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Understanding and the Cognitive Disorder


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As developers interested in accessibility, we use tools to aid us. Whether these be assistive technologies or tools of the language like alt attributes. But the problem with cognitive disorders is they are not something you can nail down, it is about the inability to understand content, not the inability to access it. No real tools here for us and no way to really simulate it. It is hard to really even understand it as it is all about not understanding.


So we have to deal with something we cannot really understand and help people with this problem to better handle our web sites. My eye opener after 7 years of accessible design was just a few weeks ago. I had just listened to a web cast on the subject when I was asked to come up with examples for accessible tables. I did all the right things, with an eye on WCAG 2 that will likely go final in the next year. So although using all the tricks and tools available I built a table that is by all normal standards... but is it understandable for cognitive disorders? I don't know, but accessibility is about choice and alternatives. We offer those with disabilities or other wishes to access our information in alternative manners.


So in theory it is quite possible that someone with a cognitive problem may not find such data tables to be understood, so even here maybe we should do that little extra work to give them a choice.


Ok, being a top designer you have created a table, you use TH for column or row headers, you may have used scope or IDs, you have a perfect coded table explaining what menu is served which day and all is easy to understand at first sight, your are finished. But is it the most understandable form for all people?


Then consider this. If your table is dynamic you can draw the same info from the database and show it in multiple forms. So you could take a simple table showing days of the week and the menu needed for it in a textual format that someone may find easier to understand.


<table border="1" summary="This table showing our lunch service gives the three lunch courses (column headings)">Today's Lunch Menu   The following information is based on the preferences we have seen based on 3 years
of lunch statistics showing the most often ordered food on this day historically.This information was collected by Joe Blow, please contact Mike if you have any questions.Salad MealDessertCaesarT-bone SteakPineapple Upside down Cake</t


OK now, the above is a proper accessible table that uses best practices and should be usable for the normal disabled users. But is it clear for someone with a cognitive disorder? Maybe, maybe not, we have no way to know until they complain... if they complain.


So maybe plain text would be better for some people and is not all that hard as long as it changes daily. Imagine a simple text paragraph with a feed from the database, the same data as in the table (Indicated by {}).


Today's Lunch Menu

Today we will be serving {Caesar} Salad, {T-bone Steak} and {Pineapple Upside down Cake} as dessert.


This information is based on the preferences we have seen based on 3 years of lunch statistics showing the most often ordered food on this day historically. The information was collected by Joe Blow. Please contact Mike if you have any questions.


So as you see, this simple paragraph style is not as clear at a quick glance, but could be more understandable than a table to some forms of Cognitive Disorders. If both paragraph and table draw from a database, the entries are automatically updated and need not be manually changed. Both versions can be offered on the same page with a heading that allows choice, a screen reader user may find the second preferable to the table as well and choose to skip the table and listen to the paragraph.


So unlike normal accessibility tricks, I cannot say that this is a better way for any number of people. What I would like you to consider is simply that accessibility is about offering choices to allow alternative methods for those with special needs are simply other preferences, to access information in another manner. So when it works, data type info in a data table as well as plain text. Offer an RTF document & a PDF version, offer multiple style sheets, offer two forms of navigation, offer alternative text to images. Just always try to ask yourself if this is not the best format for the user to read information, what can you do to offer an alternative form, give the user a choice to what best suites them.


WebAIM has a good article on the subject of Cognitive disorders: Cognitive Disabilities.

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