Cognitive Disabilities


Here are your instructions:

  1. Find a blank piece of paper.
  2. If it isn't already perfectly square, cut off one edge of the paper until it is perfectly square.
  3. Fold the paper in half diagonally.
  4. Lay the paper down in front of you so that the longest edge is facing you.
  5. Take the bottom left corner and fold it over the main area of the piece of paper so that the corner touches the opposite edge, and so that the top of the newly folded edge is parallel with the bottom of the piece of paper.
  6. Do the same thing to the right corner, folding it across the main area of the piece of paper until it touches the opposite edge. The top edge of this fold should be exactly on top of the top edge of the previous fold.
  7. Take the outer layer of the very top corner and fold it down until the corner touches the spot where the bottom of the other two folds meet. You should see a pattern in the shape of an "X."
  8. Do the same thing to the other layer, but in the opposite direction.
  9. Spread apart the two layers on the top and gently push the sides in.
  10. You made an origami cup! (Or did you?)

Questions and Discussion

  • How successful were you at performing the task?
  • Were you able to make anything resembling a cup?
  • Are you sure that you performed the task correctly? Perhaps you made a mistake or two, whether you know it or not.

Here's what your origami cup should look like (although the color of your paper may be different):

photo of an origami cup

How closely does your origami cup match the one pictured above? Is it even close? If not, why not?

Although some of you may have been able to complete the task of folding an origami cup by simply reading the instructions, my guess is that most of you got a little bit confused at some point along the way. My instructions may have seemed ambiguous to you. They may have seemed poorly written. Perhaps you misunderstood my instructions even when you thought that you understood them.

  • Would it have helped to have a picture of the end goal before starting the task?
  • Would it have helped to see someone perform the task, or an illustration of how to perform the task?


The following example presents visual content that will not be of use to people who cannot see it, but we have provided a brief discussion of this material in the Note About Visual Disabilities section.

Compare the written instructions to a visual method of instruction:

  • Example 1: Simple step-by step instructions on how to fold an origami cup, which are illustrated with graphical arrows and other visual cues showing you how to fold the piece of paper.

After looking at the above visual methods of giving instructions on the task:

  • Would you say that you are better able to perform the task?
  • Which instructional method did you like best?
  • Can you think of other instructional methods that may be even better?

How This Relates to Cognitive Disabilities

Those of you who are visually-oriented were at a cognitive disadvantage when trying to fold an origami cup with nothing more than written instructions. Individuals with learning disabilities, reading disorders, or more profound cognitive disabilities often feel similarly disadvantaged when trying to understand concepts that are difficult for them. Content needs to be clear and accurate, and sometimes in more than one format, in order for these individuals to fully understand content. In the case of folding an origami cup, illustrations and animations are particularly useful. With other types of information, audio content may be more appropriate.


In many cases, the techniques for more making web content accessible to people with cognitive disabilities are nothing more than techniques for effective communication.

Once you understand this principle, the task of making content accessible to people with cognitive disabilities becomes a little bit less mysterious, even if it doesn't become less challenging.

Designing for people with cognitive disabilities is much more of an art than a science. Some people prefer animated instructions, while others prefer static graphical illustrations. But it is not a simple matter of static versus animated illustrations. The effectiveness of graphics and animations depends largely on the skills of the artist, both in the sense of draftsmanship ("being able to draw well") and presentation (being able to communicate well).

Note About Visual Disabilities

As you can imagine, illustrations, graphics, and other materials that are visually-oriented are going to be useless to someone who cannot see them. This does NOT mean that there is a direct conflict between the needs of people with visual disabilities and the needs of people with cognitive disabilities. It simply means that you have to keep the needs of both audiences in mind. If you provide illustrations for people with cognitive disabilities, provide alt text for those illustrations to benefit those with visual disabilities. If you provide videos, provide a transcript of the videos that can be accessed by screen readers, and so on. In the case of the origami cup, more detailed instructions would probably need to be written for a blind person to be able to perform the task more effectively. These detailed instructions would be the "text alternative" to the illustration format. With both illustrations and detailed textual instructions, both audiences would receive what they need.