A lot of people consider that web accessibility covers issues faced by people with visual impairments when navigating the web. However web accessibility for people with learning and cognitive disabilities is a problem for a far larger number of people. There is a lack of information and guidance available to support developers to build systems that are universally accessible.

The purpose of this article is to highlight the main problems experienced by people with cognitive issues and to indicate how developers can use their expertise to significantly contribute to the betterment of the lives of people with disabilities.

The main issues for people with cognitive and learning disabilities


Although the size of text is an issue in itself some people have issues with how text is written. People may have problems interpreting the context in which words are used. Excessive use of slang words, colloquialisms, metaphors and abbreviations cause cognitive issues for some people.


People with short term memory problems may have issues remembering the context of the words they are reading or the material they have covered already.

Problem Solving

Non-conventional navigation on websites can make usability poor for people who find problem solving difficult.


Keeping focus can be made difficult by pop ups, survey requests, moving text or images.

Non-verbal learning

The use of images to represent real objects is an issues for some people who can better relate to audio information.


Computation required on some webpages perhaps to prove that the user is not a robot present difficulties for people who have issues with numbers.

Best Practice in Web Design

Considering issues presented for people with learning and cognitive disabilities will help developers to build more usable websites for everybody. Sometimes building a site to accommodate one group of people presenting issues with one particular aspect will create an issue for others. In this case it is worth considering who the website is being built for and aiming to reduce as many issues as possible for the target audience.


Users should be able to learn as they use a system. They should know what to expect from each new page they visit on a site. Features on pages should use the same style and be consistent across the site.

The first thing you should think about when designing your content is consistency. Users should be able to learn what to expect from each new page of your site — the various features should be consistent with previous pages, in terms of style, location and function.


A user should be easily able to identify the navigation elements of the site. Menu navigation should be intuitive and remain consistent across the site.


Consistency in fonts is desirable across a site. The same font and font size should be used for paragraphs and different heading levels.


Links should follow the same style and be recognisable on the website. Users should be able to anticipate their destination and purpose and they should be consistent and relevant. They should add value to the users’ experience.


Buttons should also be consistent and follow the conventions and style of the Internet browser being used.


Content for the web needs to be well thought out and planned. Good websites are organised and structured to deliver content in a readable format. This refers to the elements within HTML structuring the content in addition to the actual content itself.


The content of a page is guided by headings and sub-headings. It should be possible for the user to get a general idea of what the page is about by scanning the headings. People read content by scanning first to select what meets their needs before reading in detail.


List should be short, and easy to scan and understand. Lists are useful to explain more difficult concepts by organising details under each list heading.

White space

Clever use of white space makes content more readable. Clever use of white space while enhancing the design of the site also makes content more readable by separating headings, paragraphs and images.

Clear differentiation between content types

Styles like colour and font weights can be used to distinguish different types of content. This helps users to distinguish different types of content and adds to the learning experience as they navigate the site.


People come to a website for a specific purpose. To meet the objectives of the user websites should not distract the user from their initial mission.

Contrasting blocks of colour

Use designs that do not distract the user from the more important page content. Bright colours and intricate designs in side areas will guide the user’s eye away from the main content.

Unexpected sound

Users should not be presented with sound without them specifically interacting with the website. Users should have to select to play sounds to avoid confusion.

Animations and other moving content

Automatic movement on a page should be avoided. Movement without warning can be very distracting for people. The only movement that should take place is on the element, like a navigation menu option or a video,that the user is interacting with at that time.

Pop ups and new tabs

Pop-up windows can be confusing. They are not effective ways to introduce content as users usually expect pop-ups to be adverts typically dismissing them. Pop-ups move attention away from the page the user is on.


Content is the most important part of any page. Content needs to be intuitive and as readable as possible. Good readability guidelines apply to all the text on a page including navigation options, graphics and plain content. The following are guidelines for good content.

Adequate text size and line height

Font size should be large enough for the user to be able to read clearly. The font size depends on the font being used. This should be guided and tested with a representative group of teh websites target audience. A lot of users are not familiar with adjusting font sizes in their browser so the website should eliminate the need as much as is possible. Line height should be approximately one and a half times the font size.

Limited line length

Long lines of text can be difficult for people with learning difficulties. A general guide is to adhere to between 70 and 80 characters of text per line.

Colour contrast

There should be a good colour contrast between the foreground and background of the website. Colour should be used to differentiate between buttons, links and functions on a page.

Short paragraphs

Paragraphs should be short and focused on a single idea.


It should be possible to change your content to suit different users. This is referred to as transformability.

Support text resizing

Changing text size is the most basic type of transformation. Web design should be able to support a font size increase of at least 200%; 300% preferably.

Although web browsers generally support full page zooming, websites should provide a user with the ability to increase font size without changing the width of the page, the images, or the columns on the page.

Support user styles

It should be possible for users to apply their own styles using stylesheets. Use clean CSS to style pages and make it easy for users to apply their own styles via user stylesheets. Write good clean CSS, using low specificity on selectors and avoiding the use of !important.

Ensure it works without images, scripting or styles

Test that the site works without images, scripting or styles at all. This is the ultimate fall-back for all users in all situations, and it makes it easier for them to provide a usable baseline like this, rather than them having to write their own style sheet. It is also a good test of the structure of your content. If people can follow the structure easily then you are likely to have a more usable site.

Provide an API or feed

Provide an API (Application Programme Interface) or a feed to allow others to re-format your content. It some cases a site cannot cater for all users so to reach a wider and more diverse audience you can make sure that other developers can take your content and reformat it for different situations.

Twitter is an example of how an API can work to increase ease of use. It makes content available from its website to be used by different client applications. For example Accessible Twitter (http://accessibletwitter.com) shows tweets and functionality in a less cluttered format that the Twitter website. There are other APIs available to deliver content tailored to different user needs.


Now on to the content itself, the most important part of a site. If you have marked up and structured your content correctly then it should be convertible to other forms, but if the content itself is broken then you have gone wrong from the beginning.

Spelling and grammar

Users with literacy problems can find content meaningless if there are grammatical errors or spelling mistakes.

Definitions of terms

Sites should not use jargon and should provide a glossary of terms for technical or complicated subjects. All abbreviations and acronyms should be defined bearing in mind that content should be clear and meaningful.

One subject

Each page should be focused and adhere to the subject of the page.


An introductory paragraph should summarise the page allowing the user to decide if the content is relevant to their needs. This prevents the user getting frustrated with content and feeling that they are wasting their time on your site.

Mix content types

Different users may find different forms of content easier to consume. Some users like lots of images and less text and others may prefer to watch a video of the content.

Content should be provided in multiple formats. Videos should be captioned videos and audio content should be transcribed.

Providing alternative formats of content make editorial work more intensive. However providing text descriptions for images, imagery showing different features of items and including video/audio descriptions on the site makes content usable by more individuals.

Bear in mind that content for one type of user may not work for another. It is also important to try and avoid making mixed content distracting. It is preferable to separate images from text rather than interspersing the images within the text. Display the images in a slideshow rather than showing them all at once, and try and provide the same information with images alone. A user can then choose to read the text or go through the slideshow to get the same content.


Content for websites should be well planned and organised. Users should be able to find what they are looking for easily. Providing content that is clear and uncomplicated allows people with cognitive and learning disabilities to experience the web in a positive way. Good usability is common sense.

The benefits go beyond what is traditionally thought of as accessibility as well. Something as simple as good grammar can greatly increase comprehension, especially for readers who are not fluent in the language a document is written in.

There is some bad news unfortunately – a single interface or style of content is never going to be able to cater for all users in all circumstances. This gives further weight to the idea of exposing content via a good API or feed. The same content can be re-purposed for display in a different format, on other web sites, or on devices such as mobile phones.