Digital Accessibility: The Weight of Invisible Disabilities
Nathalie Bedoin is a teacher-researcher at the University of Lyon 2 and Lyon Neuroscience Research Center where she specializes in neurodevelopmental disorders (in particular dyslexia), developmental language disorders (dysphasia), and attention deficit disorders with or without hyperactivity (ADHD) in children and adults.
With the topic of digital access on everyone’s lips, brands are racking their brains to make their services more inclusive. If the most common disabilities (visual, auditory, or motor disorders) come first, what about cognitive disorders, the invisible disabilities that affect 10.8% of Americans?
To find out more, we asked Nathalie to share her thoughts on cognitive disorders. Here’s what she had to say:
What is “an invisible disability?”
Cognitive impairment is an invisible disability. For this reason, it is often overlooked, due to a lack of knowledge of the problem. People often misinterpret someone with an invisible disability’s behavior or ability can be misinterpreted because there is no clear physical evidence of a disability, like there is when someone is in a wheelchair.
When these disabilities are present from an early age – like dyslexia, dysphasia, dyscalculia, ADHD – they are called “developmental.” When they are caused by a brain injury following a stroke, fall, head trauma, or tumor, they are called “acquired” disorders.
Why is it important to increase awareness of invisible disabilities?
Invisible disabilities are invisible, in part, due to the fact that people try to keep them invisible. Many individuals try to overcome their difficulties on their own or even go as far as to try to hide them from others. People with cognitive deficits typically often struggle in only one particular area, so they can be highly-functional in all other areas and come off as neurotypical at first glance. That’s the big difference between cognitive disabilities and intellectual disabilities – the latter is more outwardly evident to others, which often receives more leniency.
Cognitive disorders can affect how an individual understands speech, reads, writes, memorizes new information, and multitasks, as well as their ability to concentrate. These difficulties can go relatively unnoticed in a person, with many people not getting a formal diagnosis until their adult years.
While an individual can usually try to adapt to their situation, a disability still remains a constant source of difficulty, fatigue, and sometimes suffering or shame. Those feelings can be magnified when other people ignore the disability altogether or misunderstand someone’s repeated mistakes or unusual slowness in carrying out a particular activity. It is quite common for people with invisible cognitive disabilities to suffer from low self-esteem and intense anxiety, often aggravated by being poorly understood by those around them. Luckily, these symptoms can improve with proper care, support, and listening.
How do cognitive disorders affect individuals’ daily lives?
Many people with dyslexia are affected from early childhood onwards. The good news is that schools are more aware of cognitive disabilities than ever before. Now, they have the tools and skills to support children with these disorders during all stages of their cognitive development. However, if a disability is never entirely identified, it often becomes “invisible” in adulthood. If an individual hasn’t been diagnosed with a cognitive disability by high school, most just go the rest of their lives without identifying their disability.
For example, over time people with dyslexia develop strategies to work around their difficulties, avoid certain situations, or solve problems differently. In other words, they adapt. But these strategies don’t come without cost. They often use a lot of mental energy and can distract them from activities they like. Picking a career can be tricky for many of these people, and result in frustration.
In schools, we make accommodations for children with cognitive disabilities, but what about adults?
There are almost no accommodations in higher education or the professional world. For example, at work, more and more activities depend on an individual being able to use a screen, handle a keyboard and mouse, stay concentrated for long periods of time, and access information and communicate through computers. Software is multiplying and the amount of information we process daily continues to grow, while employees are always expected to quickly and agilely adapt to change. Remote work further complicates these challenges of digital access for people with cognitive disorders, by switching in-person lessons and meetings to video conference calls and emails, it becomes even harder to communicate with and understand others.
What about life outside of work?
The subject is sensitive. In recent months, the pandemic has flipped our social and cultural lives upside down. To stay connected to family and loved ones, many individuals have turned to the internet to socialize.
Here again, the invisible aspect of many disabilities often makes us forget that many people cannot pursue fulfilling professional and personal activities online. These people are less equipped than others to read, navigate, and comprehend the fast-paced digital world. Adjustments are therefore necessary to restore greater equality between adults in this regard. By better understanding these disorders, research is now opening up new avenues for detecting, evaluating, and attempting to limit the impact of these difficulties.
How can businesses and brands help make the world more inclusive?
A few years ago, I was invited to participate in a roundtable on the issue of taking disability into account in business, organized by the Movement of the Enterprises of France (MEDEF) which is the largest employer federation in France. While many companies are ready to change and adapt to people with disorders, they need to be supported and equipped with the right tools. Indeed, while such devices exist for children – particularly Sigl and Switchipido, two tools that we have developed in the Dynamique du Langage laboratory at the University of Lyon 2 – few tools address the difficulties of digital accessibility encountered by adults.
The first thing we need to do is to lift the taboo around cognitive disorders. Once we can talk about them in a free and open manner, we’ll be able to relieve the guilt and shame these people feel and figure out how best to address their needs. Inclusive design benefits everyone. For example, shortening emails and meetings benefit the concentration and communication of all employees, not just those with cognitive disorders.
Talking about “dys” disorders (dyslexia, dysorthography, dyscalculia, etc.) can help employees better understand the presence of spelling errors in simple words, for example. Likewise, English is particularly difficult for French people to learn and practically impossible for people with cognitive disorders. This is another big challenge as France society continues to anglicize more and more terms.
Beyond standard accessibility practices, companies can set up their websites to aid computer reading and site navigation. This might look like choosing easy-to-read fonts, increasing text contrast to facilitate the reading, or presenting less information on a page for better digital access.
To help employees with cognitive disabilities, companies can also provide alternative workplace layouts, to help reduce distractions and allow people to work from someplace other than their desk in an office. This can help increase attention and focus.
So, this is also valid for users and brand customers?
Yes! More and more, companies realize that breaking out of this taboo is useful for their employees and consumers. Creating short, clear, easy to understand website content is key to building a successful digital user experience and is a real differentiator for brands. With 5 to 15% of Americans have dyslexia and 2.5 to 4.4% of U.S. adults suffering from ADHD, the problem is far from trivial!