Improving Web Searching for People with Cognitive Disabilities

Using a website search tool is difficult for people with cognitive disabilities. Finding a relevant result is often thwarted by spelling errors they make, their inability to detect them, or a lack of understanding about how to correct them. Determining which search results are best can be equally difficult.

This post is a synopsis of an approach to circumventing such problems. An example has been implemented on a web site of the German Institute for Human Rights, which is an easy-to-read version of a United Nations convention on the rights of people with disabilities. A typically-appearing site search incorporates novel spelling-correction features and a simplified presentation of search results.

Spelling Correction

The site search suggests spelling alternatives only for words that actually appear within the content of the website. Searches for correctly-spelled words that produce no search results would be very frustrating for anyone.

To enable spelling suggestions, a manually-edited index of syntactically-similar words was created. Point values were assigned for similarities in the number of the same letters and the word length. A higher value was given to alternative words with the same first letter, but that was not essential.

To enable search-word spelling correction within the fewest steps possible, the most-similar alternatives are displayed in a word cloud. Of those, typically three, the one with the highest probability of matching the intended search word is presented in a larger text size.

Example Spelling Correction

The German word for “contact” is “kontakt”. Initiating a search with the misspelled word “kontat” produces a word cloud as shown in the following image.

Of the displayed three words, Kommunikation Kontakt Kunst, the second is shown in a larger font. All are hyperlinks.

The developers believe the word cloud makes it very easy to recognize the correctly-spelled word, and to select a search word. I don’t know why the first letters are capitalized.

Simplified Search Results

Search results are presented in plain language. Each has a bulleted, succinct summary of information on the linked page; and a contextually-relevant image to aid comprehension.

Example Search Result

The following image shows a single search result translated from German to English using Google Translate.

Contact - Here you will find: The address and telephone number of the German Institute for Human Rights. And a contact form.

One aspect of the search results I do not favor is that links to the search-result pages are not underlined. It is only when the cursor is hovered over a link, such as “Contact” in the example search result, that an underline appears.


I am impressed with this approach. This is the first time I have seen search results presented so simply, and with accompanying relevant imagery. I think the spelling-correction features are also worthwhile. In a pilot study of them, 9 of 34 people with learning disabilities could use the search site independently. I expect the developers will continue user testing. With funding and time, I would like to develop a site search using similar techniques.


Redesigning University Website for People with Learning Disabilities: Feedback

I am working on a project to make the website, of a university program for people with learning disabilities, more usable by prospective students. Small groups of faculty and students were shown the first mockup last week. Listed below is their feedback and brief descriptions of a few possible remediation efforts.

About Navigation

  • Feature the program prominently on the university site’s home page. Students could not find information about the program because a link to its home page is hidden within a drop-down menu.
  • Display links in navigation menus rather than place them in drop-down menus.
    • We plan to do so, perhaps indenting the links of subsection pages. (Unordered lists are good for that.)
  • Within the left-navigation menus of the program’s pages, display a link to the program’s home page. When students got lost within the website, they said they wanted to start over by returning to the program’s home page.
    • We will do so. We will also consider adding a button with an image shaped like a house, which students said they associate with a site’s home page.
  • Do not depend upon breadcrumb navigation to help visitors navigate the site. Students and faculty did not notice the breadcrumb navigation until prompted. Faculty indicated it was useful once they were shown its function.
  • Do not depend upon links scattered throughout the content. They were not immediately apparent to students when they were asked to find specific information.
  • Do not depend upon a search box to help visitors. When asked to find specific information, neither the students nor the faculty thought to use the site’s search box. Doing so would be confusing anyway, faculty pointed out, because search results are derived from the university’s entire site, not just from the program’s portion of it.
  • Do not position navigation menus on the right side of pages. Students and faculty had to be prompted to notice them.
    • This is unsurprising. Web usability studies based upon eye tracking have shown people look at pages in an F-shaped pattern. One consequence is that they pay no attention to the right side of pages.
  • Consider consolidating the number of links in the left menus. Only their first few links were read by the students.
  • Consider reducing the number of choices on each page. For example, the large number of site navigation links were simply overwhelming to students.
    • We may have to develop a template for the program’s section of the university site that presents significantly fewer navigation choices.
  • Link course descriptions to professors’ profiles. We had set up course descriptions to be found by drilling down by year, then by curriculum, then by topic. That did not make sense to students.

About Content

  • Use a larger default text size.
  • Add a lot more pictures, particularly contextually-relevant ones to enhance comprehension of textual content.
  • Closely associate images to their relevant textual content. Example: The list of faculty includes pictures of them, but it is unclear which photo is associated with which professor’s name and description.
  • Provide faculty-specific contact information within their profiles rather than in a central location.
  • Continue to use bulleted lists. Students found such content easier to read; faculty found it easier to scan.
  • Embed videos, not just link to them.
  • Use a web form, not an email link, for visitors to submit questions and site feedback. Students indicated a web form would be easier for them. A faculty member pointed out that such a link will not work at all unless a visitor’s computer is configured to open email software once that link is clicked.
  • Determine a way to make program contact info apparent so visitors will contact the program, not the university.
  • Include content for current students, not just prospective students.
    • Such content is now in a PDF. We will likely convert it to a web page so students do not need to have special software (Acrobat Reader) to view it.


Struggling to Reduce Dense Content Into Chunks Without Requiring Multiple Clicks

I am working on a project to make the website of a local university, which has a campus-based program for students with learning disabilities, more usable by them. The current site is designed for parents of prospective students and professionals who serve them. We anticipate our work will make the site easier to use and to understand for everyone.

Over the past few months, an adjunct faculty member has reduced the amount of content, simplified its language, and reorganized it. I created a functional site mockup to demonstrate that work. Yesterday, we showed it to a small group of students, then to a small group of faculty.


Our attempt to separate content into small chunks produced more pages. This exacerbated a problem experienced by the students, which was that navigating the many layers of the site is perplexing. Moreover, faculty indicated frustration with having to click many links to find desired information.


The current first-year curriculum page contains short descriptions for twenty courses. For the mockup, we moved each description to its own page, reducing the curriculum page to a list of course titles. This design requires extra clicks to see course descriptions. As well, the groups indicated the curriculum page is still too long.


We will next shorten the curriculum page by dividing it into sub-pages by topic. One- to two sentence descriptions of the courses under their titles may obviate the need for extra clicks to view more-detailed information. We will know if this has achieved any success only after testing with students.

Overall, I am describing an approach designed to resolve a larger dilemma. How can we provide information about the program in a simple way for students while also supplying a level of detail that may be required by professionals, parents, and even the students themselves? I suppose this is an adventure to find out.


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.


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“.