Cognitive Accessibility

The information presented within this glossary entry is aimed at website owners seeking to learn the ropes of web accessibility. Technical elements are described in layman’s terms, and, as a rule, all topics pertaining to the legalities of web accessibility are presented in as simplified a manner as possible. This guide has no legal bearing, and cannot be relied on in the case of litigation.

Cognitive accessibility is an area of web accessibility that pertains to website visitors who have cognitive impairments (i.e., website visitors with disabilities that affect the way they process information). Cognitive impairments include intellectual disabilities, mental disabilities (such as schizophrenia), and learning disabilities (such as ADHD). For a website to be accessible for visitors with cognitive impairments, it should follow leading web accessibility standards, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

Why is cognitive accessibility important?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 27% of American adults live with some form of disability. Of that group, close to 13% live with a cognitive disability. When websites aren’t configured in a way that addresses their disabilities, website visitors with cognitive impairments will not be able to access them.

What are some examples of cognitive disabilities?

Cognitive disabilities can be broken down into a number of categories:

  • Intellectual disabilities: These include Down Syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome, fragile X syndrome, anoxia, and other congenital diseases, along with traumatic brain injuries, concussions, and strokes
  • Mental disabilities: These include PTSD and Schizophrenia
  • Age-related disabilities: These include Alzheimer's, dementia, aphasia, or other forms of memory loss
  • Behavioral and learning disabilities: These include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia

What are some of the issues that people with cognitive disabilities have to deal with?

  • People with intellectual disabilities and those with age-related disabilities may have a hard time understanding confusing jargon, acronyms, and unclear copy
  • Website visitors with mental disabilities may have trouble with web pages and/or forms that must be examined and submitted within a defined period of time
  • People with behavioral and learning disabilities may have trouble comprehending content

How can you make sure your website is accessible for people with cognitive disabilities?

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) includes specific requirements pertaining to cognitive web accessibility, which are as follows:


All information within your website should be able to be presented in a variety of ways. And, just as importantly, regardless of the way a user chooses to be presented with said content, it should share the structure and contain the exact same information. 

An example of an alternative way of presenting information is having it read aloud by assistive technology.


All web content should be visually distinguishable and easy to differentiate from one another. This is critical for people with cognitive disabilities, as they may have difficulty distinguishing between different elements on a page or screen if they are not clearly differentiated. 

To achieve this, there needs to be sufficient contrast between different website elements, such as text and background colors. Additionally, there needs to be sufficient space between elements, so that website visitors can differentiate them. Finally, website visitors should be given a way to pause or stop audio content that plays automatically.

Sufficient time

Guideline 2.2 of WCAG 2.1 states that an accessible website must “provide website visitors enough time to read and use content.”

People with cognitive disabilities may require more time to read website content. This is doubly true when it comes to interacting with your website (e.g., filling out a form). You will need to eliminate any time constraints tied to website activities. Website elements that necessitate such constraints (typically those tied to personal information security) should be configured in a way that allows website visitors as much time as possible. 


According to Guideline 2.4 of WCAG 2.1, an accessible website will “provide ways to help website visitors navigate, find content, and determine where they are.”

 In practice, this will entail:

  • Using proper headings and labels: Website visitors with short-term memory impairments rely heavily on contextual cues. Clear and descriptive headings will help them more easily understand relationships between different content sections
  • Including a title tag: Title tags are a concise, easy way through which one can glean what a webpage’s main point is. People with reading disabilities and limited s​​hort-term memory can rely on title tags to easily understand the purpose of your content
  • Providing a way to bypass content blocks: Website visitors with ADHD can benefit from being able to skip over content blocks that appear on multiple webpages
  • Using descriptive text for links: When links are inserted within a site, the anchor text (as well as the text surrounding the actual link) should describe where the link will go. Avoid phrases such as ‘Click here’. Instead, go with ‘Read this blog’
  • Using breadcrumbs and sitemaps: Website visitors with short attention spans and short-term memory impairments can rely on these if they grow confused when following a long series of navigation steps 


According to Guideline 3.1 of WCAG 2.1, a readable website is one that “makes text content readable and understandable.” Simply put, a website that presents its content in a straightforward way will likely be considered readable. Website visitors with cognitive impairments will often consume content that is read aloud to them. For them to be able to properly comprehend your website that way, the text read to them will need to be simple, and devoid of confusing acronyms and complex jargon.

Readability best practices include:

Simplifying content:

Presenting content clearly is key for a website to be considered readable. To gauge whether your content is clear, ask yourself whether it is simple enough to be understood after reading only once. Website visitors with cognitive disabilities can benefit considerably from “too long; didn’t read” (TLDR) sections.

Defining unusual words and phrases:

Website visitors with intellectual disabilities will often have a hard time understanding colloquialisms and general non-literal phrases. When you use these on your website, link to a dictionary or thesaurus. That way, if a user is unfamiliar with a phrase you used, they will be able to gain a better understanding of your intentions. 

Defining abbreviations: 

Much like common sayings, website visitors with cognitive disabilities might become confused by unusual abbreviations. Making sure that the abbreviated term appears in its original, expanded form the first time it is used on a page is imperative. You should follow the expanded version of the abbreviation with the actual abbreviation placed within an element. These changes are made at a code level.

Declaring a web page’s language:  

The language used on every webpage needs to be declared on a code level. This means that you will need to use the lang attribute on the element. This will allow screen readers (like JAWS and NVDA) to announce the text properly when converting it into synthetic speech. If there is more than one language on a web page, all of the languages must be declared.


A website that scores high in terms of predictability is one that boasts a consistent page layout and has predictable interactive components. In layman’s terms, a user should be able to successfully foresee the result of an interaction with a website component.

To set up your website in a predictable manner, you should:

Trigger setting changes based on active request:

Website visitors with cognitive disabilities can be easily confused by context changes. These are likely to occur when interacting with an online form or call to action button. Therefore, such changes should only occur when it is clear that ‌website visitors intended them to. Clear, straightforward calls to action are critical in that regard. These include Submit buttons that will trigger the contextual change. It would help to describe to website visitors what will happen before the change is made, by way of a small pop-up window.

Provide consistent labeling:

Website visitors with cognitive disabilities can benefit considerably from consistent labeling. Whenever a function or element is used, it should always have ‌identical labeling. 

Ensure consistent navigation throughout your entire website:

Navigation order should remain consistent between web pages. The way your navigation bar appears on your homepage is how it should appear on your blog page.

Input assistance

Input assistance is designed so that website visitors with cognitive disabilities do not make mistakes while browsing a website. Just as importantly, it is aimed at assisting said website visitors in the event that they do commit mistakes. It will do so by increasing the likelihood that website visitors with cognitive impairments comprehend the error message presented to them and help them course-correct. 

Input assistance entails the following:

Automated error detection:

When website visitors make a mistake, they need to be informed. If your website employs client-side error detection, you should see to it that the error message is described in text and that it is as descriptive and specific as possible. Additionally, you should accompany said text with a visual indication of the error, such as with an icon, image, border or color, as certain website visitors will have difficulty understanding the text.

Build forms with instructions for user input:

Forms should start with text-based instructions. These will help website visitors understand how they should approach them. On a code level, you should use

Error suggestion:

If an input error is automatically detected, you should provide suggestions for correction. If your website uses text-based forms, you should provide detailed instructions. These should describe to website visitors why submitting information to them is required. 

If a specific data format is expected to be submitted (e.g., a date or number), show an example within the area website visitors are expected to fill out. 

In some cases, an example cannot be provided. This will typically occur if the expected input is not knowable (such as someone's username), or if doing so would jeopardize the security or purpose of the content (such as an exam). In these cases, providing clear instructions would sufficiently meet these criteria.

Potential problem prevention:

Website visitors need to be able to review, confirm and, when necessary, edit what they submit into forms. This is especially true when a form can lead to undesirable legal or financial consequences. 

Website visitors should be given the opportunity to check their order, including items ordered, the quantity of each ordered item, shipping address, and payment method. When a form submission triggers a financial or legal transaction, it is important website visitors are allotted a defined period of time in which they can cancel or amend their decision. 

For example, website visitors should be able to change or cancel a submission (such as a purchase). If a time restraint exists (such as for trading stocks), website visitors should be made aware of those constraints and what their options are outside of those defined hours.

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