Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

Defining Cognitive Disabilities In Relation To Web Accessibility


WebAIM has a good article that defines cognitive disabilities in relation to Web accessibility.  The article is entitled, naturally, “Cognitive Disabilities“.

  • Section / Page 1 discusses why classifying cognitive disabilities by functional disability, rather than by clinical diagnoses, is more useful in terms of Web accessibility.  It then discusses the functional limitations some people experience.
  • Section / Page 2 talks about how to accommodate these functional limitations, and offers some good, specific site-design / accessibility suggestions.
  • Section / Page 3 attempts to demonstrate how people with cognitive disabilities may have trouble with Web site content.  It presents an activity in which it asks the reader to follow a set of instructions, and shows how difficult that can be for anyone.

An important point this article makes is that “In many cases, the techniques for more making web content accessible to people with cognitive disabilities are nothing more than techniques for effective communication.”

Public computing options for people with cognitive disabilities


New research has just been published in the Journal of Disability & Rehabilitation: Assistive Technology, Volume 4, Issue 5.  The article, entitled “Public computing options for individuals with cognitive impairments: Survey outcomes,” examines the availability and the accessibility of public computing for people with cognitive disabilities living in the United States.

The researchers found that, of the facilities surveyed, libraries had the highest percentage of access barriers.  This is disappointing.  Public libraries are a great source of free access to the Web.  If people with cognitive disabilities can’t use them, or have significant trouble using them because of access barriers, then their access to the Web is problematic at the outset.

Conversion of Text into a Symbol-Based Alternative


As mentioned in the previous posting, one feature of Web browsers intended for use by people with cognitive disabilities is the conversion of Web site text into a symbol-based alternative.

Produced by Widget Software, the image below is intended as a small demonstration.

demo of text to symbolic language

There are also Web sites, such as The Children’s Society, that accompany the text of their pages with a symbol-based alternative.

Widget Software, through its Symbols Inclusion Project, does have some material on Evidence and Practice related to the use of symbols in the classroom.  Yet I can find no information on its site that refers to basic research on the development of a symbol-based alternative to text.

There has been such research, especially within the area of augmentative communication.   However, it is my impression that none has produced significant evidence in support of text-to-symbol replacement on the scale used by the Web browsers and the Web sites designed for people with cognitive disabilities.

Widget Software advertises its library of symbols represents over 29,000 words.  The text-to-symbol conversion is one symbol for each word.  Upon what research does it rely to show that these symbols accurately convey  syntax, for instance?  More investigation into this matter will be the subject of a future blog post.

Note: About Widget Software and its products, no endorsement is intended or implied.

Web Browsers for People with Cognitive Disabilities


So far, I have found three Web browsers intended for use by people with cognitive disabilities.  Each use text-to-speech (TTS) technology, display of Web sites in a simplified format, and/or the conversion of Web site text into a symbolic representation.

  • WWAAC is the result of a Pan-European effort funded in part by the European Commission.
  • EdWeb was developed by The School of Informatics, University of Manchester, England.
  • Communicate: Webwide is a commercial product produced by Widget Software.  Of the three Web browsers, this is the most up-to-date product.

I expect that these Web browsers work best with Web sites that adhere to accessibility standards.  Their conversion of Web site text into a symbol-based alternative will be the subject of the next blog post.

Note: No endorsement is intended or implied for any of these products.

Icon-Based, Web Site Navigation


I have been considering the use of a consistent set of icons throughout the future “Clear Helper” Web site to facilitate the navigation of it.

One ideal for such icons is that the messages or the concepts they convey are proven, through research and extensive testing, to be consistently understood by the users of them.  Accomplishing that is beyond the scope of this project, but may be an avenue for future, grant-funded research.

Another ideal would be the development of a set of navigation icons for use across Web sites.  I had hoped there was already an effort underway.    At the time of this writing, I have not found one.

Listed below are a few sites that attempt to use a set of icons for site navigation, particularly for people with cognitive disabilities.  The success or failure of the sites’ navigation is best judged by the reader.

  • The Consumer Corner section of the California Department of Developmental Services Web site has a clip art and text based navigation menu on the right of its pages.
  • Symbol World, for site navigation, uses very large icons accompanied by short text labels.  Most appear to be unique to page content, rather than being part of a consistent navigation set.
  • Children’s Society, on the right side of its pages, uses a common set of navigation icons.  Hovering the cursor over the icons produces related sound effects.
  • Symbol Rainforest uses photographs as navigation aids.  The use of photographs may be an answer to the criticism that icons are a poor substitute for realistic representations.  (Note: The Symbol Rainforest Web site can not be viewed in Firefox, but can be viewed in Internet Explorer.)
  • Check the Map uses a navigation strip of icons on the bottoms and on the tops its pages.  Most of the icons immediately make sense to me, but the home icon is odd.  Perhaps it would be better represented by an outline of a house.
  • Moorcroft School has a large navigation strip of icons (clip- and line art) on the bottoms of its pages.

None of the Web sites listed above use what I have in mind for navigation.  I do like the combination of navigation icons and related sound effects on the Children’s Society Web site, and will consider doing something similar.

Note: The “Icons” section of a WebAIM article on “Creating Accessible Images” is germane to the creation of Web site navigation icons.

Note: With the exception of The Consumer Corner, the sites listed above are either examples set up by The Widget Software Company or use symbols provided by it.  No endorsement is intended or implied.

Cognitive Web Accessibility Checklist


One of the two purposes of this blog is to document my effort to create a Web site that follows best practices of accessibility for people with intellectual / cognitive disabilities.  So far, the clearest, most up-to-date set of these practices I can find are written by WebAIM.

In WebAIM’s article, Evaluating Cognitive Web Accessibility, principals of cognitive Web accessibility are discussed, and a detailed “Cognitive Web Accessibility Checklist” is provided.  When creating the Web site, I plan to follow this checklist as much as practical and possible.

Of note is a posting by the Curb Cut blog.  Entitled “Access to the Web for People with Intellectual Disabilities“, it refers to older articles on creating Web sites for people with cognitive disabilities, and discusses barriers that keep them from getting online.


Relevant Literature: Coleman Institute for Cognitive Disabilities


The Coleman Institute for Cognitive Disabilities has a Cognitive Technology Literature Database.  At the time of this writing, if the term “Web accessibility” is entered into the database’s search page, references to almost 30 research studies are produced.  Some are not strictly related to Web accessibility, but it is an informative collection.

Literature Reviews, Part 2: Paul R. Bohman


Web Accessibility for Cognitive and Learning Disabilities: A Review of Research-Based Evidence in the Literature, by Paul R. Bohman of George Mason University, is a working paper that, at the time of this writing, was last edited July 20, 2007.

This review summarizes and critiques seven relevant studies, and has an extensive discussion on potential reasons for the paucity of relevant research.  It notes common findings across studies, such as user difficulties typing text, understanding context, and navigating Web sites.

I was intrigued by the observation that Web sites could be more navigable / accessible to people with cognitive disabilities if the need for text input is reduced.  I imagine one way that could be done, at least for Web site searching, would be to enable users to select from a common set of search terms, rather than require them to enter the search terms themselves.

I found enlightening the brief discussions on resistance to the idea that people with cognitive disabilities are entitled to accommodations, and on the possibility there is reluctance to accommodate people with cognitive disabilities because it may require significant Web site redesign.

Literature Reviews, Part 1: WebAIM


A few years ago, Robert Bass, the director of New England INDEX, and I were helping the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services think about providing Web-based content to its constituency.  As part of this work, we had been asked by the department to determine best practices for developing Web content accessible to people with intellectual / cognitive disabilities.  I scoured the Web for such literature.  I found almost nothing.  We then contracted with the good folks at WebAIM at Utah State University to look for the same information.  They too found very little.  At the time, they told us they would have to conduct extensive research into the topic (on their own initiative).  Indeed they did.

WebAIM: Cognitive and Learning Disabilities Literature Review, found 159 related articles, and describes the process used to discover them.   Results from the review were broken down into six categories:

  • Conformance with standards / best practices
  • Common design elements
  • Language Use / Reading
  • Enhance Comprehension
  • Structure
  • Attention / Distraction

WebAIM’s literature review is a summary of the findings.  It does not provide references / links to the articles found.  It does list the numbers of literature articles that referenced the elements listed above, and their sub-elements.

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