Cognitive and learning disabilities is an umbrella term for a large spectrum of differences and disabilities. They may affect the ability to:
- Learn, communicate, read, write, do math, or process sensory input;
- Understand or process new or complex information and learn new skills;
- Use memory and attention or visual, language, or numerical thinking.
Often, only some functions are impaired while other cognitive functions are unaffected. For example, someone with dyslexia may be a fantastic engineer. Sometimes, cognitive and learning disabilities may include intellectual impairments that affect comprehension, alongside written and spoken expression. People may also experience more than one type of cognitive and learning disability. Note that the terminology and definitions used for cognitive and learning disabilities varies between countries.
Computer technologies and the Web provide many opportunities for people with cognitive and learning disabilities to interact with content and to process information in ways that are more usable to them. For example, people can navigate web content using different strategies, access information in text, audio, or other formats, and change the presentation of the content according to their individual needs or preferences.
To use the Web effectively, people with cognitive and learning disabilities often rely on:
- Clearly structured content that help users focus and find what they need;
- Consistent labeling of forms, buttons, and other content parts so that users understand what they are being asked to do;
- Predictable link targets, functionality, and overall interaction to make it clear what links and buttons do;
- Different ways of navigating websites, such as hierarchical menu and search;
- Options to suppress blinking, flickering, flashing, and otherwise distracting content;
- Clear content with easy words, short sentences, short blocks of text that is supported by images, graphs, and other illustrations;
- Designs that make errors less likely and that make it easy for users to correct errors.
People with cognitive and learning disabilities may use different types of web browsing methods or tools to support their particular needs. For example, spell checkers to help when filling in forms, passwords management tools, and text-to-speech with synchronized highlighting of the phrase being read. Some people use tools that resize text and spacing or customize colors to assist reading. Others may require alternative presentation of content, such as additional symbols or simplification. For these methods to work, developers need to make products that support adaptation and personalization.
Examples of cognitive and learning disabilities
- Age-related forgetfulness (sometimes called “age-appropriate forgetfulness” or “age-related memory loss”) — impaired memory that can be a normal part of healthy aging, such as taking longer to learn new things and occasionally forget particular words.
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (formerly “attention deficit disorder (ADD)”) – involves difficulty focusing on a single task, focusing for longer periods, or being easily distracted.
- Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) (includes “autism,” “Asperger syndrome,” and “pervasive developmental disorder” (PDD)) - involves impairments of social communication and interaction abilities, and sometimes restricted habits and interests.
- Brain Injury (traumatic or acquired) — damage that can happen at any stage in life and can lead to long-term impairment of executive function, memory, learning, coordination, speech, an emotions as well as other physical and sensory impairments.
- Dementia — includes memory loss and trouble concentrating, following a conversation, and finding the right word.
- Intellectual disabilities (sometimes called “learning disabilities” in Europe and some other countries, and “developmental disabilities” in other regions) – involves impairments of intelligence, learning more slowly, or difficulty understanding complex concepts. Down syndrome is one of many different kinds of intellectual disability.
- Learning disabilities – is a functional term rather than a medical condition, and is not uniformly defined. In Europe and some other countries, it refers to intellectual disabilities.
- Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) — sometimes considered the stage between age-related forgetfulness and the more serious decline of dementia.
- Mental health disabilities – includes disabilities that interfere with daily functioning due to challenges with self-regulation of emotions and thoughts. Examples include depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. These conditions may cause temporary or long-term challenges with accessing information, such as difficulty focusing on information, processing information, or understanding it.
- Multiple sclerosis – causes damage to nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, and can affect auditory, cognitive, physical, or visual abilities, in particular during relapses.
- Seizure disorders – includes different types of epilepsy and migraines, which may be in reaction to visual flickering or audio signals at certain frequencies or patterns.
Examples of barriers for people with cognitive and learning disabilities
- Complex, multi-stage process such as forms.
- Complex navigation mechanisms and page layouts that are difficult to understand and use.
- Complex sentences that are difficult to read and unusual words or metaphors that are difficult to understand.
- Long passages of text without images, graphs, or other illustrations to highlight the context.
- Moving, blinking, or flickering content, and background audio that cannot be turned off.
- Numerical references such as percentages.
- Passwords and access codes that rely on memory.
- Time-outs on activities
- Web browsers and media players that do not provide mechanisms to suppress animations and audio.
- Visual page designs that cannot be adapted using web browser controls or custom style sheets.
Stories related to cognitive and learning disabilities
- Luis, basketball fan with Down syndrome
- Ian, autistic data entry clerk
- Preety, middle school student with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Dyslexia
- Yun, retiree with low vision, hand tremor, and mild short-term memory loss