WebAIM - Web Accessibility In Mind

Evaluating Cognitive Web Accessibility


Web accessibility for individuals with cognitive or learning disabilities is varied and complex. It is an area with little definitive research and few concrete recommendations.

A few important points:

  • There are many types of cognitive and learning disabilities and an even wider variety of interests and capabilities of users who have these disabilities.
  • This population is larger than those with all other physical and sensory disabilities combined.
  • Because needs vary across these disabilities, it's difficult to make definitive recommendations that will universally help all users with cognitive and learning disabilities. Despite this, there is much we can say that is useful.
  • Beyond research that WebAIM and others have conducted, there is much insight that can be drawn from learning sciences, usability, and other areas of web accessibility.
  • Improving web accessibility for this audience will improve access for everyone.

Principles of Cognitive Web Accessibility

Cognitive accessibility can be defined by the following principles:

  • Simple
  • Consistent
  • Clear
  • Multi-modal
  • Error-tolerant
  • Attention-focusing
  • Improving web accessibility for this audience will improve access for everyone.

In many ways, it's hard to define when a page is accessible to users with cognitive disabilities. How simple is simple enough? For the most part, cognitive web accessibility is one of those "you know it when you see it" things. Common sense, holistic evaluation, and user testing should predominantly guide cognitive web accessibility evaluation.

The following items attempt to address these principles (though they do not map directly to them) and can serve as a guide for maximizing cognitive web accessibility. These recommendations are based on a combination of internal and existing research, commonly-assumed best practices, and thoughtful speculation.

Cognitive Web Accessibility Checklist

Assistive Technology Compatibility

Users with cognitive or learning disabilities often use screen readers or other assistive technologies to access content through various senses or to modify content to be best perceivable to them. Users with other physical or sensory disabilities also have a higher prevalence of cognitive or learning disabilities. Many assistive technology issues are addressed in WCAG 2.0 or Section 508. Assistive technology accessibility includes (but is not limited to):


  • Ensure that navigation is consistent throughout a site
    Navigation placement, display, and functionality should not change from page to page.
  • Similar interface elements and similar interactions should produce predictably similar results


  • Support increased text sizes
    The page should remain readable and functional when text is increased 200-300%.
  • Ensure images are readable and comprehensible when enlarged
    Content within images, particularly text, should be understandable when the image is scaled 200-300%. Use true text instead of text within images when feasible.
  • Ensure color alone is not used to convey content
    If page colors are removed or changed, content should not be lost.
  • Support the disabling of images and/or styles
    Ensure that the page remains readable and functional when images are disabled (alternative text will be displayed instead) or when styles are disabled.


  • Provide content in multiple mediums
    Video or audio alternatives provide an additional method of perceiving content. A text alternative (captions and/or a transcript) should be provided for video and audio content. Closed captioning, which gives users the option to turn off the captions, is optimal.
  • Use images to enhance content
    Images can be used to convey or enhance content. Illustration, diagrams, icons, and animations can convey complex information.
  • Pair icons or graphics with text to provide contextual cues and help with content comprehension

Focus and Structure

  • Use white space and visual design elements to focus user attention
    The design of a page (white space, color, images, etc.) should focus the user on what is most important (typically the body content of that page).
  • Avoid distractions
    Animation, varying or unusual font faces, contrasting color or images, or other distracters that pull attention away from content should be avoided. Complex or "busy" background images can draw attention away from the content. Avoid pop-up windows and blinking or moving elements.
  • Use stylistic differences to highlight important content, but do so conservatively
    Use various stylistic elements (italics, bold, color, brief animation, or differently-styled content) to highlight important content. Overuse can result in the loss of differentiation. Do not use italics or bold on long sections of text. Avoid ALL CAPS.
  • Organize content into well-defined groups or chunks, using headings, lists, and other visual mechanisms
    Break long pages into shorter sections with appropriate headings (use true and visually significant headings rather than simply big bold text). Very long pages may be divided into multiple, sequenced pages. Unordered, ordered, and definition lists provide a visual structuring and convey semantic meaning (e.g., an unordered list conveys a group of parallel items). Use shorter, multi-step forms for complex interactions, rather than lengthy, all-in-one forms.
  • Use white space for separation
    White space is a design term that refers to empty space between elements in a page. It is not necessarily the color white. White space should be used to separate navigation from main body, body text from side elements and footer, main content from supplementary items (floating boxes, for example) and to separate headings, paragraphs, and other body text.
  • Avoid background sounds
    Give the user control over playing audio content within the page, or at a minimum, give the user control to stop the background sounds.

Readability and Language

  • Use language that is as simple as is appropriate for the content
  • Avoid tangential, extraneous, or non-relevant information
    Stick to the content at hand.
  • Use correct grammar and spelling
    Use a spell-checker. Write clearly and simply.
  • Maintain a reading level that is adequate for the audience
    Readability tests can be performed on the body text (for accuracy, do not include web site navigation, side bar, footer, or other extraneous text elements in the evaluation). Generally, web content should be understandable by those with a lower secondary education, though an elementary reading level may be necessary for some users with certain cognitive or learning disabilities. More complex content may necessitate diligence in implementing other recommendations in this list.
  • Be careful with colloquialisms, non-literal text, and jargon
  • Expand abbreviations and acronyms
    Provide the full meaning in the first instance and use the <abbr> or <acronym> elements. Complex content may necessitate a glossary.
  • Provide summaries, introductions, or a table of contents for complex or lengthy content
  • Be succinct
    Provide the minimum amount of text necessary to convey the content.
  • Ensure text readability
    • Line height
      The amount of space between lines should generally be no less than half the character height.
    • Line length
      Very long lines of text (more than around 80 characters per line) are more difficult to read.
    • Letter spacing, word spacing, and justification
      Provide appropriate (but not too much) letter and word spacing. Avoid full justified text as it results in variable spacing between words and can result in distracting "rivers of white" - patterns of white spaces that flow downward through body text.
    • Sans-serif fonts
      These fonts are generally regarded to be more appealing for body text.
    • Adequate text size
      Text should generally be at least 10 pixels in size.
    • Content appropriate fonts
      Visually appealing and content-appropriate fonts affect satisfaction, readability, and comprehension.
    • Paragraph length
      Keep paragraph length short.
    • Adequate color contrast
      Ensure text is easily discerned against the background and that links are easily differentiable from surrounding text.
    • No horizontal scrolling
      Avoid horizontal scrolling when the text size is increased 200-300%

Orientation and Error Prevention/Recovery

  • Give users control over time sensitive content changes
    Avoid automatic refreshes or redirects. Allow users to control content updates or changes. Avoid unnecessary time-outs or expirations. Allow users to request more time.
  • Provide adequate instructions and cues for forms
    Ensure required elements and formatting requirements are identified. Provide associated and descriptive form labels and fieldsets/legends.
  • Give users clear and accessible form error messages and provide mechanisms for resolving form errors and resubmitting the form
  • Give feedback on a user's actions
    Confirm correct choices and alert users to errors or possible errors.
  • Provide instructions for unfamiliar or complex interfaces
  • Use breadcrumbs, indicators, or cues to indicate location or progress
    Allow users to quickly determine where they are at in the structure of a web site (e.g., a currently active "tab" or Home > Products > Widget, for example) or within a sequence (Step 2 of 4). Next/Previous options should be provided for sequential tasks.
  • Allow critical functions to be confirmed and/or canceled/reversed
  • Provide adequately-sized clickable targets and ensure functional elements appear clickable
    Use labels for form elements, particularly small checkboxes and radio buttons, and ensure all clickable elements appear clickable and do not require exactness.
  • Use underline for links only
  • Provide multiple methods for finding content
    A logical navigation, search functionality, index, site map, table of contents, links within body text, supplementary or related links section, etc. all provide multiple ways for users to find content.

Funding for this material provided by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services Steppingstones of Technology Innovation Grant #H327A070057.