Using Plain Language for People with Cognitive Disabilities: Discussion, Example

Previous posts have discussed switching between two accessible versions of the same Web site.  The version for people with cognitive disabilities would not show secondary content such as columns of links and image-based advertisements.  Instead, it would only show primary, textual content and contextually-related imagery.  This is well and good from a design perspective.

However, a Web site’s primary content can be as confounding to people with cognitive disabilities as a cluttered design.  Text must be written in plain, simple language.  There are efforts all over the world to encourage the use of plain language for everyone.  See (U.S.), Plain English Campaign (U.K.) and Plain Language Association International (world).  So, though this problem is not unique to people with cognitive disabilities, they are put at a particular disadvantage because of the nature of their disability.

For the future Clear Helper Web site, I would like to have two content versions: one with standard language and one with a lower readability level.  Future posts will discuss how this might be accomplished technically.

Example Web Site

There is at least one Web site that enables users to switch between two language versions: one for “Standard” English and one for “Easy” English.  It is of The NSW Council for Intellectual Disability in New South Wales, Australia.  Clicking the “Easy English” button on the home page produces a welcome message with instructions on how to use the site.  As users navigate through the pages, each can be switched between the two language versions via buttons at the tops of the pages.

Usability Errors?

The site is designed to meet accessibility standards, but there are are some odd interface choices.  Examples:

  • The menu for the standard fact sheets has relevant images, but they are not clickable like the links below them.
  • All of the “Standard” English fact sheets are Web pages, but all the “Easy” English ones are PDFs. Browse Aloud, which is available on the site, can read PDFs.  Yet counting on users to have it and a PDF reader installed seems like an unnecessary complication.
  • The “Easy” English welcome page requires visitors to use the “Contact Us” tab at the top of the page because the “Contact Us” text referencing it is not clickable.

Despite these minor quibbles, I think it’s great that the Web site provides two language versions, one targeted to people with intellectual disabilities.  I soon will be attempting the same.

This post is a continuation of the following:

Site for Young People with Intellectual Disabilities: A Review

Mencap is an advocacy- and service agency for people with intellectual disabilities living in The United Kingdom.  It also has a service to produce “Easy Read” content.

Its primary Web site, Mencap, is designed for the population it serves.  It has a newer site that is too, and which targets teens with intellectual disabilities.  This review is about the latter.

Site Design

The home page of the Young Mencap Web site, pictured below, exemplifies its bright, colorful look.  It uses cartoon- and photographic imagery.  Three big buttons, front and center, present content choices.

Web page with colorful imagery & 3 big buttons for site content

Features for People with Intellectual Disabilities

The Web site’s development and testing were led by a group of young people with intellectual disabilities, aged 14 to 19.  It has the following accessibility- and usability features for that population.

  • contextually-relevant navigation images persistent throughout the site;  (They use mouse roll-overs for text labels that appear above them and, at least on the home page, photos of related activities that appear in place of the them.)
  • pages that focus on two or three content choices;
  • content choices represented in every case by big, relevant-photograph buttons;
  • text that meets the guidelines suggested by WebAIM;
  • videos with simple controls and accompanying instructions on how to use them.

Accessibility Issues

Unfortunately, the site has its problems.

  • Its text-to-speech feature is broken.  Even if it were working, its activation button (top, right of each page) does not indicate what it does.
  • Its videos do not use an accessible player, and are not closed-captioned.
  • There is no integrated method to enlarge text size, nor are there instructions on how to do so using Web browsers.
  • Its accessibility statement is simply written, but mentions only two such features.
  • It has minor accessibility errors on every page I tested.
  • To notify the site managers about the Browse Aloud problem, I had planned on using its Contact Us page.  Unfortunately, it required me to enter my age to submit a message, and I consider that personal information.  (Also, the form is inaccessible.)


I hope I can design a site as attractive as this one.  I do like the site’s usability features, and have learned from them.

Note: I found the Mencap Web sites through a referral from Inclusive New Media Design.

2 Accessible Versions, 1 for People with CD: Rough Draft In Action

I have working a rough draft of the idea I outlined in my previous post, “Switching Between 2 Accessible Versions, 1 for People with Cognitive Disabilities“.  On the Clear Helper Web site, I have enabled visitors to switch between two versions.  Both meet all accessibility standards.  One contains all content and the other contains only primary content.  This should help people with cognitive disabilities complete core tasks, such as finding the information they need, without the distractions of extraneous content.

Pictured below is the top half of the home page.  Its default style is two columns.  The left one contains the primary content.  The right one has the accessible, text-to-speech (TTS) player and a column of links.  At the top of the page, on the right side, is a menu that includes the choices “Regular” and “Simple”.  A click to one changes the page’s style respectively.

2-column Web page. Primary text on left. Player and links on right.

Clicking the “Simple” link changes the home page’s style to the one pictured below.  The column of links is gone, the TTS player is moved to the bottom of the page, and all of the footer content (not pictured) is also removed.  The primary, textual content expands across the width of the page.

1-column Web page displaying only textual content

In my implementation of the style switcher, I made one significant improvement over ones I have used on other Web sites.  I am using server-side scripting instead of JavaScript.  This means better accessibility for assistive-technology users and certainly for those who disable JavaScript.

I am open to suggestions for improvement.  I will continue to experiment and report on my progress.  It almost goes without saying, of course, that a “simple” style will be the default for the future Clear Helper Web site.

Switching Between 2 Accessible Versions, 1 for People with Cognitive Disabilities

It is a well-accepted axiom that a Web site can meet all accessibility standards yet still be unusable by people with a wide variety of disabilities.  The W3C discusses this in its article “Understanding Conformance“.

It is also true that a Web site can both meet all accessibility standards, and be usable by a wide variety of people with disabilities, yet still be unusable by a subset of people.  For instance, a Web page with columns of links, tables and image-based advertisements may be accessible to all who use assistive technology, yet be inaccessible to people with cognitive disabilities.

The WC3’s new Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) define a technique entitled “C29: Using a style switcher to provide a conforming alternate version“. It is intended to allow Web developers to provide a version of a Web site that conforms to accessibility standards when its default version does not (meet a standard or standards).

For the future Clear Helper Web site, I am considering employing this technique a little differently.  I would like to enable users to switch between a version that meets all accessibility standards and contains all content, and a version that meets all accessibility standards but contains only primary content.  This would help people with cognitive disabilities complete core tasks, such as finding the information they need, without the distractions of extraneous content.

The details of how I might implement this will be the subject of a future blog post.

Readability: Free Tool Strips All Distractions From Web Pages

People with intellectual disabilities can be overwhelmed by Web pages cluttered with numerous links, images, advertisements, etc.  Faced with such interfaces, they can not complete core tasks such as finding the information they need or making a purchase.  (See bottom of this post for a couple examples.)

I recently found a free tool, called “Readability“, that is a Web browser bookmarklet. It strips all distractions from Web pages, and attempts to show only the primary text content.  Before a user adds it to the Web browser’s toolbar, it can be set to show text in one of four styles, a font size can be chosen, and the width of left- and right margins can be selected.

Example Transformation

A Wikipedia page about bananas, an image of which is below, has columns of links, images, tables and other non-text elements.

Wikipedia page with columns of links, images & tables

Clicking the Readability bookmarklet strips all elements from the page except for its central text.  The image below shows the same page, but it displays only the main, single column of text.

Wikipedia page showing only a central column of text

That is a great result.  Unfortunately, on numerous other sites I tried, all those of online newspapers, the results were poor.  Either Readability could not determine which was the main text content, or it displayed only a snippet of it.  Readability has promise, however, as is demonstrated with the example above.

Readability’s utility gives me an idea for the future Clear Helper Web site.  Perhaps I can enable users to switch between two interfaces: one with main content only, and one with extra elements.  More on this will be the subject of a future blog post.

Note: A description and a video-demonstration of Readability can be found on the Arc90 Lab Experiment Web site.

Previous, Related Blog Posts

Good Info from a Self Advocate & a Person with ID

Today, I received good information from Mary, a self advocate, an active member of her community and an occasional Web user.  Mary is also a person with an intellectual disability.

Success & Suggestion

Mary told me she had used Google with success to find the mailing address of her local state representative.  She explained many people she knew would like to find similar information, and suggested I create a tutorial on how to do so.  That is a great suggestion for the future Clear Helper Web site.

Challenge & Resolution

She reported trouble using the Web site.  The home page, she said, was too full of choices.  I designed that site, and I agree with her.  Since I have been designing sites back when the Web was born, people have insisted that everything must go on the home page.  This makes for a very cluttered, confusing page that does not convey the site’s core message, and does not enable visitors to access its information easily.

When I first designed the Web site a few years ago, it met accepted accessibility standards (WCAG 1.0 AA compliance) and was given a good accessibility review by testers who were blind.  It is not perfect.  For instance, it does not use headings as well as it should.  Yet, most importantly to my current awareness, it has no accessibility features specifically intended for people with cognitive disabilities.  I will be redesigning it next year.  I will apply to its new design the accessibility- and the usability lessons I learn with the Clear Helper project.

Focus Group

Next month, Mary is hosting for me a focus group of ten people with intellectual disabilities.  I will be asking them the questions I outlined in my blog post on Interviewing People with ID about Web Accessibility.  I am sure they will have a lot of good ideas for me.  I will report them in a future post.

Note: Mary told me she wanted to learn American Sign Language to communicate with coworkers, but was unsuccessful finding on the Web such a training program.  (The agency that serves Mary found a local one geared for people with intellectual disabilities.)  If anyone knows of a Web resource listing training programs intended for people with intellectual disabilities, please tell me.  If there is not one, it may have to be a future project for me.

News Articles Accessible to People with Cognitive Disabilities

Voice of America (VOA) Special English News is a Web site designed for audiences who are not native speakers of English.  The same characteristics that make its news articles accessible to that population also help make them accessible to people with cognitive disabilities.

Special English Written News

The news articles have “… a core vocabulary of 1500 words.  Most are simple words that describe objects, actions or emotions.  Some words are more difficult.  They are used for reporting world events and describing discoveries in medicine and science.  Special English writers use short, simple sentences that contain only one idea. They use active voice.  They do not use idioms.”

Special English Audio News

News articles are also offered as podcasts.  The “… Special English broadcasters read at a slower pace, about two-thirds the speed of standard English.  This helps people learning English hear each word clearly.  It also helps people who are fluent English speakers understand complex subjects.”

Special English TV

Weekly, five short features are broadcast on satellite television. Each lasts about four minutes.  All are closed captioned.  A RSS subscription is available for them.  (This means they can be downloaded and watched.)


The Voice of America Web site is not designed to be accessible to users of assistive technology, such as screen readers, nor does it have accessibility features for people with cognitive disabilities.

Quotes above retrieved from Voice of America. Helping People Understand Their World,

No endorsement is intended or implied for VOA Special English News.

Interviewing People with ID about Web Site Accessibility

I will soon be conducting more interviews with people with intellectual disabilities.  I have three primary areas of interest:

  1. the sites they find inaccessible and accessible, which I am conveying as “easy to use”;  (I will explore the reasons.)
  2. which site features do they find helpful or not, “like and dislike”; (The answers may help me choose for which sites I should create tutorials.) and
  3. what they would like to learn about using the Web.  (This is to help inform me about the subject matter of future tutorials.)

These are the questions I will be asking of people:

  • Which sites are hard to use but you really want to use?
  • Which sites do you find easy to use?
  • Which parts of Web sites do you like, and which do you dislike?
  • What would you like to learn to do on the Web?

To obtain this information, I am visiting self-advocacy groups, and meeting in person with people with intellectual disabilities.  I anticipate having a computer available at each interview so people can show me as well as tell me.  I will be recording responses in narrative form.

Later in the project, as I design the site, I will need people to test it regularly and give me feedback every step of the way.  I have not yet figured out how best to organize that, but I am open to suggestions.

Note: The W3C has a good article about Involving Users in Web Projects for Better, Easier Accessibility.  I shall rely upon it to help guide my project.

Browser-Based Text/Font Size Switching: Dissatisfaction & Solutions

I am dissatisfied with some aspects of the approach that relies upon Web site visitors to use their Web browsers to change the size of Web site text.  I have attempted to solve the problems I perceive with this approach.  This post is a follow-up to my previous post entitled “Browser-Based Text/Font Size Switching”.

Reasons for Dissatisfaction with This Approach & Attempted Solutions

  • I think asking people to invoke a combined-key command with which they are unfamiliar, and with keys they do not use much, is confusing.
  • There are dozens of Web browsers.  Creating screen-shot based instructions for all of them is impractical.
    • I implemented a JavaScript application that displays a link to screen-shot based instructions only if visitors are using either Internet Explorer 8.x or Firefox 3.x.  If they are using another Web browser (or if they have JavaScript disabled) the page displays an instruction to refer to their Web browser’s help menu.
  • I created screen-shot instructions for Firefox 3.x and screen-shot instructions for Internet Explorer 8.x.  Their menus for adjusting text size are markedly different from those of their previous versions.  Many people do not use the latest versions.  Asking them to decide which to use of multiple sets of instructions, one for each previous Web browser version, would be very confusing.  Many people do not know what a Web browser is, let alone which version of it they are using.
    • The JavaScript application checks the visitor’s Web browser version.  If it is Firefox 3.x (the latest version), the page displays a link to screen-shot instructions for it.  I did the same for Internet Explorer 8.x (the latest version). If visitors are using an older version of either browser, the page displays textual instructions telling them how to use the old-style menus.
  • The screen shots for Internet Explorer are especially high/long.  It does not become apparent which menu to use until the visitor scrolls down the image(s).  This will likely be confounding.
    • I have no practical solutions for this.  Reducing the size of the images reduces their text size.  People who need to enlarge text size would not appreciate that.

I will consider how to improve this approach, or scrap it for something better.  As always, I am open to suggestions.

Browser-Based Text/Font Size Switching

On the Clear Helper Web site, I have implemented a text-resizing approach suggested by Jared Smith, of WebAIM.  It relies upon visitors to follow instructions about using their Web browsers to change the Web site’s text size.


In a previous post entitled “Web Site Font Sizes & Switching for People with Cognitive Disabilities“, I proposed adding to the Clear Helper Web site a font size switcher that looks like this image.

line of 5 letter 'A's in ascending order of size

In a response to that post, Jared Smith discussed several reasons why such a widget should not be used.  He said Web site visitors should use their Web browsers instead.  He suggested the approach of  At the top of its pages, on the left, there is a link entitled “Need Larger Text?”  Clicking it produces a page with text-based instructions on using the keyboard to enlarge text.  On that page is also a link to a W3C page with related text- and picture based instructions for four Web browsers.

My Implementation of an Approach Similar to’s

At the top of the Clear Helper Web site pages, on the left, there is now a link entitled “Need big text?”.  Clicking it produces a page with text- and image- based instructions on how to use the keyboard to enlarge text.  From that page, another page can be reached that has screen shots to explain how to use Internet Explorer menus to enlarge text or how to use Firefox menus to enlarge text.

My next post will describe problems with this approach, and what I have done to solve them, or at least to ameliorate them.