Web Accessibility Insights from 6 Women with Intellectual Disabilities

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.

outline of a house: 2 windows, front door, A-frame roof, little chimneyI 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.

2 thoughts on “Web Accessibility Insights from 6 Women with Intellectual Disabilities

  1. Thank you for sharing these insights. This brings up some interesting and complex issues – ones that we’ve also seen in WebAIM’s testing with students with cognitive and learning disabilities. Of particular difficulty is differentiating between issues that are a result of the disability vs. issues that are a factor of little experience with the web and web technologies.

    Our research clearly shows different responses and less difficulties for those with more web experience regardless of disability. However, we can’t simply attribute these differences entirely to experience because the disabilities certainly have an impact on how the interact with and understand web stuff.

Comments are closed.