Web Accessibility and Learning Difficulties

Accessibility is about making it as easy as possible for all members of society to fully take part in that society. It is about removing barriers. It is about inclusion and empowerment. It is about creating the sort of world that we all want to live in – a message that should resonate with us all.

Where the UK government stands

This year, the UK government gave “a clear commitment to ensuring that all government websites and online services present no barriers to use for those with disabilities” (source: Connecting the UK). It has also promised “a renewed focus on the use of e-inclusion as a route to social inclusion” (source: Office of the Deputy Prime Minister).

Where are we now?

Accessibility’s profile within the Internet industry has never been higher, which is a good thing for all those people who have benefited from the improvements that have been made to a large number of websites.

Unfortunately, most people’s understanding of accessibility relates exclusively to visually-impaired users – to the point, in fact, where these two terms are often used interchangeably.

Well, it’s time that we all realised that there are other groups of users out there who need – and deserve – support.

Where should we be?

The Code of Practice for part III of the Disability discrimination Act defines a disabled person as:

“Someone who has a physical or mental impairment which has an effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.”

People with learning difficulties have received a particularly raw deal (it’s estimated that some 2 million people in the UK have learning difficulties). This audience group is even mentioned specifically in the Code of Practice:

  • “5.22 – In many cases, a service provider will need to consider providing auxiliary aids or services to improve communication with people with learning disabilities.”
  • “5.28 – For example, a customer with a learning disability may be able to access a service by the provision of documents in large, clear print and plain language or by the use of colour coding and illustrations.”

Some advice

Webcredible’s analysis of usability testing sessions involving participants with learning difficulties has led to our suggesting these guidelines when designing for these users:

  • Your website should behave as consistently as possible, and have a consistent appearance/look-and-feel (e.g. all links and buttons should look and behave in the same way)
  • Avoid using words in their non-literal sense (e.g. “it’s raining cats and dogs”)
  • Avoid using abstractions (e.g. provide a link to a telephone number rather than to ‘Contact us’ )
  • Provide clearly signposted, simplified summaries of pages’ content at the top of the page
  • Provide an audio version of a site’s content
  • Break information into small, simple chunks and illustrate them visually wherever possible
  • Always provide an obvious way for users to get back to simpler content if they find themselves on a page above their reading level
  • Increase the spacing between lines of text
  • Increase the spacing between paragraphs
  • Increase the distance between the text and the underline in links (you can use the CSS border-bottom property to underline links and achieve this)
  • Increase the target area of navigation links (again, you can do this with CSS)

This article was written by Tim Fidgeon, Head of Usability at Webcredible. He’s crazy about usability and runs Webcredible’s web usability training and is passionate about user centered design.