Web Accessibility For Mental Disabilities


Mental disability is suddenly becoming a more important topic for many as statistics reveal how prevalent it is. The National Alliance on Mental Illness revealed that nearly 20% of Americans had some form of mental illness in 2018. That means, more than likely, 1 out of every 5 people visiting a website is struggling with a condition that impacts their ability to think, feel and interact the same way others do (this writer being one of them). The W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are based around making digital properties accessible to anybody, including those with cognitive difficulties, learning, and developmental and mental disabilities. 

Want to create a user experience that works for everybody?

An obstacle for digital marketers is the increasing craving for information and the declining attention span. Content has less than ten seconds before the average person will quickly lose attention and do something else. For many with cognitive impairments such as Attention Deficit & Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism, or Bipolar Disorder; it can be even less. There are ways content can grab attention and reduce distractions without hurting content quality. We can take advice from a successful slogan from Johnson & Johnson: make your content “clean and clear and under control.”

Clean Website Of Distractions

Homepages on websites have improved immensely since the 1990s when they first took off. But there are a few elements on homepages that can still cause a lot of problems for the easily distracted and anxious. We are talking about sudden movements and disruptions caused by animated GIFs, carousel sliders, auto-playing media and timed lead capture attempts. 

Many with mental health disabilities have difficulty not just with distraction but emotional regulation. People visit websites with specific goals. Sometimes it is to make a purchase and sometimes it is to gather information. Distractions and impediments from this goal are annoying but manageable for most. However, emotional dysregulation makes it very difficult to overcome these distractions. They can remove the distraction but the feeling they have about it can linger and result in uncontrollable mood changes.

With this being said, it is also important to consider color contrast and font choice as well. Following a color contrast ratio of 4.5:1 between the text and the background and a web-friendly font on your website (aka, sans-serif) will decrease potential struggles in consuming content.

Clear Focus Of Content

Marketers want all messaging placed “above the fold”, meaning above the line where a visitor needs to begin scrolling. This well-intended approach revolves around the average attention span, so it makes a lot of sense. Marketers also want their content to be seen on the most highly visited pages on the website. Once again, it makes sense, but this can lead to too much competing content within too small of a space. This can be difficult for anybody, mental disability or not. For people with many neurological disorders, it can lead to what is known as “sensory overload”

For perspective, consider the two images below:

Aerial view of Paris, France

Times Square in New York City

Now look at each image and ask yourself the following question: “what is supposed to be the focus of your attention?” After performing this exercise, now ask “what is the actual focus of your attention?” Are they the same? There is a lot going on in both photos but the obvious focus is much clearer in the view of Paris, France. The Eiffel Tower is the only thing absolutely calling for your attention. Everything else is there if you choose to look at it but the focus is pretty clear. Every page on a website should behave the same and it should never be a surprise where links take you. If you minimize the distractions and make it clear what is on the page, the experience will be better and you will have less of a chance for a visitor to leave without taking an action.

Leave Engagement Under User’s Control

Anxiety, ADHD and depression all include difficulties with patience and an inability to control stimuli. There is important website functionality necessary for marketers to do their job well, but if done incorrectly, exclude this audience. 

Video is a very popular tactic in brand marketing. Research from HubSpot shows more than 50% of consumers want or expect video in their advertising. The best way to keep somebody with mental difficulties engaged with video content is to be sure they have player controls available, closed captioning, and the same information elsewhere on the page. The controls allow them to begin playing the video when they are ready to pay attention and pause and rewind the video to control the pace and reduce anxiety over missed information. Closed captioning makes it clear what is in the video so there’s less chance for misinformation. Leaving a transcript or similar content with the same information typed out on the page allows the visitor to not be constrained to one medium if it is too distracting.

Forms on a website also need consideration. This is where lead generation happens and marketers depend on them to move consumers forward through the consumer journey. However, the best content and products can mean nothing if a mental disability causes a struggle with filling out the forms. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Give users a long time to fill out forms. A person with anxiety can become overwhelmed by completing the form on time and make mistakes in information as a result and sufferers of depression may already be struggling with motivation to fill out the form, and being unable to fill the form in time will be the last reason they are looking for to leave. 
  • Use clear labels and the correct input types. It is important the disabled user knows what they are doing is correct and benefit from clear guidance. For example: if asking for a phone number, do not let them wonder if the format needs to be with parentheses or dashes.
  • Ask for as little information as required. There are multiple reasons for this: it helps those with short attention spans, makes it easier for the user to complete and it reduces worry about exposing their information.

These are all important elements of accessibility to consider. Most importantly, sensitivity to mental disability goes a long way in purchasing decisions. Remember, this is 20% of the US population, so it is important not to exclude a market segment of that size.