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The personal site of Jamie Knight, an autistic web developer, speaker and mountain biker who is never seen far from his plush sidekick Lion. View the Archive

Topics: Autism Development

Cognitive Accessibility 101 - Part 1: What is Cognitive Accessibility

This article is based on the content of my 2015 CSUN session of the same title. It’s a very light summery of the core content. I have split the talk up into a number of posts so that I can get it out quicker. See Part 2 to learn more about the personal challenges i face and the tools I use .

The Disclaimer.

Before I get into the meat of this article, I must start with a disclaimer. The thoughts and points presented in this article are not science. They’re the musings of a single autistic guy who wrote a talk one afternoon. The talk is based on my experience of using the web, but that’s all it is. Anecdote.

What is Cognitive Accessibility?

Cognitive accessibility is the area where usability bumps into disability. Well, that’s one way of looking at it. In my opinion, cognitive accessibility is just the edge of usability.

I consider cognitive ability to be a bell curve. With most people falling in the same area, but at one time or another I think everyone will experience the world from a perspective somewhere towards the edge of that curve.

For me, its because I am autistic. For others, its because they are tired, or in a rush, or an older user. For many, they happen to be drunk.*

With this in mind, I propose that cognitive accessibility at the end of the day is really just usability at the extremes. We will all experience it.

Receiving, Processing, Actioning.

At a basic level, I think there are three stages in the cognitive process when it comes to doing things. Frankly, for me, these stages apply to pretty much everything (hugging the lion, cooking pasta, making a bed) but I think they work well when considered in context of the web.

At a high level the three stages are:

  1. Receiving
  2. Processing
  3. Actioning

Once a decision has been reach, a plan is needed to make it happen, then eventually something has to be done.

In my opinion, all cognitive processes fit into these three areas. For each of the areas I have a few keywords for what I like too consider.

1: Receiving.

The keywords for receiving are perception and affordances.

Perception refers to the input from our senses. For example, what we see, hear and feel. Perception also includes other forms of input, such as information from memory.

Affordance is a term nicked from The Design of Everyday Things. An affordance is a “thing” you have understood you can do. Be it a switch, a button, a menu etc , etc. For example, a TV remote, is an array of affordances, while the Google homepage, indicates that you can type.

I would also argue an affordance is also something which you can do with a website. For example, pay council tax, or read information about lions.

2: Processing.

Processing information refers to manipulating information in order to reach a decision. The keywords for processing are Filtering and Deciding.

Filtering refers to knowing what input to ignore. For me, that means ignoring all the adverts and promotions. But we all filter information all day. We filter out background noise, we filter out the exact titles of the books on the bookcase , etc. We filter all day every day. We also filter affordances when we look at a UI. We use filtering to limit out options so we can reach a decision of what to do.

Deciding refers to coming to a decision on the action I want to take. I may be deciding between 5 things or 10 things. I have probably filtered out lots of options I don’t need.

3: Actioning

Actioning refers to making things happen and the planning required to do. The keywords for me are Planning and Doing.

Planning is pretty straight forward. It’s making an ordered list of steps. For those with a cognitive disability like me (or someone like my friend, who is drunk right now!) The posh term for planning is “executive functioning”. We make plans explicitly, but we also follow plans which are learnt. Eg, how to use a set of traffic lights to cross the road.

Doing is the final keyword. Doing is about, well, making stuff happen. It could be clicking a link, it could be pulling some pasta off the hob, it could be, well pretty much anything. Ultimately, we do something based on our decisions.


These steps can be summed up into a simple little diagram included below. This is the structure I use to define cognitive accessibility. All of the functional issues I have in my life fit into one of the 3 areas and 6 keywords. When analysing designs (aka, using websites ;)) I step through these stages dozens of times and these are the areas where I provide feedback when asked about how I consider a site from a “cognitive accessibility” perspective.

In a nutshell, I think the cognitive accessibility areas are:

Receiving, Processing, Actioning;

And the keywords are:

Perceiving, Affordances; Filtering, Deciding; Planning, Doing;

For more details of how this effects me as someone with autism and the tools I use to manage the challenges, checkout part 2

Published: 10 March 2015 | Categories: , Permalink


  1. Kelsey · Mar 11, 01:03 am ·

    This is a really clear and useful way to think about accessibility and usability, and I look forward to the rest of the series very much!

  2. Randi · Mar 11, 01:37 pm ·

    Thanks for posting this Jamie! I was disappointed to have missed your talks at CSUN so I appreciate you taking the time to publish them here.

  3. Kaymarie · Mar 11, 05:20 pm ·

    Thank you for posting this. I attended your talk on accessibility champions which was very informative, (and very funny). I have been working on something similar, and was wondering what particular cake you would recommend.

  4. Henny · Mar 25, 07:59 am ·

    Brilliant stuff Jamie, thank you as always. I’d love to hear more about what apps or sites you find good or bad to use and why. Your insights are invaluable.

  5. Stephen Dolle · Feb 27, 08:22 pm ·

    Thank you for your efforts here Jamie. I also suffer from cognitive (mostly memory) challenges as a result of hydrocephalus and chronic meningitis. As you know, this can be overwhelming at times. And it appears I already violated rules on self prototion. I struggle with web sites and apps that use “unique” rules, icons, and logic like Reddit rules, Google icons, iTunes architecture because it often is un-intuitive (meaning I can’t use logic to get through it) or it is so unique that I don’t see it enough on a daily basis to know it (bearing in mind I need many more times & uses of info to convert to long term memory). So, I find a lot of tech today to be hippocritical. Tech has broken many long held practices with regards to human factors engineering. And this has disproportionately affected persons with learning and neurological disorders. So much for inclusion!

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