People who meet me for the first time 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 is one that no one wants to talk about: mental illness and Epilepsy.
It’s not unusual for those of us with mental illness to attempt to hide it. The significant stigma makes it nearly impossible to talk about our disability in the workplace, or our personal lives. Many people do not even reveal it to close friends and family members.
Even among people living with other types of disabilities,
invisible disabilities can hold an unspoken taboo.
While working as a federal program coordinator for the State of Minnesota, I served as a member of an employee resource group for staff with disabilities. At the first meeting, we were seated facing each other at a circular table and, one by one, we 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 by 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 lighthearted standpoint. When my turn came I said: “Hi, I’m Lynn, and I live with mental illness.” Before I could draw the breath to add a comic statement about 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 and Epilepsy, several members of my extended family had similar experiences. In my own family, I and my four sisters lived with a different form of Epilepsy. Both my mother and I dealt with lifelong chronic mental illnesses. 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. Oftentimes, the needs of the cognitive user are downplayed 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.
Accessibility changes for people with cognitive disabilities are among the easiest to make
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 things like making sure that your text is simple, accurate, and concise; your pages aren’t overwhelmed with text; ample white space is included; and distracting, moving graphics are left out of the design plan.
At WeCo, we see the importance of bringing a voice to the needs of people living with cognitive disabilities. Our helps the software engineers and web designers we work with, understand and get excited about cognitive digital accessibility. 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, which can be found at: http://webaim.org/articles/cognitive/.
Further reading from WeCo’s Accessibility Blog about cognitive disabilities: