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The Complete Guide to Cognitive Accessibility for Cognitive Disabilities

Posted September 21, 2023


Posted September 21, 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.

Cognitive accessibility refers to a set of best practices that improve experiences for people with attention disorders, autism, and other cognitive conditions. Here’s how to improve your website’s cognitive accessibility.

Originally Posted: 03/04/2020

If your business has a website or mobile app, it’s important to consider users with cognitive disabilities and neurocognitive differences.

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 Cognitive Accessibility?

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. Major organizations like Apple have taken steps to prioritize cognitive accessibility, and every organization has a responsibility to consider all of their users.

The best practices of cognitive accessibility are defined by the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). 

WCAG is the international standard for web accessibility. Many nondiscrimination laws directly cite WCAG (and even when laws don’t mention WCAG, the guidelines are an excellent way to improve compliance). 

In addition to cognitive accessibility, WCAG outlines best practices for building content for people with vision impairments, hearing disabilities, and other conditions. In this article, we’ll focus on how WCAG can enhance experiences for users with cognitive differences.

How to Improve Your Website’s Cognitive Accessibility

To make your website more accessible to all users, you’ll need to follow the four principles of WCAG: Content must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust (or POUR, for short). Learn more about the four principles of WCAG.

WCAG reinforces these principles through success criteria, which are pass-or-fail statements that can be used to test digital accessibility. Many success criteria are specifically geared towards cognitive accessibility. 

For example, WCAG recommends: 

  • Providing navigational mechanisms in the same order from page to page. For example, a website might provide a search feature as the last item on every page, which helps users quickly locate the search field when they need it.
  • Providing alternative text (also called alt text) for images. Some users with attention disorders may browse with images disabled to limit distractions. Accurate alt text describes the purpose and function of images.
  • Avoiding processes that rely on memory. For example, password fields should allow copy-and-paste functionality, which allows people to use password managers and other methods to input passwords.
  • Avoiding 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.
  • Writing 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 for forms and other interactive elements. Instructions can help users understand what they need to do to complete a process.

By thinking about users with disabilities, you can go beyond WCAG to make improvements. For example, you can break up long content with subheadings and lists, which can make the content easier to understand (and more engaging for all users). 

To develop an accessibility-first mindset, it’s helpful to understand how disabilities impact your audience. Let’s start with a brief overview of common cognitive disabilities.

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 and intellectual 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 information or navigate through a website.

This is particularly true when websites have unpredictable controls or navigation features. The best practices of inclusive web design can help you create content that works better for these users — and when your website is more understandable and predictable, everyone wins.

Cognitive Disability Examples

The term “cognitive disabilities" has a wide scope. Below, we’ll explain how several common disabilities may affect internet users — but remember, disabilities affect people in profoundly different ways. 

With that said, understanding common cognitive disabilities can help you focus on real-life user experiences. Whether you use WordPress, Squarespace, or another content management system, you can make thoughtful decisions when designing your website.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, also known as ADHD, is a 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 into 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 can improve experiences for dyslexic users by breaking up long content, choosing a simple text style, and including images and graphics that help with comprehension. 

By giving users different ways to process information and operate your content, you can provide a better user experience.

Common Accessibility Challenges for Cognitively Disabled Users

The focus of cognitive accessibility is finding ways to support different abilities and user preferences. A “less-is-more" approach can be helpful.

When creating a website, consider an audience that may have different cognitive disabilities: Help users 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 concepts of disability can help you create a website that is engaging and user friendly, regardless of whether a visitor has a cognitive disability.


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 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 people 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.

When designing content, think about how your choices could impact real users. Avoid overloading pages with unnecessary elements or information. When in doubt, keep it simple — a clean layout can be beneficial for all users.

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 dead 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.

Understanding Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

Following WCAG can help you create better content for users with all types of abilities. That includes people with cognitive limitations and differences — but it also applies to people with conditions that affect their vision, hearing, and mobility.

Practically, every website has clear reasons to care about accessibility. The Department of Justice recommends testing content against WCAG to improve compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). For inspiration, view these web accessibility examples for ADA compliance.

It’s also important to remember that WCAG isn’t just about compliance: It’s about delivering the best possible experience for real-life users. To that end, you can use WCAG to set your accessibility goals and measure your progress. 

The guidelines outline three levels of conformance: Level A (the least strict conformance level), Level AA, and Level AAA (the most strict). Most websites should aim for Level AA conformance. Read more about the differences between WCAG levels.

By auditing your site against WCAG — and fixing accessibility issues that affect your users — you can enjoy the benefits of inclusive design. That means improved usability, stronger branding, and in many cases, improved traffic through enhanced search engine optimization (SEO).

Cognitive Accessibility for Websites

You can make websites more accessible for everyone, including those who have a cognitive disabilities, 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.

AudioEye’s platform is designed to help businesses meet their accessibility goals. Our solution automatically tests content against WCAG, fixing many common accessibility barriers as the page loads — and provides clear advice for fixing issues that require human judgment. 

By combining powerful automation with expert guidance, we believe that we offer the best path to improving digital accessibility. To learn more, schedule a demo.

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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