Creating websites that accommodate users with disabilities is more than a priority for web professionals – it’s a moral imperative.
So many of life’s essential tasks, tools, and functions have moved to websites, apps, and other online spaces. If those tools are difficult or impossible for disabled individuals to access and use, those people will lack important information, and that can adversely affect their lives.
Discussions about web accessibility often focus solely on those with visual and physical impairments. All too often, we fail to address the needs of the neurodivergent.
Neurodivergent individuals, simply put, have brains that process the world differently than the average (or neurotypical) brain. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), dyslexia, sensory processing disorders, and chronic mental health conditions can fall within this category. The debate continues as to whether these conditions constitute a disability or simply a different mode of cognitive function. Categories aside, they can dramatically affect a person’s life, even with treatment.
Neurodivergences can also affect how a person navigates the distracting, sometimes overwhelming informational landscape of the internet. By way of example, I will focus on one very common neurodivergence, Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. How does ADHD alter a user’s experience of the web? How can we make any website a friendlier place for them?
What Is ADHD?
For many years, ADHD was solely associated with disruptive, hyperactive little boys who couldn’t sit still in class. Physical hyperactivity can be a symptom of ADHD, but research over the past decade has revealed many other dimensions of this neurodivergence. We now know that, in addition to shortening attention spans and giving children chronic cases of the wiggles, ADHD can dramatically impair an individual’s ability to:
- Organize information.
- Plan or visualize the future.
- Deliberately control their own attention.
- Process sensory stimuli without becoming overwhelmed.
- Retain critical, short-term information.
- Track and manage time.
- Regulate emotions and impulsive behavior.
- Develop speech and motor skills.
Despite all this, ADHD is not exactly a disability. People can manage it very well with medication, lifestyle changes, and acknowledgement of the daily tasks that prove difficult. Neurodivergences often come with intrinsic gifts that counterbalance their challenges. ADHD brains, for example, display enhanced creativity, flexibility, and even focus (when tasks interest them).
Myths About ADHD
The medical community’s understanding of ADHD has grown to the point of challenging many of the myths and misconceptions surrounding this neurodivergence.
Myth #1: Only Little Boys Have ADHD
An estimated 129 million children (about 7.2% of children worldwide) have been diagnosed with ADHD, with nearly equal incidence between genders in recent years. Sixty to eighty per cent of those kids will carry symptoms into adulthood. That means that 3-5% of your site’s traffic could come from adults with ADHD.
Myth #2: ADHD Is Over-Diagnosed
Just the opposite. Because of the long-standing belief that ADHD only involved hyperactive little boys, women were dramatically underdiagnosed for decades. This gender correction, along with research leading to better diagnostic criteria, largely account for the recent uptick in diagnoses.
Myth #3: People with ADHD Have No Attention Span
Actually, they have an abundance of attention that they struggle to consciously control. This is an especially important point when it comes to web design, as distracting visual elements can hijack and monopolize the attention of an ADHD brain. As a result, they may miss key information they need to interact with your site.
Myth #4: It’s Not a Real Disorder
ADHD’s neurobiological causes are very well documented. Study after study has found that ADHD individuals have (typically) smaller brain structures and less neuron activity in the areas associated with the functions listed above, otherwise known as the executive centers of the brain.
How Does ADHD Affect Internet Use?
The better question might be “How does internet use affect ADHD?”
In some studies, internet use exacerbated ADHD symptoms, particularly the inability to focus attention, process information and sensory stimuli, and regulate emotions. The internet is such a cognitively taxing, overwhelming place that even neurotypical people can begin to show ADHD-like symptoms after hours of browsing.
Many websites are visually overwhelming, distracting, and difficult to navigate even for neurotypical people. A cleaner, easier to use, more intuitive internet is better for all of us, not just those with ADHD.
ADHD Web Accessibility Guidelines
The industry-standard Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) should be your starting point. The following tips for better accommodating those with ADHD are drawn from WCAG standards.
Create Predictable Content
Content predictability has two equally important main components.
Consistent layouts help users get familiar with your site’s navigation and visual elements. Seeing the same button design throughout your site, for example, helps users better understand the function of that graphic every time they encounter it. This doesn’t mean that every page must look exactly the same, but the core library of design elements and text styles should be consistent.
To help keep ADHD individuals’ focus on your content, avoid surprising, sudden elements, such as pop-up notifications or oversized chat windows. Avoid navigations and sub-menus that change from page to page, as well. Whenever possible, create one central means of navigating your site and stick to it so your users can get familiar with how it works. This is good practice anyway and doubly important for those with ADHD.
The second component of predictability is accurately setting user expectations with page titles and text. Make sure that link text in buttons and menus clearly describes what to expect on the linked page, to avoid sending users to content that doesn’t match the text they clicked on.
Clear Headings, Labels, and Instructions
Users with ADHD might struggle to retain lengthy, complicated instructions and processes. To address this, break information down into simple, digestible sections with clear and descriptive headers. If you need users to engage with forms or processes, include brief written instructions to help them interact with the form. Consider labelling your forms by user intent, as well, as in “fill out this form to subscribe” as opposed to just “fill out this form.” Assure them that they’re in the right place.
If you have larger, multi-step processes with several requirements (e.g., job applications), provide a step-by-step breakdown of the process in list form. If possible, insert that breakdown somewhere near the beginning of your content so users can understand what you need from them right away.
No Time Limits
ADHD users may need a little extra time to process info and act on it. They’re also 15x more likely to have anxiety disorders than a neurotypical person.
Time pressure is not an ADHD-friendly way to create urgency. Avoid countdowns or any other type of pressure that drives your audience to immediate engagement. Also avoid rotating navigation that changes on a timer, as you might see in a carousel slider menu or other dynamic content. Give your users the chance to process and choose content on their own time.
If you must include a session timer for security purposes, give plenty of visible warning that a user’s session on the site is being timed. You can offer users more control by including a “refresh timer” function, or another explicit way of resetting the clock, so they aren’t logged out or sent to another page.
Many ADHD users have comorbid sensory processing disorders, which can make auto-playing video and other moving content very disorienting. If possible, avoid using any video that plays automatically on a loop, especially video with heavy visual noise or a lot of movement. video to a page, follow the WCAG “Stop. Pause. Hide.” function guidelines and include those controls in your video player. Users should be able to stop the video, pause it temporarily, or hide the video entirely and have that preference remembered by browser cookies. You can also encourage users to set their browser preferences to stop all auto-playing videos.
Generally, though, the best path is to include full video player controls, whether through an uploaded video (if supported by your CMS) or a third-party iframe for whatever video service you use. This allows them to engage with video content as it suits them.
Large amounts of information and visual noise can overstimulate users with ADHD. Thankfully, this is another case where general best practices in web content and design can help.
In content, use headers and text styling to create a clear, well-defined visual hierarchy of sections and sub-sections. This helps users process and scan text section by section. Breaking text down into small, digestible blocks also helps.
If you have more complicated or nuanced content, try to simplify it by breaking it down to its most essential parts. Offer the audience only what they need to know to engage with your product or service. Offer them lean, straightforward information.
In design, the same principles apply. Keep visual themes and layouts simple and free from visual noise, without lots of attention-hijacking distractions. It’s also important to keep outbound links to a minimum, offering only useful (and strategic) exits to other pages. Toning down the number of outbound links has the added benefit of making your calls-to-action stand out more, which is great for you and your users.
Want to Know More?
If you’re interested in reviewing your site for accessibility or want to design a new website that has accessibility built in, reach out! Our accessibility team, UX/UI designers, digital strategists, and other experts will work with you to create a site that’s usable for all visitors and achieves your goals.