How to create for cognitive diversity in web development

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Cognitive disabilities / diversities span across neurological conditions, neurodiversity and learning difficulties. Neurological conditions may affect an individual’s nervous system and cause physical disabilities such as sight, hearing or speech loss or difficulty in communicating. 

There is a lot of misinformation about the perspectives of the Neurodivergent community and the needs of these individuals often get overlooked or intertwined with those of Neurological needs. For example, ADHD is often illustrated in the media as a disorder which makes people out of control, impulsive and dangerous; when in fact it is simply a surplus or deficit of energy which can lead to extreme fatigue reducing one’s ability to maintain focus. It is our collective responsibility to eliminate these stigmas and help to reinforce positive progression through discussion and technical enhancements. 

In this guide, we outline conversations you can be having within your organisation and amongst your industry peers in the arts sector and beyond.


So what is ‘The Default’?

The default when considering web accessibility is the optimum user experience for people without Cognitive differences. Many sites are created by and for people without Neurodiversity which causes a bias and limits access for people who do experience it. The default in this sense, is often inherently inaccessible.

One in seven people experience life through a Neurodiverse lens; those people are not disabled by their cognitive divergence, they are disabled by the functionality of the default.

We should focus on creating for people rather than tailoring a site as an extension of the default way of working.

Here are some examples of Neurodiversity:

  • Aphasia – A condition which affects someone’s ability to comprehend language, it can be caused by brain damage and may affect a person’s speech and memory.
  • Autism (Aspergers) – A cognitive difference in which a person may experience interaction in a different way. It is like having a different rule book for communication to  ‘Neurotypical’ people whose perspectives are seen as the default. 
  • Dyslexia – A cognitive difference which affects a person’s ability to read or interpret words, letters or symbols.
  • Dyscalculia – Difficulty understanding arithmetic.
  • ADHD ( Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder) – A cognitive difference which affects a person’s ability to maintain focus. Zoning out may be one example of ADHD.

In our recent webinar ‘How to Improve your online accessibility’, we discussed the principles that HdK follows for ensuring optimum solutions for users. This includes following the WCAG guidelines and aiming to incorporate AAA standards across all sites with a minimum of AA. (A meaning ‘accessibility’ conformance levels).  We also spoke about some technical solutions for web developers to improve their development process by focusing on who they are excluding as a result of their design and functionality.

We presented a snippet from an Interview with Lucy Collins – Senior UX Consultant at Web Usability; regarding a user testing session that we had the opportunity to take part in. Lucy recommends inputting user testing as much as possible in order to get the full extent of people’s needs and not treat accessibility as a tick box exercise. We think that this is crucial for designing and developing optimised experiences for people of all diversities and with the right information anyone can do it! 

Putting the focus on the comfort of users; ask users with permission to describe their experiences when navigating the web to gather an abundance of viewpoints. An example of this is:

  • Can you tell me a bit about how your Neurodiversity affects how you move through and search for information on digital platforms, if any? 
  • Are there any features on digital platforms which inhibit your ability to get to (read/ listen/understand) information? 
  • Are there any methods that you have found that help to support this?

You can view the full webinar linked at the end of this blog post.

Geometric pattern of hexagons fitting together

Factors to consider

There are a number of ways that websites can make it difficult for people with Neurodivergence to access. Below, we outline some key barriers and how to easily overcome them.

Gaps in information

One not so obvious barrier of accessibility is not providing extensive, detailed information. Considering the comfort or discomfort of users in the design and development process will encourage more people to see Neurodivergence as a default. 

For some Neurodiverse users such as people with Autism; having specific information is important. Accessibility is concerned with making users as comfortable as possible and this is why user testing is so crucial.

Say you are a ballet company staging an outside performance. Someone with Autism may want access to as much location information as possible such as how to get to the venue, what is around the venue, refreshment points, how long the performance is and whether there will be any flashing lights or stage effects. This is something that we can all be considering when monitoring our websites and digital presences: the comfort of visitors.


Dense blocks of text

One other important thing to think about is how content is displayed on a page. Content should be concise and consider these design elements. Avoid creating a dense block of text with no visual breaks, or try to include space around paragraphs which will link directly to the information needed. Big blocks of text can act as an inhibitor for some people as attention can get lost.


Semantic HTML

If you are a developer or want to ask your developer to improve this functionality; including funnels to certain parts of a page (using semantic HTML). Semantic HTML is a way of describing good content flow, which uses tags to directly identify the meaning of the content.

Use tags such as <h1> – heading; <section> – section of page; and <article> – text which is self-contained / text which is inside of the section.



Sarah Richards, Accessibility specialist, frames an approach to accessibility advancements in this way: ‘If it’s not accessible, it’s not usable’. It is crucial for this to become a default perspective to make people comfortable and able to live day to day with the same efficiency as everyone else.

If access and perspective barriers are removed; all users with all diversities have the opportunity to view content which relates to them. Removing access barriers also opens up discussion for developing a more neutral base for design and discovery. 

At HdK we try to follow this principle for creating more accessible and sustainable web solutions.  The web needs to be accessible for everyone to navigate and reach the information that they need at the time when they need it.  We understand that accessibility is an ongoing conversation, discussing what works best in tech and for communities; but if we look at Neurodivergence as a default this may help to encourage positive progression and wipe harmful stigmas and biases for good.


Learn more by viewing our Web Accessibility Webinar here

Victoria Knights - Web Support Assistant