Cognitive Difficulties: An Overlooked Aspect of Accessible Design | UX Design

Submitted by anoopa on Sat, 10/27/2018 - 21:57

A chunk of my job involves making sure that the things we design for the web are accessible. I spent a few years helping GOV.UK services take form — when your digital service has to work for literally almost everybody, you take accessibility seriously.

One of the more overlooked aspects of accessible design for the web is cognitive difficulties. Ironically, this is a woolly concept for many: do we mean people with brain injuries? With Alzheimer’s disease, or mild cognitive impairment in old age? What about people with autism?

Yes, all of those. But cognitive difficulties also arise circumstantially, such as when people are tired: new parents; shift workers; those with chronic fatigue; people who just came in on the red-eye. Or stressed: carers; parents of kids going through difficult phases; the recently bereaved; those struggling to make ends meet; recent immigrants.

Or, recently, me.

It gets a bit much, all those “I never knew X was a problem until Y happened and now I am a champion for justice” blog posts. But roll your eyes all you want — lived experience of a thing is often the only way to fully grasp it.

I got the ’flu. How utterly mundane.

It wasn’t even bad ’flu —you know, the kind with hallucinations and alternating sweats and chills. It was just fever and coughing and nose-blowing and headaches, and that horrible listlessness that comes from suddenly having time to do things, but no appetite to do them. I spent a few days on the sofa, staring vaguely at the internet.

Presumably because my brain was cooking itself, everything that had to do with language or complex cognition was suddenly, unexpectedly hard. Trying to type messages on my phone was a nightmare: typos all over the place; lots of deleting and trying again. Reading and writing in Norwegian, things I now largely take for granted, were suddenly unnecessarily difficult. Checking Slack messages, I was so far gone that when a colleague said “Monday and Tuesday” and I replied “but what about Tuesday?”, I didn’t even understand that this was a non-sequiteur (I meant Wednesday).