I have created an index of Web sites I have assessed as intending to be accessible to people with cognitive disabilities. At the time of this writing, there are over fifty. The criteria I used to identify them are essentially twofold:
the site-sponsoring organizations serve people with cognitive disabilities; and
I also limited my search to sites of countries where English is the dominant- or official language. These included Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States and those of The United Kingdom. I plan to expand my search to other such countries, starting with the largest, India.
For the purposes of this project, I considered “cognitive disability” to include Alzheimer’s Disease, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Brain Injury, Intellectual Disabilities, Learning Disabilities (Dyslexia & Dyscalculia) & Mental Illness (Bipolar, Depression & Schizophrenia).
Of organizations that serve people with Alzheimer’s Disease, Brain Injury, and/or Mental Illness, I have not found related Web sites that include cognitive-accessibility features. I suppose these sites are not designed to be used by their constituencies, but instead by the people who serve them.
The vast majority of Web sites I found, which did include cognitive-accessibility features, were those of organizations that serve people with intellectual disabilities. They make an apparent effort to be accessible to their constituencies. I thus made a sub-list just for them, of which most are in England. Note: In The United Kingdom, “intellectual disabilities” are also referred to as “Learning Disabilities” or “Learning Difficulties”.
Common accessibility features of these sites include a default-large text size; text-size enlargers; plain language; text-to-speech; contextually-relevant images; and graphics or icons paired with text.
Characteristics Of Web Site Listings
All are sorted by country.
All have links to the Web sites.
All are annotated with a description of the organization’s mission or the site’s purpose. All annotations are edited quotes from the site’s pages (Home, About Us or Mission).
Last night, I met with a focus group formed to help me with the Clear Helper project. It consists of people who are self advocates, who are interested in learning about computers, and who want to help me design a Web site accessible to them. Each has an intellectual disability. I know this blog post won’t sufficiently describe all I learned from them, but the following are some of the highlights.
Backgrounds and Interests
Joanne, Donna, Val, Nora, Mary and Jeanne are capable people. The majority live in their own apartments and have jobs in the community. Even so, only two have computers in their homes. Another uses a public-library computer exclusively to exchange e-mail with her family. The remaining four have little experience with computers. Of all the ladies, one reported using the Web.
The main reason for the lack of computer experience is cost. Despite ever-falling computer prices, the group members can’t afford them. Of course, buying a computer is only a small part of the real cost. Significantly beyond their means are: obtaining assistance for computer set up; purchase and integration of assistive-technology devices and software; and especially training.
All reported knowing of the Web, and that they want to learn about computer technology to access the Web’s many resources. From most to least, they are interested in: learning to use e-mail; looking up recipes; determining local movie schedules; and finding contact information for state-government representatives.
Demonstration of Web Sites Designed to be Accessible to People with Intellectual Disabilities
I showed the group various Web sites intended to be accessible to them. I started with Self Advocacy Online. The site-registration page has a fun video that takes users step-by-step through the registration form. It pauses so users can complete each field, and prompts them to play the video to receive the next set of instructions. The first set about creating a user name, and particularly the second set about entering an e-mail address, really confounded the group. Members reported the instructions were too long, with too many steps and too much information. Had the prompts been something as simple as “type a user name” and “type your e-mail address”, they told me, they would have understood what to do much better.
I showed them Easy You Tube and the BBC’s Us 5 video player. For each, the group members reported confusion about the purposes of the control buttons. Only two of the group members accurately reported the play button’s purpose. They agreed that, if it had audio- and textual prompts that said “Play!” triggered by hovering the cursor on it, they would have understood what it was meant to do.
Demonstration of Clear Helper Test Pages
I showed them my recent experiment with designing features accessible to people with cognitive disabilities.
Because two group members told me at the start of our meeting that they found the text size of computers too small, I demonstrated my recent text size switcher. The group acted surprised and pleased that a Web site / “the computer” could enlarge text. Two said they thought the switcher was easy to use. I also showed my instructions on how to use a Web browser to enlarge text size. The group consensus was they were too confusing. Even though the instructions begin by explaining the two-key combination to enlarge text, and show images of the keys, the group en masse asked, “What’s a control key?”
Switching between standard- and plain language versions was the next feature I showed them. I pointed out the length of the standard version’s first paragraph. I showed them the “Easy” link, and clicked it to reveal the plain language version. Unprompted, immediate comments included approval of the short sentences and of the spacing between them.
My recent text-to-speech (TTS) experiment was next. Group reaction was positive. One lady explained in her own words that she is illiterate, and would need TTS to use a computer. There was general agreement the voice narration should not announce the page content’s structural elements.
I asked the group if they knew the purpose of my test home page image (pictured). One lady explained it was for the site’s home page, the same lady who said she uses the Web. Another guessed it meant that people lived there. The rest of the group was silent.
This was an enlightening experience for me. I learned that features on Web sites designed to be accessible for people with intellectual disabilities, features about which my impression was favorable, were not accessible (at least to this small group). I am chagrined at my surprise that one of the ladies recognized and volunteered she found text most understandable when it was presented in small chunks. I was equally impressed by another lady’s comment that making a Web site accessible to them means it would be easier to use for everyone. This is a point the accessibility community continually makes.
Finally, I was again confronted with talking about Web accessibility to people who don’t have even basic computer skills. All said they wanted to learn how to independently turn on a computer, and use its keyboard and mouse. Acquiring and retaining these skills are going to be very difficult for these ladies simply because they don’t own computers, let alone their intellectual disabilities.
I plan to meet with this group again. We agreed to think about what I could help them learn. I know they have much more to teach me.
It is coincidence (not by design) that all the group members are women.
I don’t know how easy or difficult the group would have found the features I demonstrated had each been controlling her own computer. Such activity will be part of the testing I do for the future Clear Helper Web site.
Research It is a new feature that enables JAWS users to quickly access information. It uses APIs of publicly-available databases to retrieve the information on demand. For each of the databases on DisabilityInfo.org, I could create an API for JAWS users. I could then develop a Web-based search interface to query that API and others, and that is accessible to people with cognitive disabilities.
JAWS (Job Access With Speech) is screen reader software used mainly by people who are blind or who have a significant visual disability. It reads aloud in a voice the information sighted people see on their computer screens. Yesterday, I attended a demo of JAWS 11, the newest version. It was held at the Perkins School For The Blind by Eric Damery of Freedom Scientific, the maker of JAWS.
Of the new JAWS 11 features Mr. Damery demonstrated, it was Research It that caught my attention. It is designed to be the equivalent of desktop gadgets. Sighted people can glance at a desktop gadget to obtain information, then quickly return to their primary task. Research It serves the same function for JAWS users.
With a single keystroke, JAWS users can open a field in which to type a query for weather reports; local businesses; FedEx-package tracking; baseball- and football scores, etc.. At the time of this writing, Research It can access 17 information sources. Mr. Damery mentioned he had six more under development.
An Application Program Interface (API) is a software component that enables interaction with other software. An API controls which data can be accessed and what can be done with them. When JAWS users type a search term, such as “pizza; 33716”, Research It queries a publicly-available API that returns a list of pizza restaurants within and around that Zip code.
Using best practices of accessibility for people with cognitive disabilities, I could then develop a Web-based search interface to query the new API of the DisabilityInfo.org databases. On that Web site, the search interface would not need to use the API because it would directly access the databases. However, it could be embedded on other Web sites so their users could query DisabilityInfo.org databases via the API. It also could be extended to be more universal; it could query the APIs of other publicly-available databases. This would be especially useful for bypassing inaccessible interfaces such sites may have.
For many of the Research It search demos, Mr. Damery used two-word terms. At least one had three, that for city, state and “weather”. Although I am sure the intention is to keep search terms as simple as possible so using them is speedy, others could require even more words. Implementing their syntax and remembering them may be beyond the capabilities of users with cognitive disabilities. Therefore, I would likely develop an alternative solution I previously discussed, a search-wizard interface.
Note: On March 1, 2010, Freedom Scientific will conduct a Research It Webinar on creating custom rule sets and lookup modules.
I will soon be publishing several indexes of resources related to cognitive Web accessibility.
In each index, listings will include:
a link to the resource;
a brief description; and
the publication year, as appropriate.
In the order of indexes listed below, I will publish as many resources as I can, then announce the corresponding indexes. I will continually add resources to them, so there will be a RSS feed for each. (What Is RSS?)
Cognitive Web Accessibility
By Publication Year
Web Sites Designed for People with Cognitive Disabilities
Web Sites Designed Specifically for People with Intellectual Disabilities
Organizations that Promote Cognitive Web Accessibility
Funders of Research and Development Related to Cognitive Web Accessibility
Organizations for People with Cognitive Disabilities
Organizations Specifically for People with Intellectual Disabilities
Master Index of All Resources
All Resources Specific to Intellectual Disabilities
I will add other indexes as I think of them. As always, I am open to suggestions.
The site contains three sections: a “Learning Center”; a search tool for finding self-advocacy groups; and “My Page” for within-site e-mail messages and discussion forums.
The site registration form has a few simple fields. Fun, instructional videos explain each step. The first video automatically pauses until activated by the user to indicate readiness for instructions about the next field.
The Learning Center has two modules, “Living a Healthy Life” and “Getting Organized”. They are slide presentations combining text, pictures and voice narration. Small chunks of content use simple analogies and examples.
Search Tool for Self-Advocacy Groups
The Self-Advocacy Group Search Tool can be used via a drop-down list of states, a Zip Code field, or an image map of the United States. Contact- and other information is listed for each group.
Discussion Forums / Messaging
The “My Page” section, the only one that requires registration, has a list of friends and access to within-site messaging. Discussion groups have a simple interface that makes it easy to create, to join, and to read/write messages within them. At the time of this writing, there are low numbers of groups, users and messages.
Evaluation of a few pages using WebAIM’s WAVE revealed compliance with accessibility guidelines. The site also has many accessibility- and usability features for people with intellectual disabilities. Highlights:
a bright, simple, uncluttered page layout;
large-size text, short in length, and written in plain language;
scalable menu-button text that is not image based;
Learning Center Modules
voice narration begins automatically;
contextually-relevant images are synchronized with the voice narration;
visual- and/or audio prompts throughout draw attention to content and to slide navigation; and
a simple-to-use video player has only one button (play/pause).
There is no text-size switcher / enlarger.
With browser-based controls, text size can be enlarged a little on the site without breaking down its page layout, but problems occur with larger text sizes.
In the site navigation menu, the current page is indicated by menu-button color, but in no other way.
Videos are not closed-captioned.
Search Tool Application
Form labels are missing.
The listings of self-advocacy groups all use the same link text, “More Information”, to related records. This is a problem for screen-reader users.
Links to external Web sites open them in a new window without warning.
Learning Center Modules
Keyboard or single-switch based navigation is not enabled. This is a problem typical of such Flash-based applications.
At one point in the “Living a Healthy Life” module, the voice narration instructs the user, “After each item, click the green ‘Next’ button'”. Though there is such a button at the bottom of the slide, the written instruction at the top says to, “… click the orange ‘Go’ button,” and the one that appears afterward is an orange ‘Go’ button.
Self-Advocacy Online, despite the minor problems listed above, is a wonderful demonstration of accessibility and usability for people with intellectual disabilities. In particular, it is obvious that considerable instructional-design effort went into the modules of The Learning Center.
The subject chosen for the site is very important to people with intellectual disabilities; self advocacy has been a recurring topic in my interviews for The Clear Helper project. I hope additional funding is received to develop additional content for the Web site, to market it, and to help it become a thriving community.
Self-Advocacy Online is an educational and networking website for teens and adults with intellectual and cognitive disabilities, targeted at those who participate in organized self-advocacy groups. In supporting greater networking, peer exchange, collaboration, and communication to a general public, Self Advocacy Online will extend the reach of and interaction among people with disabilities so that they can more effectively speak up for themselves and make their own decisions.
To The University of Minnesota Institute on Community Integration (ICI) – Minneapolis, MN
For Self-Advocacy Online (SAO), a research and development project to bridge the “digital divide” for persons with intellectual disability (ID) and related cognitive disability (RCD). The project will test, validate and recommend standards for accessible websites for persons with ID and RCD, as well as provide a national, maximally accessible website for self-advocates with ID and RCD that exemplifies the validated standards and provides needed content on self-advocacy. http://rtc.umn.edu and http://www.qualitymall.org
The menu, pictured on the right, appears in the “sidebar” column of a test page. The image on top, an outline of a house, is intended to symbolize the home page. An ideal is that the meaning it conveys is proven, through research and extensive testing, to be consistently understood. Accomplishing that is beyond the scope of this project.
There are no animations that could cause distraction.
Other Good Attributes for People with Cognitive Disabilities
The images and the text labels are large. This helps with comprehension. It also provides easy-to-click targets for mouse users.
The text label for the home page is simple, as will be the labels of future navigation images.
The lighter color around the home-page image is intended to show it is the current page. This violates the accessibility guideline that colors alone do not convey meaning. I will have to determine an additional method.
I failed to measure the contrast of the colors surrounding the actual images. I suspect it is not good, so I will correct it in a subsequent version.
The alternative text for each images is repeated by the text label beneath it. According to best practices, this is not advisable because screen-reader users hear the same message twice. I will fix that too.
I incorporated a text-size switcher into a recent Experiment with Site Design for People with Cognitive Disabilities. I am trying this version because a feature like it may be easier to use for people with cognitive disabilities than a referral to instructions on how to increase text size. This is a continuation of previous posts that describe my experiment with providing step-by-step instructions for changing text size in Firefox or Internet Explorer.
This text-size switcher, as pictured below, appears at the top of the test page, on the right side.
Description & Features
It is encountered immediately by site visitors who use a keyboard or a single-switch device for navigation.
It is activated via links that use simple words.
It has the following three versions. The first is displayed by default. The latter two appear sequentially as the text-size switcher is activated. (The best way to understand it is to visit the test page and try it.)
Smaller Text | Bigger Text
Smaller Text | Biggest Text
Its size always matches the text on the rest of the page.
Once it is invoked, the selected text size is displayed across all site pages.
[Edit on 2010-02-03: I just discovered a great article that discusses guidelines for text (font) resizing and the design difficulties faced accommodating it. Entitled “Font Resizing Guidance“, it was written by Karl Groves of The SSB Bart Group. I realized with some satisfaction that, without having read the article first, the test page I created conforms to all the best practices and the recommendations it describes.]
As text size is increased, the switcher’s links shift left. A mouse user therefore may need to move the cursor to the right to select subsequent links for larger text. It would be simpler if the switcher were set up so a user could just click the same place a couple of times to increase text size.
It does not use symbols to indicate its function. I will have to survey other sites to find examples of simple ones.
As always, I am open to learning about alternative solutions. Please contact me or post a comment.