Cognitive disability digital accessibility guide

Front cover of the cognitive disability digital accessibility guide.The ability to access online content provides access to goods and services, and in COVID times, each other. But content on websites and smart phones is not user-friendly for everyone, particularly people with cognitive disability. However, digital communication is here to stay and it needs to be inclusive. The Cognitive Disability Digital Accessibility Guide explains the important aspects for organisations that publish documents online. 

The Guide is designed to provide practical, step-by-step information for designing and delivering effective best-practice digital communication. Some of the guidance is easy to do. for example, defining abbreviations and acronyms. The Guide provides useful information on:

    • How to support people with cognitive disabilities to use computers and mobile devices.
    • Developing documents structured and written in ways that support people with cognitive disabilities.
    • Guidance on policies and standards for people with cognitive disabilities in an organisational context.
    • Preparing communication messages for people with a cognitive disability.
    • Creating websites that support people with a cognitive disability.

The Guide also covers traditionally-implemented accessibility guidelines of WCAG 2.0 Level AA as well as looking at the increasing relevance of Level AAA requirements. It also delves into the role of affordable consumer devices such as tablets and helpful apps.

Of course, if the design is suitable for people with cognitive disability, there is a very good chance it is going suitable for everyone. This has been shown with the use of plain language summaries

Centre for Inclusive Design (formerly Media Access Australia) produced this guide. Although it was published in 2016, most of the information is still relevant. 

People with cognitive disabilities or impairments include: acquired brain injury, autism, dementia, developmental disability, Down syndrome, intellectual disability, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, and learning difficulties in general.

Zoom for people with vision loss

The Zoom logo in blue against a white background. Zoom for people with vision loss.The inventors of Zoom could not have predicted the level of use during COVID lockdowns. It is one of the easiest to use and one reason it is popular with business and families. It also has provision for live captioning for people who have difficulty hearing. However, the purpose of video platforms is to see who you are talking to. But what if they are a fuzzy block of faces? Here are some tips on Zoom for people with vision loss. 

Sheri Byrne-Haber’s has some tips to make Zoom meetings more equitable for people with vision loss. 

      • If you send out presentation materials in advance, people using screen readers can download and magnify them. That way, they don’t have to ask the presenter “can you make that bigger?”
      • If you embed text in images they just pixelate when they are magnified. That is, all you can see are pixels – dots.
      • Use good contrast. Low contrast is still difficult to read with a screen reader. Larger does not make it clearer. Neon colours are difficult for some autistic people. Best is off white with charcoal or navy blue. Stark black and white is not best. 
      • No fancy fonts and make them a decent size. No Italics. Bold or colour change is better for emphasis.

Byrne-Haber has more detail in her blog post and it is worth a read. As she says: Don’t be the barrier. Be the solution. 

Universal design is a thinking process. Once you start incorporating these ideas into presentations it starts to become second nature. 

Maps and map accessibility: where to start?

A woman holds a tablet with a map on the screen, She is standing in the street. Access mapsWhen a government department or access committee starts talking about access maps and map accessibility, where do you start? Of course there are consultants to help with this, but it’s good to have some idea of what to put in the brief. It’s also a good idea to know if the right thing has been delivered. A toolkit or guide for maps would be great but there’s a little to be found in lay language.

Technology moves fast. So toolkits and guides for digital maps soon become out of date. Another problem is they can’t stop software updates from stripping accessible features. And then there is is the issue of inadvertently uploading or linking inaccessible content on websites. But not all is lost. 

Access maps and map accessibility are distinct areas of endeavour.  However, we would want a digital access map to also be accessible. City of Sydney has an example of an interactive digital access map.

Access map with many different icons.
City of Sydney access map with all icons
Access map with icon filters applied.
Sydney access map with filters applied

 Resource list

Here is a list of links that cover basic and technical issues of map accessibility including non-digital maps. Thanks to Jo Szczepanska for sharing the list. 

An article by The Paciello Group explains the issues clearly and has other useful links for non technical people. 

A plan for accessible maps is an easy to read webpage that sets out the basics. A good starting point.

The W3C website has a section on different types of accessible maps including tactile maps. Static maps and interactive maps are covered in Map Accessibility.

Accessible Maps on the Web is a magazine article from the US. It’s a bit more technical but illustrates some of the issues. 

A research paper specifically for visually impaired users has recommendations and example solutions. This one is technical.  A more digestible article is Design Accessible Maps – UX guide. 

A UK Government blog page discusses accessible flood maps. There’s also Mapping Standards for interactive maps. Maps for emergency situations also need to be accessible. 

Another resource for digital applications is Gregg Vanderheiden’s Accessibility Masterlist. It covers everything you can think of. Each feature is coded for either blindness and low vision, language and learning disabilities, physical disabilities, and Deaf and hard of hearing. Some links take you to products, others to related research papers. Prepare to spend some time going over the lists and links. 

Inclusive design: more than a checklist

A desk with a large sheet of paper and pink post it notes. A person stands with their hand resting on the table. Inclusive design is more than a checklist.Design is powerful. It connects us to the world around us and shapes our lives. Inclusive design shapes products and services in ways that are useable by everyone. It requires a shared understanding of population diversity. Whether it’s a building a webpage, a policy framework or a town park, it ensures we “leave no-one behind“. Inclusive design is more than a checklist.

A blog page from Automattic says, “Truly inclusive designs are never really finished, and becoming fluent in inclusive design takes more than a checklist. We all need a map when we start exploring any new world”. This is the introduction to a “guidance map” aimed at leading individuals and teams through the processes of creating inclusive thinking and practice.

Although focused on technology, some of the principles and processes can be applied in other design situations. For example, “Learn about your audiences; their motivations, needs, behaviors, challenges, pain points and goals”. The key headings in this article on are: 

      • Broadening perspectives and building empathy; 
      • Bringing diversity into teams and processes; and 
      • Building inclusion into designs.  

The article explains each of the three steps in more detail. Some concepts such as colour contrast are well-known to designers. Less considered factors are providing cost-accessible options of designs, and designing for low bandwidth. Designs should be adaptable for longer life and empower clients to continue without more designer input. These ideas really show that client needs are at the centre of the design. Designing out “pain points” is essential for all users. 

Design is a powerful tool and inclusive design has the “potential to unite heterogeneous cultures in shared understanding. To make products and experiences globally accessible.” Good design is inclusive design. 


Why icons should have labels

A brightly coloured abstract painting consisting of painbrush lines going in all directions. That's why icons should have labels.
Icons are like abstract paintings – they need labels

Digital designers are great at creating icon puzzles for users. They make a good guessing game until you learn what they represent. We see icons everywhere – on microwaves, washing machines, and of course, apps. Like abstract paintings, icons have different meanings for different people. We might like ambiguity in art, but not on our smart phones. That’s why icons need labels. 

Icons are used as a way to save space, or where space for instruction is limited. But designers make a lot of assumptions about previous experience with instructions. Hampus Sethfors explains that saving space at the expense of usability is not the way to go.

In his Axesslab article, Sethfors uses the example of trying to download a TED Talk on a smart phone for viewing later. He explains why icons are ruining interfaces and that icons need labels otherwise users give up and become unsatisfied with the app. Sethfors also uses Instagram, Gmail, and Apple apps as examples of what not to do. He goes on to look at icons on a washing machine dial, and then to icons that really work. You can really see the difference in the examples shown below.

Example of icons without labels.
Icons without titles
Example of Icons with titles
Icons with labels






A related article from Axesslab is how to improve web page content. It shows practical examples of how to improve accessibility and how to avoid simple pitfalls. 

The Australian Network on Disability has a blog page on writing accessible social media posts.  

There is more ICT information on this website. 


Accessible online content is everybody’s business

A laptop is open on a desk and a tablet next to it. Accessible online content is everybody's business.Accessible online content is essential as we try to live more of our lives at home. It’s everybody’s business to ensure accessible online content – not just something governments have to do. But how many businesses know this?

You don’t have to be a technical expert to do simple things such as using a clear font and ensuring colour contrast. Describing images using the alt-text feature helps people with screen reader. It also adds to search engine optimisation which means Google will like you more. Captioning videos is essential because it is useful for everyone – it’s universal design. 

An easy-to-read magazine article from Canada explains more. Indeed, their blog page is an example of clear text and plain language. The title of the article is, Experts calling on businesses to make their online content more accessible.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an international organisation that develops web standards. The latest issue of their guidelines (WCAG 2.1) shows how to make content accessible. It includes a section on translations. Best to start with the overview. Remember, the web design is one part, uploaded documents also need to be accessible. Still too much? Start with WCAG for people who haven’t read them

A related resource is the Handbook for accessible graphic design. See also the Service Providers Accessibility Guide.

The section on ICT guidelines on this website has more resources.

Reducing cognitive load

graphic of a side-on view of a head with a mosaic of brightly coloured triangles filling the space. Minimise brain drain to reduce cognitive load.Reducing cognitive load means reducing the mental effort required to do something. Making designs easy to use and understand is part of the solution. Whether it’s digital information or walking the street, we can all do with some help by reducing cognitive load so we can process the important messages. 

Jon Yablonski developed seven design principles for reducing cognitive load in relation to user interfaces in the digital world. But these are useful tips for other fields of design. The seven principles make a lot of sense and are explained simply. The principles are:

      1. Avoid unnecessary elements: less is more
      2. Leverage common design patterns: keep things familiar
      3. Eliminate unnecessary tasks: make it easy to stay focused
      4. Minimize choices for easy decision making
      5. Display choices as a group: to help with decisions
      6. Strive for readability: make it legible
      7. Use iconography with caution: they aren’t always intuitive

Yablonski’s website explains further the concept of cognitive load.  Every time you visit a website or a new environment your brain has learn something new. You have to do two things at once – focus on learning how to get around and at the same time, remember why you are there. The mental effort required is called cognitive load. If you get more information than you can handle, the brain slows down. We can’t avoid cognitive load, but designers can help minimise it. 


Accessible design is parent friendly design

Infographic showing three groups of disability: permanent, temporary and situational.
Microsoft infographic: Permanent, temporary, situational disability

A light-hearted tone is no cover for the serious nature of accessibility. Hampus Sethfors explains “the dad-thing comes with a ton of accessibility needs”. Carrying a baby means the loss of one or both arms and hands. He also found he had less brain processing capacity. As Hampus says, accessible design is parent friendly design, and he explains why.

Holding a baby is a classic example of situational disability as described in the Microsoft Inclusive Design Toolkit. However, smart phone voice control and access to a headset means he can listen to a podcast. Other parent disabilities are mostly related to having less brain processing capacity. Sleep deprivation and constantly thinking about keeping a baby alive are just two factors. Captions on Netflix means he can keep the sound down or off completely.

This blog post is written in a lighthearted way, but there are important messages that all designers should heed. The access lab blog has easy to read content and is a great example of how to write more inclusively. Most of the articles are related to digital technology, but the principles are valid in other fields of design.

5 Pillars of Inclusive Smart Cities

Slide from James Thurston presentation 5 Pillars of Smart Cities explaining a smart city.A smart city uses communication technology to enhance liveability, workability, and sustainability. While the tech gets smarter it’s not getting more accessible. The most significant barriers to inclusion are lack of leadership, policy, and awareness, and limited solutions. This was part of James Thurston’s keynote, the 5 Pillars of Inclusive Smart Cities.

Head and shoulders of James Thurston. He is wearing a light blue shirt and glasses and smiling to the camera.James Thurston is G3ict’s Vice President for Global Strategy and Development. He previously worked for Microsoft, so he knows the territory well. His keynote presentation at UD2021 Conference showed that technology is improving but it’s not inclusive. Cities have to do a lot more if we are to meet the challenges of the digital world.

He lists the five pillars as:

      1. Strategic Intent: inclusion strategy and leadership
      2. Culture: citizen engagement and transparency
      3. Governance & Process: procurement and partnerships
      4. Technology: Global standards and solution development
      5. Data: Data divide and solutions

These five pillars have 18 Capabilities and 27 Enablers which are explained the Smart Cities for all Toolkit.  There are six key elements in the Toolkit:

      1. Guide to Priority Standards
      2. Guide to Adopting a Procurement Policy
      3. Communicating the Case for Digital Inclusion
      4. Database of Solutions
      5. Maturity Model City Assessments
      6. Inclusive Innovation Playbook. 

You can see a 13 minute video of a previous presentation that covers similar ground. 


Personas for digital technology

12 Faces representing the 12 personas.There’s nothing like asking potential users what they think of a new product. Even better if you involve them in the design process. But sometimes it’s not possible and designers resort to personas. This is often the case in digital technology. The Inclusive Design Toolkit has a suite of 12 personas representing a broad view of potential users. Each one has a story to tell about their lifestyle and their connection to technology.

Many factors affect digital exclusion: prior experience, competence, motivation and general attitude about technology. The personas highlight these factors to make it easier for designers to be inclusive. Each persona has a description of their lifestyle, competency with technology, and physical and sensory capabilities. 

The online resource is part of the Inclusive Design Toolkit with the option to download a PDF. You can take a deeper dive into the personas as a family set. This takes personas one step further by introducing family interactions. The Inclusive Design Toolkit also has an exclusion calculator that estimates the number of people unable to use a product or service. 

Cover of the book Inclusive design toolkitThe Inclusive Design Toolkit is based on thorough research over more than ten years. The personas were produced as part of a project to improve the inclusivity of railway journeys. 

The team wrote a conference paper about using personas for product development. They assessed the task of carrying a tray of food across a cafe, taking into account how using mobility aids restricts hand use. The title of the paper is, Evaluating inclusivity using quantitative personas. The full paper is available by request from ResearchGate.