Access Granted: Making Media Accessible, Part 5

In this fifth and final installment of my “Making Media Accessible” series, I want to discuss a type of disability that–though extremely prevalent–can often be overlooked when considering accessibility. Cognitive disabilities are in many ways invisible; there aren’t always physical indications that a person has a cognitive disorder, so it can be easy for others to ignore, downplay, or dismiss the needs of those who have one. In another way, the very prevalence of cognitive disorders can make them seem invisible. Like color-blindness, the more common a disability is, the less impression it seems to make on us, and the more we assume and expect those with the disability will find their own ways to adapt. Unfortunately, this can put those with an invisible disability in an especially difficult position: not only do they need to seek accommodation for their disability, they are also burdened with both explicitly disclosing their disorder and demonstrating or proving to others that they need accommodation–a potentially invasive and embarrassing experience. For these reasons, it is vital to understand and acknowledge the validity of cognitive disability and to consider ways to create greater accessibility for the cognitively disabled wherever we can.


So what is cognitive disability? And what kind of accommodations does it require? The term “cognitive disability” may be a problematic one, as many conditions that it might describe are less a disability than a difference. However, as discussed in Part 1, it is preferable to think of ALL disability as difference, but difference made difficult by its social and cultural marginalization. With that in mind, cognitive disability can encompass a wide range of neurodiverse ways of thinking and processing information, but can be loosely described as a condition in which one “has greater difficulty with one or more types of mental tasks than the average person” (WebAIM). This includes anything from dementia to autism to ADHD to brain injury to dyslexia to Down’s Syndrome. With such a large variety of ways cognitive disability might manifest–each with its own unique qualities–it can be difficult to plan for all possible accessibility needs. Like so many other types of disability we have discussed before, the key is not to strive for universal accessibility, but to look at a few simple places where we can start.

Clear Headings and Navigation

Cognitive disorders that impact processes like problem-solving and memory can make navigation of web and other multimodal texts complex, confusing, and frustrating. Includification describes the need for explicit tutorials in video games for cognitively impaired players to learn how to play before diving into the game. Consider this in the context of composition: when we build multimodal texts with multiple points of entry, how can we establish a tutorial-like experience for our audience to learn to read that text? One way to accomplish that is to make structural and navigational information very clear; for example, headings and links should make explicit where they will go, and essential navigational points like menus and links “home” should be clear and accessible from any part of the text. These features mean that your audience doesn’t need to remember how they got to their place in the text, and they won’t get lost in navigation or confused because they ended up somewhere different than they expected.

Limited Distractions

Attentional disorders are in some ways well-served by multimodal texts: having several different ways of accessing the work may help hold interest, if not on one part of the text, then on another. If not well-planned, however, multimodal texts can be almost impossible for someone with an attentional disorder to process. Limit potential distractions by eliminating unnecessary stimuli like arbitrary or unrelated graphics and non-essential moving or flashing visuals. In gaming, attention can become an issue when a lot is happening on-screen and a player needs to identify important actions while disregarding other, less important visual information. One approach advocated by Includification is large clear markers to indicate characters that are hostile, when differentiating between friend and foe is vital. A lesson we may take here is to create greater visual weight for more essential information in multimodal compositions. Making important pieces stand out means less time and focused attention is required to assess what is important and what is not, while also potentially creating a more easily skimmable text whose general meaning can be understood by someone who lacks the attentional focus to read the full text.

Friendly Text

While unnecessary visuals can be distracting, relevant ones can be immensely helpful to support understanding of a text for people with reading and language processing disorders. People with conditions like dyslexia can have an especially difficult time with large chunks of text, so supplementing or breaking up that text with related images can add context and make it easier to process. WebAIM uses this neat example to demonstrate how images can aid understanding for reading and language disorders:

Read this phrase:

Tob eornot obe

Now go to this link and see if it makes more sense!


I’d mentioned previously that cognitive disability was an issue of particular importance and relevance to me. This is because very recently I was diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder). It came as kind of a shock. I know several people who have received this same diagnosis, but I’d never considered it as a possibility for me. I probably should have; I have a lot of the tell-tale signs. I struggled in school, was often thought to be “lazy” or “unmotivated” by parents and teachers. I’m disorganized, forgetful. My handwriting is difficult to read because I’m constantly running words together or skipping words completely. Still, despite learning about ADHD through the experiences of close friends, I never thought it seemed like me.

One of the main reasons for this is that I have a lesser and only more recently diagnosed form of ADHD, known as “inattentive type” or “ADHD without hyperactivity”. This form is not as frequently diagnosed in children because, without the presence of hyperactivity, kids with inattentive ADHD don’t call attention to themselves by acting out. Instead, they are more likely to daydream excessively, and are prone to being distracted by their own thoughts rather than external stimuli. By the time they are adults, many people with inattentive ADHD have figured out ways to hide or compensate for their difficulty controlling their attention (because that’s what ADHD is really about, not a deficit but rather uncontrolled attention).

I think another major factor in my resistance to the idea that I might have ADHD was related to my sense of identity. I’ve loved reading and writing for as long as I’ve been able to do them (and I had an early start at that, too). My perception of ADHD included being a struggling and even resistant reader, and I’d never been that. Had I? When I finally began to think seriously about this diagnosis, it made sense. One feature of ADHD is hyperfocus, the ability to focus extremely well on one thing for a long time. The trick of it is, hyperfocus is not something you can control. It comes when it comes and it goes when it goes. It does, however, occur most frequently when engaging in activities of special interest. For me, that WAS reading and writing. I might have struggled with them more if I didn’t have such a particular love for them, if I’d had a passion for photography or woodworking or skateboarding or whatever else. As it was, I could blow through a complex novel in an afternoon (sometimes), but reading a chapter of a textbook could seem impossible. It was hard for me to accept that I was having difficulty reading; it ran so counter to my identity as someone who adored books, and later as an English major and lit theory nerd.

Since being diagnosed, so much has changed. Understanding the source of a problem is always the first step to dealing with it, and though I still have work to do, the strategies I’ve developed to accommodate my learning style have made my life–and especially my work–infinitely easier and less stressful. What’s more, I’m able to see now the strengths and advantages of ADHD, not just the struggles and limitations. The ADHD brain is creative, inventive, and entrepreneurial. It is an inherent part of the person I am, and that’s a person I happen to like.

When the obstacles start to fall away, it becomes easier to appreciate and value difference, and I think that’s essentially what accessibility is about. If disability doesn’t have to be a limitation, if those with disabilities have free and wide-ranging access to spaces, activities, and media of all kinds, then we can stop seeing them as disabilities and start seeing them as diverse ways of thinking, moving, and being in the world. I hope this series of posts has helped start readers on a path to thinking and learning more about accessibility. The tips and suggestions I’ve provided are just a beginning. The most important thing we can do is to always keep accessibility in our minds, to see beyond our own experience and create work that can be shared by a wide and diverse audience.


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