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Guide to Cognitive Disabilities & Digital Accessibility

Posted March 04, 2020


Posted March 04, 2020

Illustration of a website and a pulley system leading to a person's head
Illustration of a website and a pulley system leading to a person's head

A cognitive disability may impact a person’s ability to perform mental tasks. This includes tasks on websites. Use this guide to learn about cognitive disabilities, definitions, examples, and more.

Updated: 04/03/2021

A cognitive disability may impact a person’s ability to perform mental tasks. Cognitive disabilities are based on a spectrum, given that concept is broad and does not have a clear definition. Various types of cognitive impairment 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.

What is a Cognitive Disability?

The definition of a technical cognitive disability refers to certain limitations a person may experience in mental functioning and with social, self-help and communication skills.

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.

Cognitive disabilities can fall into two main categories: functional and clinical. Functional cognitive disabilities are less severe than clinical cognitive disabilities. Functional cognitive disability examples 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.

When interacting with the web, people with functional and clinical cognitive disabilities may not be able to process and navigate through a website.

Examples of Cognitive Disabilities

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, also known as ADHD, is a very common cognitive disability. It’s a condition that involves difficulty paying attention, hyperactivity and impulsiveness. Often beginning in childhood, this cognitive disability can continue into adulthood and may negatively affect self-esteem, relationship, and difficulty with school or work. When a person with ADHD goes online, they may have more difficulty sifting through information as they get inundated with multiple sources of stimulation.


Autism is a clinical cognitive impairment disorder that’s characterized by difficulties with communication and social interaction. Some 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 or become sensitive to specific features that may disrupt their online experience.


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.

Considerations to Take When Creating Cognitively Accessible Websites

The aforementioned cognitive impairment examples are similar in that they can be addressed by delivering information in a “less-is-more” manner. When creating a website, consider an audience that may have different cognitive disabilities: Adapt the website to increase its cognitive accessibility by decreasing distracting elements on the site and focusing on how to gauge attention. Simplifying a site and making it intuitive for someone with a cognitive disability to navigate is key.

The following aspects will help create a website that is engaging and user friendly, regardless if a visitor has a cognitive disability or not.


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 are 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, as it 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 understand complex ideas, 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 remove the 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. Examples of problems users can experience on a website 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. People with cognitive disabilities may not be able to process what they’re required to do or how to move on to the next step.

Cognitive Accessibility for Websites

You can make websites more accessible for everyone, including those who have a cognitive disability, by integrating components that take how a user may process content into consideration. Reducing distractions on a website’s pages, strategically using white space, making it easier to navigate through by incorporating active links that make sense, and creating a more intuitive website design are key to cognitive accessibility. Also be sure to use simple, straightforward language, and provide explanations as needed so that there is as little room for interpretation as possible. 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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