Web Accessibility for Individuals with Cognitive Defects

As I am responsible for the user-interface of
GroupServer, I am also
responsible for its accessibility.
I try and follow the accessibility guidelines, but supporting those
with cognitive disabilities is something that I avoided looking at in
detail: it seems too hard.
However, I decided that the time had come to have a look at some of the
issues with cognitive accessibility when the
ACM Technical Interest Service pointed out
the following paper.

Javier Sevilla, Gerardo Herrera, Bibiana Martínez and Francisco
Alcantud, “Web Accessibility for Individuals with Cognitive
Defects”
, from ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction,
14(3), September 2007

Valiantly, Sevilla et al. have created a system that can present
web pages in a form more suitable for those with cognitive
disabilities.
In their (sadly unnamed) system, the page-information is described by an
ontology.
Another ontology defines a visualisation for the content.
By using them together, different pages can be presented to those
without, and those with, cognitive disabilities (specifically mental
retardation).

The pages designed by Sevilla et al. for those with cognitive
disabilities take cues from the TEACCH methodology, which is normally
used in the creation of teaching aids for people with developmental
disorders, autism, or both.
The system breaks browsing tasks down into small steps, similar to the
series of steps required to withdraw money from an ATM, or complete
a Wizard dialog.
The steps required to complete the current task are shown at the top of
the page, with the current step highlighted.
In each page, up to seven options are presented:

  • The Back button,
  • The Home button, and
  • Up to five links from the page.

No other components of the browser interface — such as the title bar,
status bar or menu-bar — are shown.

The system also removes the “distracting” elements from the page;
for the homepage in the study by Sevilla et al. there were 118
distracting elements removed.
This raises a serious concern with the evaluation: the advantages that
Sevilla et al. measured — and they were considerable — could be
due to the page having 118 fewer elements, not the automatic
deconstruction of the browsing task into small steps.
I am also troubled by the correlations drawn between IQ and
user-understanding, as the number of participants in each condition was
very small.

However, ensuring that the pages are clear from distracting elements
should benefit all users: support user’s task!
Doing this will be cheaper than having to define an ontology for
each site, and an ontology for each visualisation of each site!
The research by Sevilla et al. is fascinating, and I will watch with
interest for further developments in this area.

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