WeCo President, Lynn Wehrman pictured seated next to her sister, Heidi Swank.

WeCo President, Lynn Wehrman with her sister,  Nevada Assemblywoman, Heidi Swank, at Lynn’s wedding.

People who meet me for the first time, or know very little about me, often tell me that they are very surprised to learn that I live with a disability. They are even more surprised to learn that my disability kept me out of the work force, and unable to interact effectively with others, for several years.

That is not uncommon for those of us who live each day with some form of mental illness.  Because of the significant stigma surrounding the disease, most of us go to great lengths never to reveal our secret.  Many people do no even reveal it to close friends and family members.

Even among members of the disabled community, invisible disabilities, such as mental illness, make people uncomfortable.  While working as a federal program coordinator for the State of Minnesota, I served as a member of an employee disability task force, designed to heighten awareness and understanding around disabled employee’s needs.

At the first meeting, each of us were seated at a circular table, facing each other and, one by one, were asked to introduce ourselves and name the disability we lived with.  The dialogue went something like this, “Hi, I’m Chris and you can tell my the presence of my interpreter, that I’m deaf.”  Everyone laughed and we moved on to the next member, “Hi, I’m Anna and I live with low-vision.  Which is fine until someone rearranges the room.”  Again, everyone laughed as each of us approached why we were there from a light-hearted standpoint.  When my turn came I said, “Hi, I’m Lynn and I’m mentally ill.”  Before I could draw the breath to make any kind of comedic commentary on my disability, the room had gone totally silent and each of my fellow committee members, whether they were able to see me or not, looked down at their laps and said nothing.

Coming from a family where cognitive disabilities are prevalent, it wasn’t a reaction I was used to.  In addition to my own challenges with mental illness, several members of my extended family had similar experiences.  In my own family, three of my four sisters, including my youngest sister who is presently a State of Nevada Assemblywoman,  lived with a childhood form of Epilepsy.  One of my older sisters, Amy, still controls her seizures with medication.  With cognitive disabilities so much in the forefront of our everyday lives, discussing what each of us were living with was never taboo in my family.

The reason this story is so important is because it helps us understand why it is so difficult for web designers and engineers to grasp the needs of people who live with cognitive disabilities: we aren’t comfortable discussing them.  Often times the needs of the cognitive user are down-played or overlooked, simply because it’s not easy for us to consider them.  As someone who works towards creating more accessible websites, I see this reality every day.

Developing for the needs of the cognitively disabled user are usually the easiest design choices to make, and often dually impact the nondisabled user in helpful ways as well.  This can include making sure that your text is simple, accurate and concise, that your pages aren’t overwhelmed with text and ample white space is included or to leave distracting, moving graphics out of the design plan.

One thing that I feel our company, WeCo does, extremely well, is bringing a voice to the needs of people living with cognitive disabilities and making their needs less invisible to the software engineers and web designers with which we work.  Hearing these talented people say, “I didn’t think about how hard it would be for someone with an intellectual disability to understand that,” brings hope to the concept that a day is coming when these needs will be more easily acknowledged.

One of my favorite sources for explaining the realities of living with a cognitive disability, and ensuring you’re designing well for this group’s needs, is WebAim’s introduction to the subject at: http://webaim.org/articles/cognitive/