive Overload

Cognitive overload takes place when a person with cognitive disabilities is in an environment where they have to process multiple things at once. Cognitive overload can lead to frustration and the inability to process the situation due to complexity. This can happen when they are given too many choices and they are unable to choose one or when they are given too much information and they “freeze” in their current state of mind.


Comprehension is a broad category. Comprehension can include, reading, linguistic, verbal, visual, and even mathematical comprehension. Like cognitive disabilities, comprehension is based on a spectrum from mild to severe. Some people may have high reading comprehension but low verbal comprehension. Challenges to people with disabilities can include the ability to to understand complex ideas, their ability to remember, and have social and emotional awareness.

When trying to navigate a website, people with cognitive disabilities may have trouble comprehending complex language, such as long sentences, non-literal text (sarcasm or slang), and non-existent text (assumptions or implied meanings).


People with cognitive disabilities may have trouble with immediate, short-term, and long-term memory. Memory can affect how they remember to perform a task to why they are trying to perform a task. On websites, long-processes such as checking out and filling out forms require the person to remember why they are checking out and how to fill out forms. When there are errors on a webpage a person may not remember what the error means or what they must do to not have an error message.


When problems arise during a task a person with a cognitive disability might not be able to or have a difficult time solving the problem. The need to solve a problem can result in the user leaving a website instead of trying to solve it. This can include a dead link, links that take them to a new website, forms that are not working, popups and what to do when there is a CAPTCHA present. They may not be able to process what they are required to do or how to move on to the next step.

Website Accessibility

Website accessibility for people with cognitive disabilities is the reduction of distractions on the website’s pages, the use of white space, having a predictable website (for example: active links), an overall organized web design, explanation of errors and how to fix them, and simple and straightforward language to name a few. Website accessibility for people with cognitive disabilities feature the ability to complete a task without obstacle by utilizing design principles that enable the end user to be able to navigate the website.

Source Materials:

Cognitive Disabilities Part 1: We Still Know Too Little, and We Do Even Less

Cognitive Disabilities Part 2: Conceptualizing Design Considerations

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