WebAIM - Web Accessibility In Mind

Cognitive Disabilities


The following activity will demonstrate how visual content can supplement text to create a better experience for users, including those with cognitive disabilities.

  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:

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 you may have been able to complete the task by simply reading the instructions, you may have become confused at some point. The instructions may have seemed ambiguous or poorly written. Perhaps you misunderstood an instruction without realizing it.

  • 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, illustrated with arrows and other visual cues showing how to fold the paper.

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

  • Is it easier 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

Visually-oriented readers 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, for these individuals to fully understand. In the example of the 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 making web content accessible to people with cognitive disabilities are nothing more than techniques for effective communication.

Understanding this principle, making content accessible to people with cognitive disabilities becomes less mysterious, albeit challenging. Designing for people with cognitive disabilities isn't so much an art or a science, but a craft: We are applying creativity to create a tool that widest audience will use to accomplish a task.

Note About Visual Disabilities

Keep the needs of both people with visual disabilities and people with cognitive disabilities in mind. If illustrations are provided for people with cognitive disabilities, add alternative text for users with visual disabilities. Likewise, videos need accessible captions and transcripts. 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. 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.