Helping Students with Cognitive Disabilities

Today’s students are digital natives who use smart devices for every facet of their lives– shopping, banking, dining, dating, gossiping, and learning. Where previous generations of students brought books, pens and notebooks to class, today’s learners are armed with laptops and mobile devices. While this current era of pervasive technology has substantial benefits to most students, it has also created barriers for students who may learn differently, such as those with cognitive disabilities.

Cognitive disabilities represent the largest subset of the total population of persons who have disabilities. According to a 2013 review by University College London, up to 10 percent of the population are affected by specific learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, dyscalculia and autism, translating to 2 or 3 pupils in every classroom.

Definitions of cognitive disability vary, but generally include the person affected as having difficulties with one or more mental tasks and/or processing than a typical person. There is a wide range of abilities in the spectrum of people with cognitive disabilities from minor (may never be detected) to profound (needs daily help). Examples of functional deficits or difficulties include memory, attention, math comprehension, visual comprehension, reading, linguistic, and verbal comprehension.

Now that we explored the definition of a cognitive disability, lets take a look at the current trend in the Education Industry – digitalization. In 2013, the Evergreen Education Group reported that in the US, 25 states have virtual K-12 schools as of Fall 2013 and the number of students attending full-time online schools in school year 2013-14 increased 13% from a year ago. By 2020, fully online students are projected to reach 5 million.

The websites delivering the digital Education need to be accessible to all students including students with cognitive disabilities. WebAIM provides Web design considerations to address the needs of people experiencing cognitive functional deficits. The guidance includes the following:

  • Memory and attention – ensure the website provides a consistent experience when moving from page to page within a site. For example, it is important not to change the placement, display and functionality of the site’s navigation menu. Along with consistency, it’s important to organize the content using headings and lists and highlight important aspects of the content. Also, avoid distractions, such as animation and pop-up windows and use white space and design elements to focus attention. Enable requests for more time; or control of time-outs and automatic refreshes or redirects.
  • Reading comprehension – follow plain-language standards, when possible. For example, do not use content such as colloquialisms, non-literal text and jargon. Also, ensure text readability (80 characters per line, text of at least 10 pixels in size, sans-serif fonts) and allow critical functions to be confirmed, cancelled, or reversed.
  • Visual comprehension – ensure compatibility with assistive technologies such as screen readers. It’s important to deliver textual-content via alternatives, such as video or text-to-speech. Text and images need to be readable after their size is increased 200 to 300 percent. Also, give users feedback, such as correct-choices confirmation, or alerts to possible errors.

The biggest hurdle for website accessibility is educating web developers and designers so they adopt best practices that enhance the overall web experience. IBM has long been active with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and has advocated for W3C web standards to include the needs of people with disabilities. IBM is now active in the W3C Accessibility Cognitive Task Force to draft guidance and techniques to make web content, content authoring, and user agent implementation accessible and more usable by people with cognitive and learning disabilities. The end goal is for all persons to be able to easily perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with content on the Internet.

Digital education is here and is accelerating. Researchers are working on how to make digital education content inclusive to all. In a recent Department of Education study, it was found that students who had access to math digitally, meaning math navigable through highlighting and speech, experienced improved math comprehension by 10 to 15 percent across all students, and not just the students with disabilities. This study exemplifies that solving for the needs of students with disabilities, including those with cognitive disabilities, will benefit all students.

IBM Accessibility Senior Technologist, Research Master Inventor, Academy of Technology

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