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Cognitive Accessibility and blurred lines

Cognitive Accessibility and blurred lines
InterAccess - Cognitive accessibility and blurred lines

As Cognitive accessibility needs and requirements are becoming better understood (and supported) the lines between design disciplines are becoming blurred.

Accessibility maturity usually leads to a point of view that accessibility is an integral part of successful content and user interface design. Rather than being seen as an additional effort to support people with disabilties, they are key activities of good design that ensure everyone has easy access, regardless of individual requirements, physical context or cognitive experience.

Cognitive accessibility requirements are diverse due to personal variability which is innate; such a neural diversity or age related decline and temporary such as stress or poor health. As a result, a systematic organisation of these requirements with supporting design techniques is going to cover a lot of ground.

However, it turns out this doesn’t lead to introducing a lot of extra accessibility knowledge in order to create successfull inclusive designs. Rather, cognitive accessibility embraces techniques that have traditionally been basically addressed in good design. For example, good information architecture and the use of plain language.

Lets explore this overlap.

Recent Work in Cognitive Accessibility

You may have noticed that cognitive accessibility has been getting attention lately in both public awareness and accessibility circles. One possible reason is that the advent of “long COVID” has highlighted the importance of addressing the “hidden disabilities”. There is also growing understanding of neural diversity and how it impacts simple activities of daily living.

In April 2022 the WC3 WAI Cognitive and Learning Disabilities Accessibility Task Force released their landmark W3C note “Making Content Usable for People with Cognitive and Learning Disabilities”. More recently, the Design Guide part of this document was made available on the WAI website as Supplemental Guidance to WCAG.

In addition, at the time of writing this, the latest draft of the WCAG 2.2 accessibility standard includes several new Success Criteria that have their roots in this cognitive accessibility work.

This is good for us all. The so-called “curb cut effect” comes into play here. For example, people under temporary cognitive stress due to their environment, lack of sleep or medical treatment will really appreciate good cognitive accessibility design. It may mean the difference between success and failure when doing something important and accessing content or some user interface.

Cognition in Human Computer interaction

One common model of how people interact with computers is the rather simplistic “input, processing and output” model. From the users perspective successful interaction requires:

  • Perception (input) - e.g. screen, speech, sound or Braille (touch)
  • Cognition (process) - e.g. users comprehension, planning and execution
  • Action (output) - e.g. controlling with a pointer, keyboard, touch, speech, eye gaze or brain computer interface

In fact, the WCAG standard captures these three general components of human interaction in the core accessibility “Principles” for a user interface. This switches perspective to the computer rather than the human, but they mirror each other. In WCAG, content or an user interface must be:

  • Perceivable - presentable to users in ways they can perceive
  • Understandable - the content or operation cannot be beyond their understanding
  • Operable - users must be able to operate the interface

So here WCAG is shining a spotlight on general design considerations through the lens of accessibility. WCAG also adds the fourth principle of “Robust” so that content can be accessed through a variety of current and future technologies, even if it is to be transformed. Such as the case with screen readers.

Noticeably, cognition is right at the centre of Human Computer Interactions (HCI). Both in general and from an accessibility point of view. It is therefore unsurprising that there is considerable cognitive accessibility to consider for successful design for inclusive access.

Cognitive in Other Design Disciplines

It may seem like cognitive accessibility is exposing a lot of requirements and thus extra work for good design processes.

Notably, the new WCAG Success Criteria will become mandatory for those who have to meet legislation based on WCAG, eg Section 508 in America and the Web Accessibility Directive in the EU. Plus, there’s a lot of useful patterns in the Cognitive Design Guide. While it is additional “Supplemental Guidance” to WCAG it is vital for accessibility. What’s more, both sources may expand over time.

The Design Guide attempts to be a comprehensive collection of knowledge and techniques for cognitive accessibility. Including topics that are already be covered in WCAG and elsewhere. For example, some of the patterns are already addressed by existing Success Criteria in WCAG 2.1 SCs. Others are added in WCAG 2.2. In addition, looking through the Design Guide patterns it soon becomes clear that many involve some established design topics.

  • content design
  • plain language
  • information architecture and navigation
  • help and support
  • distraction management
  • error handling
  • adaptation (was personalisation)*

With the possible exception of personalisation which is relatively new, these topics are all mature disciplines in themselves and are likely to be well covered in your design processes. Indeed some people specialise in these topics as they are significantly complex themselves.

It’s well know that accessibility needs to be a part of every design team members’ work, if it is to be successful and not ultimatley too expensive. What cognitive accessibility is highlighting is that the reverse is also true. Many team members’ work is already covering aspects of accessibility, including cognitive accessibility.

To my mind this is further evidence that accessibility is not a separate distinct discipline from good design, despite it’s historical application. Its requirements and application are deeply embedded in design and development of content and user interfaces. This is evidenced by the carefully designed general purpose and inclusive content and control features in HTML and CSS. Custom controls need similar care.


Cognitive accessibility is a fundamental part of good accessibility, along with perceivability and action. Accessibility means ensuring your website or app can be used by as many people as possible.

This is likely to be one of your own goals for your website. Otherwise, why have one?

It takes a careful integrated approach to be successful, whether it’s a team of one or many more. We all have an significant part to play in ensuring users do not experience barriers, or worse, complete failure.

Embracing Cognitive accessibility could be a good way to start improving your success or cross team collaboration in accessibility.