The digital divide separates those who can readily access computers and the internet from those who cannot. This gap exists for many different reasons—from socioeconomics to broadband availability—yet even when infrastructure and connectivity issues are resolved, approximately 61 million Americans and an estimated 1 billion people globally still face obstacles when it comes to utilizing the web due to a digital accessibility chasm between the abled and disabled.
Disabilities impact how users interact with technology. Without inclusive design, many individuals cannot access the same information and communication technology (ICT) resources many take for granted, including education and employment information, shopping options, and social opportunities.
“Learning shouldn’t be something only those without disabilities get to do,” explains Seren Davies, a full stack software engineer and accessibility advocate who is dyslexic. “It should be for everyone. By thinking about digital accessibility, we are making sure that everyone who wants to learn can.”
Learning disabilities are some of the most common yet frequently overlooked conditions related to digital inclusion and accessibility.
Estimates suggest that 5 to 9 percent of the U.S. population have learning disabilities. However, despite such prevalence, many diagnosed individuals do not openly acknowledge their disorders due to lingering stigmas. According to the nonprofit National Center for Learning Disabilities, only one in four college students with learning disabilities disclose these to their schools, and just one in 20 young adults with learning disabilities receive workplace accommodations.
A study published in the Journal of Learning Disabilities titled “The Impact of Learning Disabilities on Adulthood: A Review of the Evidenced-Based Literature for Research and Practice in Adult Education” points out that adults with learning disabilities must adapt for “employment, family, social and emotional, daily living routines, community, and recreation and leisure.” The use of ICTs is widespread within all these spheres, so inaccessible websites and tools put those with learning disabilities at a disadvantage.
What Are Learning Disabilities & How Are They Different From Intellectual Disabilities?
Some confuse learning disabilities with intellectual disabilities, but they are typically classified as two separate developmental disabilities. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a learning disability is defined as a “disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written.” On the other hand, an intellectual disability is “significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period,” it continues. However, in the United Kingdom, the term “intellectual disability” is often used to refer to learning disabilities, adding to the confusion.
While individuals with learning disabilities and those with cognitive or intellectual disabilities share some similar obstacles regarding digital accessibility and inclusion, those with cognitive challenges frequently face additional barriers less common in those who are learning disabled.
Common Types of Learning Disabilities
“Learning disability” is a broad term used to describe several specific diagnoses. Dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, nonverbal learning disorder, and oral/written language disorder and specific reading comprehension deficit are among the most prevalent.
According to the nonprofit Learning Disabilities Association of America, dyslexia is “characterized by deficits in accurate and fluent word recognition.” This can lead to difficulties with reading, writing, spelling, speaking, listening, and mixing up words. Dyslexia is one of the most widespread and well-known learning disabilities. The nonprofit International Dyslexia Association estimates that dyslexia-like symptoms may affect 15 to 20 percent of school-aged children in the United States.
Dyscalculia causes difficulties understanding and calculating numbers. It may affect mathematical ability and quantitative reasoning.
Dysgraphia is characterized by difficulties with written expression, including impaired writing ability and fine motor skills.
Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NLD)
While not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), growing research suggests that nonverbal learning disorder can make it challenging to interpret body language and facial expressions. It may also impair coordination.
Oral/Written Language Disorder & Specific Reading Comprehension Deficit
Oral/written language disorder and specific reading comprehension deficit can affect an individual’s understanding and/or expression of both spoken and written language.
Common Difficulties Associated With Learning Disabilities
While symptoms vary between different learning disabilities, and even between individuals with the same disorder, many face some or all of the following challenges:
- Difficulties with hand-eye coordination
- Fine and gross motor skill deficits
- Attention problems, including ADHD
- Slower processing
- Trouble with logic and reasoning
- Difficulty following directions
- Memory issues
- Sensory problems
- Difficulty staying organized
- Problems with sequencing
Potential Barriers to Accessibility
Barriers to accessibility facing those with learning disabilities vary between individuals, but some are especially common. Most can be overcome through careful and considerate design.
When people design and build websites, they unfortunately don’t always consider all the unique needs users have, explains accessibility advocate Seren Davies.
“Some examples of barriers people can face are poor colour contrast, not being able to read text or tell pass and fail apart as it is just using colour,” she shares. “Not being able to highlight text to guide themselves along while reading or have assistive technology read the text to them. Having sites and software not friendly for screen-readers to use, they miss out on lots of content as it is not being read aloud.”
Frequent Interface Changes
It often takes learning disabled users longer to master the use of a platform or interface. Making frequent changes can prove to be a hurdle for those with learning disabilities, since they may have to invest more time to relearn after each change.
Difficulty interpreting written text is one of the telltale symptoms of dyslexia, but it can also be present in other learning disabilities. Websites that rely exclusively on dense text may be more difficult for these individuals to process.
"Oftentimes websites have so much information that they cram together on the page," says learning disability influencer Jacquelyn Taylor. "This is not accessible for people with learning disabilities since it’s hard for us to pick out the important information and we get lost easily when reading. This is why less crowded pages on websites would be very helpful."
Font & Color Selections
Individuals with dyslexia, the most widely diagnosed learning disability, frequently face challenges reading certain font styles. The color selection for the font and the background can also impact the overall readability for individuals with the condition.
“Use good typography,” says Davies. “As someone with dyslexia, I find swirly fonts particularly hard to read. Pick a font that is simple and easy to read, this way people can focus on the learning and not making out what it says.”
The color selection for the font and the background can also impact the overall readability for individuals with the condition.
“The easiest way to make tools more accessible is by using colours with enough contrast,” she adds.
Lack of Digital Skills
While many individuals with learning disabilities have studied extensively to prepare them to read, write, do math, and conduct other tasks made more difficult by their disorders, digital skills are often overlooked by training programs.
Best Practices for Accessibility
The term “learning disability” encompasses several disorders with a diverse array of signs and symptoms. Because of this, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to make the digital space more inclusive for those with learning disabilities. Luckily, many of the same accessible design principles that benefit individuals with other impairments may also be beneficial for the learning disabled.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) outline eight objectives critical to consider when designing for individuals with learning or cognitive disabilities:
Help users understand what things are and how to use them.
Those who struggle to learn new information often prefer familiar design elements and terms. Using controls that visually represent their function along with standard terms, symbols, and element locations can make the interface easier for users to learn. Individuals with learning disabilities may also benefit from easy access to help and personalization options.
Help users find what they need.
Sites should make the most important features clear, possess a logical hierarchical menu structure, use an easy to understand page structure, make the most important things easy to find, break media into chunks, and offer a search function. These design elements make it easier for users to find things without as much effort.
Use clear and understandable content.
The same writing techniques that make content easier for the general population to understand are also beneficial for those with learning disabilities. Text should use clear words, clear formatting and punctuation, simple tenses, and literal language. Content should also avoid double negatives and nested clauses, remain succinct, use white space effectively, offer alternatives for numbers, explain implied information, separate instructions, and include necessary numbers and symbols for word deciphering. Long documents should include summaries and foreground written text should not be obscured by the background.
Help users avoid mistakes or correct them.
Mistakes are often unavoidable when using ICTs, but designers should work to minimize the mistakes learning disabled users are likely to make and provide easy ways to correct them.
To help limit mistakes: Ensure controls and content remain stationary, design forms carefully, use flexible form inputs, notify users of fees upfront, use clear labels and instructions, offer feedback, rely on familiar metrics, and keep users’ information safe. You can also help individuals with learning disabilities recover more quickly from mistakes by enabling users to go back, crafting forms to prevent mistakes, letting users undo form errors without much effort, and eliminating data loss and so-called “time outs.”
Help users to maintain focus.
Distractions can be especially problematic for individuals with learning disabilities, so designs should aim to promote focus by limiting interruptions, making critical paths short, avoiding excessive content, and providing information to help users prepare for a task, such as what resources they’ll need and how long it will take.
Ensure processes do not rely on memory.
Processes that require memorization limit access for individuals with learning disabilities or cognitive impairments. This is particularly important to keep in mind when designing logins. Those that do not rely on memory, single-step logins, login alternatives with fewer words, and other steps to limit the need for retaining information may provide greater accessibility. Similarly, voice menus should have a clear option to speak to a human, since remembering which numbers to input may be challenging.
Provide help and support.
Users both with and without learning disabilities may get stuck and need help. Convenient access to assistance can get them back on track. Effective measures may include offering human guidance, providing alternative content for complex information, noting the advantages and disadvantages of each option, including help or examples for forms and non-standard controls, making it easy to ask questions or share feedback, assisting with directions, and sending reminders.
Support adaptation and personalization.
Users with learning disabilities may use assistive technology, including browser add-ons and extensions. All of your content should work with these tools, support a personalized interface, and allow for simplification. Users should also be able to control when content changes.
Besides following the best practices outlined in the WCAG standards, Davies shares several other “useful things to remember and easy gotchas.”
“The easiest way to make tools more accessible is by using colours with enough contrast,” she advises. “Avoiding using red and green to highlight pass/fail, look at ways to use other colours or find other ways to highlight this.”
“Check your application works with a screen reader,” adds Davies. “Can people still learn and know what's going on without being able to see the page?”
The British Dyslexia Association also recommends certain style guidelines to make web pages and other printed material more accessible for individuals with dyslexia.
- Sans serifs fonts, like Arial and Verdana
- 12-14 point font
- Character spacing around 35 percent of the letter width
- Word spacing at least 3.5 times character spacing
- Line spacing proportional to word spacing; 1.5 is usually best
- Bold for emphasis
- Text in all uppercase letters and/or small caps
Headings & Formatting
- Font size 20 percent or more greater than normal text
- Extra space around headings
- Formatting tools for indents, lists, text alignment, etc.
- Hyperlinks that look different than other text
- One background color
- Dark text
- A light background
- Contrast between text and background
- Background patterns and pictures
- A white background
- Red, pink, and green (for color blind users)
- Left-aligned text
- Lines under 70 characters
- White space around text
- Table of contents
- Regular section headings
- Text justification
- Lines with too many characters
- Active voice
- Concise wording
- Simple sentences
- Images interspersed for support
- Bullet points and numbering
- Clear instructions
- Glossary of abbreviations and special terms
- Double negatives
Other research proposes additional factors that may make a difference. One study published in the Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs (JORSEN) suggests individuals with learning disabilities prefer large text and images, juxtaposed text and images, phrases instead of sentences, and a horizontal menu design. A study out of Carnegie Mellon University further suggests that readers both with and without dyslexia may respond better to certain hues. Namely, reading comprehension scores improved with warm background colors like yellow, peach and orange, and decreased with cool background colors such as blue, green and gray.
What Resources Can Help Improve Digital Inclusion & Accessibility for Users With Learning Disabilities?
Individuals with learning disabilities may utilize several tools for broader access to digital resources. It’s important for these to be compatible, so as not to restrict access.
Abbreviation expanders are programs that automatically complete a word when the user enters a preset code or abbreviation. This can enable learning disabled students to type faster with fewer spelling mistakes.
Alternative keyboards are a customizable option that users can program to better meet their needs. For those with learning disabilities, this may include adding graphics, grouping keys by color, and/or limiting input selections.
Individuals with learning disabilities may struggle to memorize passwords, so password managers may be essential to maintain access to password-protected sites.
Proofreading programs are widely used, but at their core, are a type of assistive technology. Spell checkers, grammar checkers, and other proofreading tools are valuable to help individuals with learning disabilities write more clearly and easily.
Screen readers read screen text aloud, which may be beneficial for users with reading difficulties.
Speech Recognition Programs
Individuals who have stronger verbal than writing skills may use a speech recognition program to transcribe dialogue through a microphone while the computer writes what they say.
Due to their intuitive nature, devices with touchscreen capabilities may be easier for individuals with learning disabilities to master instead of traditional computers.
Word Prediction Software
Prediction technology anticipates the word the user is typing based on context, frequency, and syntax. Not only can this save keystrokes, but may also help those who struggle with spelling and/or grammar improve their accuracy.
In the end, accessibility advocate Seren Davies sums up the critical importance of digital accessibility for the learning disabled community quite simply:
“[It] gives them the same opportunities as everyone else.”