Access to the Web for People with Intellectual Disabilities

If you are looking for information on how to make craft more accessible websites for persons with cognitive disabilities, here are a few posts on the topic:

All of the above guidelines and suggestions are essential and relevant to any discussion on web accessibility. That said, is is also important to take a step back and look at who we are talking about when we refer to users with intellectual disabilities.

Intellectual disability is also referred to as mental retardation, developmental disability or cognitive disability (which seems to be the preferred term in the web design world) and has elicited a number of “official” definitions. Intellectual disability is found with disabilities such as Down syndrome, Fragile X, autism, and cerebral palsy, among many others.

Who do you think of when discussing intellectual disability? I think first of my two younger brothers Patrick and Dallin who were both born with Down syndrome. You may think of a family member, a coworker or someone at your local grocery store and each person you think of may have a wide variety of different characteristics and abilities.

Undoubtedly when a person with an intellectual disability gets online, there are many barriers to be overcome. However, there are also many barriers that keep people with intellectual disabilities from getting online in the first place. Here are just a few:

  • Basic computer skills

    For many persons with intellectual disabilities a decision is made early on whether to focus more on academic skills or on functional skills to best prepare for life after graduation. Basic computer skills may be entirely left out of the curriculum.

  • Living arrangements

    For any number of reasons, a significant number of people with intellectual disabilities live in long-term care facilities where computers and/or the internet may not be available.

  • Expectations, or rather lack thereof

    Low expectations may come from the person with a disability, a family member or caregiver and can be very powerful.

  • Poverty

    “In the year 2004, an estimated 28.2 percent of civilian non-institutionalized, men and women with a work limitation, aged 18-64 in the United States lived in families with incomes below the poverty line.” (– login required). If you had to choose between paying for electricity or your Internet service, which would you choose? (In case you are waffling on that one, remember that it is difficult to turn on a computer without electricity…)

Fortunately, there are some electronic and societal ramps in place to help overcome some of these barriers- government and private programs that provide financial and job training support, specialized education programs, self-advocacy efforts and a rapid expansion of unintentionally intellectual disability friendly websites. Persons with intellectual disabilities may or may not be able to do their banking online just yet, but the explosion of visual media has opened door for all kinds of accessible online experiences. I’ll refer again to my brother Dallin who has become extremely proficient in using a variety of online tools to find images, audio and video of his much beloved Power Rangers.

Let’s keep working on making the web accessible for everyone, but on occasion it is helpful to stop and consider just who that ‘everyone’ is.

To close, a quote from a paper produced by the Internet Society titled Global Trends that will Impact Universal Access to Information Resources:

The benefits of addressing the problems of inaccessible design extend to include all people, including the community of people with disabilities. (About 10% of the world’s population are disabled, with a disproportionate amount falling into the poor population in emerging economies). It is imperative that there be some way to insure that people with disabilities in the developing world are not separated from everyone else. There must not be even more of a Digital Divide opened between people with disabilities and the efforts to provide Internet access to all in emerging economies. Once it is understood that accessible design is always in synch with low technology solutions, then big steps can be made to help everyone gain access to the information society.

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