A WeCo testers using a Microsoft Surface tablet.

Microsoft Surface uses tiles that can make digital access easier for users living with mental illness. You can apply this concept to websites and software.

It’s not uncommon for developers and content managers, who train and test with our Accessibility Team, to be surprised to learn that:

  • Nearly 20% of the US population lives with mental illness.  (US Department of Labor)
  • Depression is classified as a mental illness.
  • Mental illnesses of many types can make comprehending written and graphic content difficult.

This means that web accessibility can be greatly impacted for individuals who live with mental illness.  But it also means that people creating websites and software have a great opportunity to help these people access information.

How Mental Illness Impact Digital Access

Digital access can vary a lot between individuals living with mental illness.  For many of us it can present in the form of:

  • Difficulty reading dense, wordy content.
  • Being distracted by moving and flashing graphics.
  • Frustration when software and web functions aren’t intuitive.
  • Becoming easily overwhelmed if it is difficult to locate information or complete functions.

My illness can be “active” at certain times of the year, and “inactive” at others.  For instance, if I’m under a great deal of stress, my depression can make it difficult for me to read a long paragraph.  It can also make locating an item in a retail website difficult without a search box.   Other periods of time, this may not bother me at all.   Other individuals may find that their symptoms are present all,of the time.  This means that developing well for people living with mental illness, is important and can greatly aid accessibility for everyone you are trying to reach.

Mental Way-Finding is the Key

Some of the items we listed above are easily solved with simple, clear text and plenty of white space.  Others, by making sure that your forms work and don’t time out too quickly.

However, as you successfully develop for individuals living with mental illness, you’ll begin to see that what you’re doing is creating a clear path through your website.  Here are a few things that may not come immediately to mind:

  • Use a search box feature.  This can save a great deal of time, and frustration, in locating what a person is seeking without having to read a great deal.
  • Keep your picture slider on pause.  Active picture sliders can be an immediate distraction to your web page.  For some individuals, it may be so distracting that they never get to the content.    Keep in mind that you can allow the user to turn on the carousel to view the pictures in a pace that works for them.
  • Keep navigation bars clear and simple.  It’s easy to pack an encyclopedia of sub-links into each navigation bar, but resist the urge.  The list of choices can easily overwhelm your user and discourage them from delving into your website.  Instead, stick with a clean row of navigation links with limited drop down options.
  • Think “tiles” for information options.  The “tile” concept used by Windows and Microsoft Surface came from a desk top designed for children with cognitive disabilities.  When comprehension is difficult, clicking on a “graphic tile” with a symbol of what you’re looking for is much easier than reading a list of links.  HINT: “Tiles” can also help keep your navigation bar uncluttered.

Remember that a simpler, clearer digital website means a more positive experience for everyone, but can make a huge, accessible difference, for users who live with mental illness.