People who meet me for the first time, or who 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.
This 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 not 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, which was designed to heighten awareness and understanding around disabled employees’ needs.
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’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. 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.
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.
One thing that I feel that WeCo does extremely well is bring a voice to the needs of people living with cognitive disabilities and make their needs less invisible to the software engineers and web designers we work with. 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/.
Want to learn more about accessibility? WeCo has a variety of free public and paid single-seat trainings available. Some examples of the training we offer:
- Getting Started in Accessibility
- Make Your Business Case for Accessibility (Webinar)
- Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 Jump Start
For a complete list of WeCo’s training events, visit our Events & Training page.
Further reading from WeCo’s Accessibility Blog about cognitive disabilities: