Archive for the ‘Web Usability’ Category

New U.S. Plain-Language Law Good for People with Cognitive Disabilities


The Plain Writing Act of 2010 was signed into U.S. federal law on October 13, 2010. Essentially, it requires federal agencies to create documents using plain language.

The law also requires a section, on each federal-agency Web site, that follows best practices of plain-language writing. If indeed that happens, I anticipate people with cognitive disabilities will find such information much easier to understand. This is particularly good for the people with intellectual disabilities whom I have interviewed. A common thread of our conversations related to their self-advocacy interest in contacting their government representatives, and for determining how their government could help them.

I hope U.S. federal agencies set a standard that others will follow. For people with cognitive disabilities, the accessibility of Web site content is just as important as the accessibility of a site’s design. Text must be written in plain, simple language. There are efforts all over the world to encourage the use of plain language, which helps everyone.

For more information, see:

University Web Site for People with Learning Disabilities: Starting a Redesign


Today, I visited a local university that has a campus-based program for students with learning disabilities. I am helping to make the program’s Web site more accessible to its students. I met with the program director, two representatives of university Web services, and an adjunct-faculty member responsible for managing site content. We discussed possible cognitive-accessibility features and next steps for the project.

We will focus on content first.

  • Outdated information will be pruned or updated.
  • Text will be rewritten into plain language.
  • Contextually-relevant images will be added, especially photos taken during program activities.
  • After the above tasks are accomplished for one to five pages, they will be evaluated by program students.

We will then revise the site’s design. To do so, we will determine which cognitive-accessibility features we can incorporate using the university’s content management system (CMS). Examples:


  • Other development steps will be outlined in future posts. For example, the My Web My Way idea could be expanded such that site visitors could choose their own mixture of content types.
  • Program students will be included in every step of the site development.

First Thoughts on iPad Potential for People with Intellectual Disabilities


I am intrigued by the iPad’s potential as a computer for people with intellectual disabilities (ID). It could be set up as a Web-access only device, and essential functions could be Web-based. This could be done with computers, but the iPad has at least two distinct advantages.

  • no or low hardware-maintenance
  • minimal management of software updates and installation

These advantages alone are enormous in terms of overall ease-of-use. They are also great for dramatically reducing long-term technical support- and training costs compared to those needed for computers.

I think that to make an iPad truly useful for people with ID, an even simpler interface could be developed for it. I imagine that, upon being turned on, the iPad could present three or four buttons.

One button could start a Web-based e-mail app, such as CogLink that is designed for people with ID, or one with which a user is already familar, such as Yahoo Mail.

A button could start a Web browser app, like Web Trek, which is designed for people with ID.

Another button could start an augmentative-communication app. They exist already. Jane Farrall recently posted a list of iPhone/iPad augmentative communication apps on the Spectronics Blog.

An iPad, with a simple-to use interface similar to those presented by augmentative communication apps, would be a lot less expensive than single purpose AC devices or multi-function computers.

Readers may be interested in these articles:

Note: For the purpose of exploring the iPad’s potential for people with intellectual / cognitive disabilities, one was generously provided to me by the project for which I work, New England INDEX at the Shriver Center, part of The University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Conferences Related to Technology, Web Accessibility and Cognitive Disabilities


Two upcoming- and two recent conferences are listed below along with their related topics and presenters.

Upcoming Conferences

All Together Now: The Power of Partnerships In Cognitive Disability & Technology

  • October 21, 2010 – Westminster, Colorado, U.S.
  • Forty Years after PARC v The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania: Is there a right to technology access? – Gilhool, Thomas
  • A Partnership for Technology to Improve Quality of Life – Pietrangelo, Renee
  • Accessible TeleMEd and eHealth Strategies for People with Cognitive Disabilities – O’Hara, David
  • Technologies to Improve Quality of Life for People with Cognitive Disabilities – Kautz, Henry
  • Developing an Accessible National Information Infrastructure for People with Cognitive Disabilities – Coleman, Bill

Web Accessibility London 2010 Unconference

  • September 21, 2010 – London, England
    • “The unconference will have a motor impairment theme … ” but “… will also consider cognitive impairments and the wider-disability population.”

Recent Conferences

12th International Conference on Computers Helping People with Special Needs

  • July 14 to 16, 2010 – Vienna, Austria
  • Track IV, Session C: People with Specific Learning and Cognitive Problems: ICT, AT and HCI
    • Developing a Multimedia Environment to Aid in Vocalization for People on the Autism Spectrum: A User-Centered Design Approach – Al-Wabil, Areej
    • EasyICT: a Framework for Measuring ICT -Skills of People with Cognitive Disabilities – Dekelver, Jan
    • Involving users in the design of ICT aimed to improve education, work, and leisure for users with intellectual disabilities – Gutiérrez y Restrepo, Emmanuelle
    • Methodological Considerations for Involving SpLD Practitioners in the Design of Interactive Learning Systems  – Karim, Latifa
    • PDA software aimed at improving workplace adaptation for people with cognitive disabilities  – Ferreras, Alberto
    • The Performance of Mouse Proficiency for Adolescents with Intellectual Disabilities – Wu, Ting-Fang
    • Towards an Interactive Screening Program for Developmental Dyslexia: Eye Movement Analysis in Reading Arabic Texts – Al-Wabil, Areej
    • When Words Fall Short: Helping People with Aphasia to Express – Al Mahmud, Abdullah
  • Track IV, Session D: Easy – to – Web
    • Adaptive Reading: A Design of Reading Browser with Dynamic Alternative Text Multimedia Dictionaries for the Text Reading Difficulty Readers – Chu, Chi Nung
    • Easy-to-web search for people with learning disabilities as part of an integrated conception of cognitive web accessibility – Erle, Markus
    • EasyWeb – A Study How People with Specific Learning Difficulties Can Be Supported on Using the Internet – Matausch, Kerstin
    • In-Folio: An Open Source Portfolio for students with learning disabilities – Ball, Simon
    • Supporting the web experience of young people with learning disabilities – Weber, Harald
    • The need for Easy-to-Read information on web sites – Bohman, Ulla

Annual Conference of The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Know of another such conference? Please post a comment.

Teaching Web Searching To People With Cognitive Disabilities


I have often seen people with intellectual disabilities struggle with how to perform Web searches during my interviews with them. The same problem was described by Henny Swan in her article, “‘Where’s my Googlebox?!’ – adventures in search for silver surfers“. It and its subsequent discussion inspired me to write this post.

I think there are two principles that could be used to teach Web searching to people with cognitive disabilities. For the purposes of this post, I am defining “searching” solely as the mechanics of submitting text via a search box.

That search boxes have the same- or similar characteristics, whether they are part of a Web browser, a Web site, or a search engine, means that learning to use them may not be difficult.  People could be taught to recognize search boxes and to submit simple searches with them.

First Principle

Search boxes can easily be recognized / located.

  • Appearance
    • All search boxes are rectangular and have white backgrounds. Many contain the word “Google” or have it and/or the Google logo nearby.
      • There are exceptions, but usually due to poor design.
  • Location
    • Search boxes within the latest versions of popular Web browsers (Internet Explorer 8.07, Firefox 3.6.3, Opera 10.53 and Safari 5.0) are located in the top, right corner of the browser window.
      • An exception is Chrome 5.0. In my opinion, this is one of Chrome’s accessibility problems.
    • Fortunately for people who use browsers such as Chrome, search boxes can still be found at the top, right corner of the screen because that is the common placement convention of many Web sites.
      • Search engines are the significant exception.

Second Principle

Search boxes can be used in the same, 3-step way.

  1. Prepare the search box for text entry by tabbing to it with the keyboard.
  2. Enter text.
  3. Invoke the search with the Enter / Return key.

Unneeded Training

  • To use a search box, people need not learn to discriminate between a browser, a site, and a search engine. Recognizing a search box is enough.
  • A mouse could be used to click inside a search box to prepare it for text entry, but I think the related instruction would be an unnecessary complication. Likewise, people could be trained to invoke searches with a mouse, but such instruction would be confusing for users when encountering a search box without an activation button.


Teaching the mechanics of search-box use may have advantages.

  • The resultant skills acquisition could generalize to encompass the search boxes of search engines.
  • Using a browser’s search box would provide consistent interface interaction across Web sites.


  • Such training would likely require revisiting over a multi-month period of consistent Web activity.
  • People being trained would need, at the least, basic literacy- and keyboard skills.


  • Constructing effective search terms and interpreting search results are beyond the scope of the proposed principles.
  • I am interested in how to teach people with cognitive disabilities to use the Web because that is my intention for the future Clear Helper site.

Good, Basic Internet Skills Foiled By Confusing Content


Anne uses her computer almost solely for e-mail and finding information. This is typical of many people, even those without intellectual disabilities. Perhaps unlike them, Anne has significant difficulty with content she receives and finds.


Anne understands e-mail messages from people who know her. She has been using basic functions of e-mail for years, but still gets confused with them because she is distracted by spam. It is especially difficult for her to differentiate it from legitimate messages and to determine its intent.

Finding Info

Anne has been using Google to learn about medications, and to look up definitions of words within their descriptions.  This indicates finding such information is simple enough for her, but the content she finds is not.


It is bad enough that Web content is not written in plain language. Worse is e-mail content designed to deceive. Content comprehension problems put Anne at a significant disadvantage despite her facility with e-mail and Google.

I do not know how anti-spam efforts could be particularly helpful for people with cognitive disabilities. I do know that designing simple Web content is a much easier proposition.


Free Readability Tool for iPhone & Desktop Web Browsers


TidyRead, similar to the other such tools I have described, is a free bookmarklet that strips the clutter from Web pages and otherwise makes them easier to read.  Unlike them, it works on the iPhone and the iPod Touch.  It also works with Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera and Internet Explorer.

Configuration Options

While TidyRead does not have as many configuration options as those offered by Readability and Readable, it does offer them on demand.  With the latter two tools, users configure how they want the main content of Web pages to appear, and then they add the bookmarklet to their Web browsers.  TidyRead has no pre-configuration.  After its bookmarklet is installed, a click to it presents the toolbar, shown below, at the top of each page it displays.  It adjusts the presentation of content as options are selected.

toolbar with 4 buttons for changing page background color, 4 for text size and 3 for page width

The toolbar has buttons to change background color, font size and margin width.  Its “More” menu includes settings to change the font family and the text alignment.

Error Handling

TidyRead does not have the great feature Readable has, which enables users to select the content they want to display.  If TidyRead can not determine the main content of a page, it displays the error, “This page doesn’t look like an article, and TidyRead couldn’t extract”.

iPhone & iPod Touch

TidyRead can be installed on the iPhone and the iPod Touch by syncing Firefox- or Safari bookmarks with iTunes.  Alternatively, there are step-by-step installation instructions.

Relevancy To Clear Helper Project

The reason I am investigating these readability tools is that they could be quite useful to people with cognitive disabilities who are distracted by extraneous content on all Web sites.  Maybe, in addition to offering easy- and standard versions of the future Clear Helper Web site, I could offer on it one of these tools to install.


Plan to Assess Web Accessibility of 100 Cognitive Disability Organizations


I will assess the efforts of 100 cognitive disability organizations to make their Web sites accessible to their constituencies.  This post is a description of my current plan.  I am open to suggestions for improvement.

Evaluation Criteria

I will base the assessment upon WebAIM’s latest Cognitive Web Accessibility Checklist, which has these sections:

  1. Consistency (of navigation);
  2. Transformability (increased text- and image sizes, etc.);
  3. Multi-Modality (of content);
  4. Focus and Structure (use of elements to focus attention, not distract it, etc.);
  5. Readability and Language (clear display of text and use of plain language);
  6. Orientation and Error Prevention/Recovery (adequate instructions, feedback and error recovery)
  7. Assistive Technology Compatibility (use of alternative text, labels, headings, keyboard accessibility, etc.)

10-Point Measurement

On each Web site, I will look for the features described in the checklist. I will record a point if I find even one feature included in a checklist section. Thus up to seven such points could be recorded.

One point will be recorded if a site attempts to meet W3C accessibility standards (1.0 or 2.0).  I will judge this based upon a related site statement, or by a positive result from running WebAIM’s WAVE against up to three site pages.

One point will be recorded if a site has an accessibility statement.

One point will be recorded if a site explains how to use accessibility features.

Assessment-Progress Tracking

Upcoming blog posts will describe the assessment as I undertake each step.  It may well be that I revise my methodology after a few initial evaluations.

Index of Web Sites for 100+ Cognitive Disability Organizations

For this assessment, I created an index of Web sites of over 100 cognitive disability organizations.  To identify them, I used the same criteria listed in my previous blog post.


  • WebAIM is engaged in an effort to incorporate cognitive Web accessibility evaluation into WAVE. It may be WebAIM would find this assessment useful.  I will solicit feedback from Jared Smith, Associate Director of WebAIM.
  • Have a suggestion? Please post a comment or contact me.

50+ Web Sites Intended to be Accessible to People with Cognitive Disabilities


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:

  1. the site-sponsoring organizations serve people with cognitive disabilities;  and
  2. the sites incorporate at least one feature described in WebAIM’s latest “Cognitive Web Accessibility Checklist“.

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).

Links to Web Sites Indexes & RSS Feed

Future Indexes

In the near future, I will publish other such indexes. To see a list, please refer to my previous post, “Upcoming Indexes of Resources Related to Cognitive Web Accessibility“.


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.

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