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  7. Cognitive and Neurological Disabilities

Cognitive and Neurological Disabilities

Cognitive and neurological disabilities are disabilities of the nervous system including the brain and spine. They can impact all other senses, as well as the ability to move or understand information. Cognitive and neurological disabilities don’t necessarily impact someone’s intelligence, though they may impact their ability to express themselves.

Examples of disabilities

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Because cognitive and neurological disabilities result in such a wide range of experiences, it can be incredibly challenging to describe what “people with cognitive and neurological disabilities” experience as a category. However, a few elements tend to trend higher than others. 

  • Limited comprehension — difficulty understanding complex ideas, metaphors, or abstract language, slang, or idiomatic expressions. It’s worth noting that people may have high cognitive functions in one area but not in another.
  • Low tolerance for cognitive overload — becoming easily frustrated or upset in difficult situations, too many stimuli, or complexity. They need things to be simple and straightforward.
  • Limited problem-solving skills — some (definitely not all) people with cognitive and neurological disabilities may be unable to solve a problem like what to do with a CAPTCHA box when logging in. They may not even attempt to solve it.
  • Short-term memory loss — some people have a hard time remembering things from one moment to the next. They can’t focus on new information, so it gets lost. Long web process can cause users to forget what they were doing or lose track of information from one step to the next.
  • Attention deficit — where people can’t focus on the task at hand, which can also lead to forgetting what they were doing or losing track of information.
  • Difficulty reading — this may have many causes with similar results: some people read at a lower level than their peers or can’t read at all.
  • Difficulty understanding or using math — like reading disabilities, this may have many causes with similar results: some people solve mathematical problems at lower levels than their peers, or not at all.

Design considerations

When we build for people with cognitive and neurological disabilities, we need to provide:

  • Clear navigation and page layouts that are easy to understand and use
  • Clear and precise “plain language” instructions or explanations.
  • Images, graphs, or other illustrations to highlight or reemphasize key content
  • Designs that can be adapted using web browser controls or custom stylesheets.
  • A limited number of choices at every step to cut down on cognitive overload.
  • Help features for when users get stuck.
  • Predictability across navigation and structure to cut down on cognitive fatigue.
  • Limited distractions.

We need to avoid:

  • Moving, blinking, or flickering content and/or background audio that cannot be turned off. These things may trigger seizures or other disorders. (That doesn’t mean we can’t use them; it does mean we have to provide easy access to shut them off.) 

Your Interactive Makes Me Sick by Eileen Web outlines some of the impacts of animated scrolling and breaking the user’s expectations for scrolling on users with migraines and other vestibular disorders.

Additional resources