Accessibility is excluding the neurodivergent

GUEST BLOG: In this contributed blog post, Craig Abbott, head of accessibility for DWP, explains the pros and cons of the current guidelines around web accessibility, and shares what companies need to do to include neurodivergent people in their web accessibility considerations. 

Over the past few years, accessibility has definitely become a hot topic.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 are great. They’ve been around for around 20 years, and thanks to the Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations 2018, more and more digital services, websites and mobile apps are now adhering to these standards.

For those not familiar with WCAG 2.1, it gives us a list of criteria to check against and quickly establish if a website or app is accessible or not.

Now, don’t get me wrong; the rise of WCAG 2.1 is great, and it’s something to be celebrated. But for those of us that are neurodivergent, we’re often still being excluded and left behind.

WCAG is not without its shortcomings. They were never designed to be a binary global measure on what is and is not accessible. By their very nature, they’re guidelines. It’s even written in the title.

What is WCAG 2.1?

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are an internationally recognised standard for accessibility. They are published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). WCAG 2.1 is the latest version, and it has 3 levels: A, AA and AAA.

Level AA is the industry standard, and is the level required by law for Public Sector Bodies in the UK. But unfortunately, this means everybody pretty much shortcuts all the AAA criteria. Even people who have a lot of experience working to WCAG 2.1 often struggle to name or describe any of the AAA criteria off the top of their head.

WCAG is split into 4 categories: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable and Robust. It focuses heavily on making things work for people who have physical impairments with one or more of their senses, such as vision, hearing or coordination.

A lot of the AAA criteria of WCAG, which people readily discard, are the ones which help people with cognitive impairments such as Dyslexia, Autism, brain injuries, or in my case, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

The following examples are just some of the AAA criteria which helps people with cognitive impairments, but they’re often excluded because they are not included in level AA compliance:

How do we make things better for neurodivergent people?

To make things better for neurodivergent people, I guess the obvious conclusion to jump to is to just work to WCAG level AAA, right? Well… not exactly.

Even W3C don’t advocate trying to meet AAA across the board. They state: “It is not recommended that Level AAA conformance be required as a general policy for entire sites because it is not possible to satisfy all Level AAA Success Criteria for some content.”

Another thing to consider, is that sometimes trying to meet AAA criteria can actually create more issues beyond accessibility. For example, in government our branding is super important. Changing the colours to meet level AAA for colour contrast instead of the current level of AA, means abandoning the established GOVUK colour palette, which is used on almost all digital services across all departments. And, if it doesn’t look and feel like a government service, people aren’t going to trust it and they simply won’t use it.

The Cognitive Accessibility Guidance (COGA)

To make things work for people who are neurodivergent, we should consider the Cognitive Accessibility Guidance (COGA), which is listed in WCAG 2 under supplemental guidance.

COGA has 8 objectives, and bridges the gaps left in WCAG by being very specific about what you need to consider:

  1. Help users understand what things are and how to use them
  2. Help users to find what they need
  3. Use clear and understandable content
  4. Help users avoid mistakes and know how to correct them
  5. Help users focus
  6. Ensure processes do not rely on memory
  7. Provide help and support
  8. Support adaptation and personalisation

Each section has example user stories and design patterns you can use to make sure you don’t exclude people with common cognitive impairments. And, by working to these objectives, you can meet the needs of users who are perhaps not covered by WCAG 2.1 AA, such as those who have issues with attention, language or literacy, learning, memory or executive function.

Why WCAG and COGA matter

There is a lot of overlap between WCAG and COGA, but they’re not interchangeable. If you meet one, it’s unlikely you will meet the other automatically.

Impairments can be permanent, temporary, situational or a combination. For example, my ADHD is permanent, it will always need managing. But it can also be exacerbated if I’m in a distracting environment such as an open plan office. So, despite it being a permanent impairment, the level of impairment can definitely be situational.

Cognitive impairments can also be temporary or situational for people who are generally considered to be neurotypical. For example, fatigue, stress, burnout, or bereavement can happen to anybody at any time. There’s a whole bunch of reasons why somebody might temporarily be unable to process information to a level that they would consider to be normal. So, accessibility really is for everybody.

To build a digital service, website, or application to be more inclusive, don’t just stop at 2.1 AA compliant and pat yourself on the back. Look at the AAA criteria and see what criteria you can include to make things better for people, then cross reference COGA and see what design patterns and user stories you can implement to meet a wide range of additional user needs.

WCAG is great. Doing the work and being WCAG 2.1 compliant is commendable. But… building truly inclusive services is better!

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