The Complete Guide to Cognitive Accessibility for Cognitive Disabilities

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The Complete Guide to Cognitive Accessibility for Cognitive Disabilities

Posted December 15, 2023


Posted December 15, 2023

Stylized website with accessibility errors and an icon of a brain instead a magnifying glass on top.
Stylized website with accessibility errors and an icon of a brain instead a magnifying glass on top.

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Cognitive accessibility refers to creating a digital environment, such as a website, that is accessible to those with cognitive and learning disabilities.

Last Updated: 12/15/2023

Imagine if every webpage you navigated to was a maze of information with no clear direction on how to get to what you need. Every button and link just puts more barriers and obstacles in your way and essentially prevents you from consuming digital content.

For individuals with cognitive disabilities, this is their reality. The majority of web pages are overly complex, cluttered, unclear, and difficult to navigate and essentially shut these users out of the digital world.

With 12.8 percent of U.S. adults having some sort of cognitive disability, this leaves millions of Americans unable to navigate the web. To combat this, businesses need to create cognitively accessible websites.

What’s the best way to do that? Let’s get into it.

What is a Cognitive Disability?

A cognitive disability refers to certain limitations a person may experience in mental functioning as well as with social, self-help, and communication skills. 

Typically, people with cognitive disabilities experience a wide range of difficulties with:

  • Attention
  • Comprehension
  • Memory
  • Problem-solving

Each person may experience these difficulties differently and others may share some overlap.

Examples of Cognitive Disabilities

Cognitive disabilities fall into two main categories:

  • Functional cognitive disabilities: Disabilities that fall into this category are typically less severe than clinical cognitive disabilities. Functional cognitive disability examples can include general learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, dyslexia, and dyscalculia.
  • Clinical cognitive disabilities: These disabilities include traumatic brain injuries, Down Syndrome, autism, dementia or Alzheimer’s, or a form of memory loss. 

Below, we’ll discuss some common disabilities that affect internet users; however, it’s important to remember disabilities affect people in profoundly different ways.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Attention deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, also known as ADHD, is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disabilities. The classic symptoms of the condition include difficulties with short-term memory, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness. Often beginning in childhood, ADHD can continue in adulthood.

When a person with ADHD goes online, they may have more difficulty sifting through information. They may feel overwhelmed, particularly when websites have large amounts of visual or audio content.


Autism is a clinical cognitive impairment disorder that is characterized by difficulties with communication and social interaction. Symptoms may include repetitive behaviors like rocking, jumping or hand-flapping, constant moving, fixations on certain activities or objects, performing specific routines, and extreme sensitivity to touch, light, and sound.

When going through a website, a person with autism may become fixated on certain components of the site. They may become sensitive to specific features (such as flashing or blinking content).


Dyslexia is a common learning disorder that can impact a person’s ability to read, spell, write, and speak. Additionally, it can cause problems with spatial relationships and affect coordination. Specialized education can help those struggling with dyslexia by providing different learning techniques.

Web designers and content creators canimprove experiences for dyslexic usersby breaking up long content with headings, choosing a simple text style, and including images and graphics that help with comprehension.

Common Accessibility Challenges for Cognitively Disabled Users

For users with cognitive disabilities, a “less-is-more” approach can be helpful. Web designers and developers can help make content more accessible by decreasing distracting elements on the site and focusing on capturing attention. 

Below, we’ll delve into some accessibility challenges users with cognitive or intellectual disabilities experience on a daily basis:


People with cognitive disabilities may have attention deficits, which can make it difficult 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 tasks. For example, outside influences such as pop-ups or ads may distract users and prevent them from getting things done.

Additional distractions can include scrolling text or blinking icons. These distractions may cause users to forget their original task or where they were in their task. This can also increase a user’s cognitive load which may overwhelm them and lead to cognitive overload.

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 information due to complexity. This can happen when they are given too many choices and unable to choose one, or when they are given too much information and “freeze” in their current state of mind.


Comprehension is a broad category and can include reading, linguistic, verbal, visual, and even mathematical comprehension. People with comprehension challenges may struggle to understand complex ideas, remember, and have social and emotional awareness.

Like cognitive disabilities, comprehension is based on a spectrum from mild to severe. Some people may have high reading comprehension but low verbal comprehension. Regardless, when trying to navigate a website, individuals 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. This can affect how they remember to perform a task or why they are performing 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 need to do to remove the error message.


When problems arise during a task, a person with cognitive impairments might not be able to or have a difficult time solving problems. This creates a negative user experience and may result in the user leaving the website rather than trying to solve the problem.

Examples of problems users can experience can include dead HTML hyperlinks, links that unexpectedly take them to a new website, unclear form instructions, pop-up ads, and difficult CAPTCHAs (human verification tests). People may not be able to process what they’re required to do or how to move on to the next step.

What is a Cognitive Accessibility?

Now that you understand what a cognitive disability is, let’s delve into what cognitive accessibility is and how it benefits individuals with these types of disabilities.

Simply put, cognitive accessibility refers to tactics that product developers can use to deliver equivalent experiences to every user — regardless of their cognitive abilities, neurological differences, or preferences.

The best practices of cognitive accessibility are defined by the World Wide Consortium’s (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). WCAG is the international standard forweb accessibilityand is designed to help improvedigital accessibilityand compliance. It’s because of these guidelines that major organizations likeApple have made cognitive accessibility a priority. And every organization has a responsibility to do the same.

Understanding Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

Following WCAG can help you create better content for users with cognitive disabilities and people with conditions that affect their vision, hearing, and mobility. The Department of Justice (DOJ) recommends testing content against the latest WCAG version (in this case WCAG 2.0) to improve compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and to make websites more accessible in general.

The guidelines outline three levels of conformance:

  • Level A is the lowest and least strict conformance level
  • Level AA which is the standard conformance level
  • Level AAA which is the highest, most strict conformance level

Auditing your site against WCAGconformance standards — and fixing accessibility issues that affect cognitive disability and other disabled persons — enables you to enjoy the benefits of inclusive design. This includes improved usability, stronger branding, and, in many cases, improved traffic through enhancedsearch engine optimization (SEO).

How to Improve Your Website's Cognitive Accessibility

You can make websites more accessible for those with cognitive disabilities by integrating components that take into consideration how a user may process information. WCAG includes a number of success criteria that are specifically geared towards cognitive accessibility.

For example, WCAG recommends integrating the following to improve cognitive accessibility:

  • Reduce pop-ups: Avoid using too many pop-ups or other animations as these can be distracting to cognitively disabled users. If you do use pop-ups, limit their numbers and ensure users can easily close or disable them.
  • Simplify navigation: Ensure navigational mechanisms are the same from page to page. This ensures users relying on screen readers or assistive technologies can easily navigate the site.
  • Provide alternative text (alt text) for images: Accurate alt text describes the purpose and function of images, providing users with more context.
  • Avoid processes that rely on memory: Don’t rely on processes that call for a lot of memorization. For example, password fields should allow copy-and-paste functionality, which allows people to use password managers and other methods to input passwords.
  • Avoid autoplay: Autoplay can be distracting for all users, but it’s particularly problematic for people with cognitive disabilities. WCAG requires that “moving, blinking, or scrolling” information can be paused, stopped, or hidden
  • Write descriptive, unique page titles: Page titles can help people find the content they need when they have multiple browser windows open. The title of the page should describe its topic or purpose.
  • Provide clear instructions: Ensure instructions for forms and other interactive elements are clear and easy to understand. This can help users understand what they need to do to complete a process.

The bottom line: reducing distractions on web pages, strategically using white space, simplifying navigation, and creating a more intuitive website design are key to increasing cognitive accessibility.

For inspiration,check out these ten examples of digitally accessible websites.

Build an Accessible Site with the Help of Experts

Whether you use WordPressSquarespace, or another content management system, you can make your site accessible for users with cognitive disabilities. And with AudioEye, improving accessibility is easy. 

Our solution automatically tests and audits content against WCAG, fixing many common accessibility barriers in real-time — and provides clear advice for fixing issues that require human judgment.

By combining powerful automation with expert guidance, your organization is on the best path to improving digital accessibility.

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