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Invisible barriers

3 minutes read

Listen. I'm all for creating these sleek, cutting-edge websites. I follow trends like soft shadows, subtle backgrounds, dark mode, complex gradients, glassmorphism and so on. But lately I've been wondering if we're not inadvertently building websites that silently discriminate against millions.

Mind you, we're not doing this on purpose or with malice. It often takes the form of subtle, unintentional discrimination that disproportionately affects people with invisible disabilities.

Here are just a few examples of invisible disabilities.

1. Cognitive overload

When your brain feels "full" and can't take in more information. For example, when you're trying to follow simple instructions, like a recipe, while your kids are asking questions and the TV is blaring. On the web, consider if your website comes with multiple pop-ups, auto-playing videos and a complex navigation menu all competing for your attention.

2. Information processing delays

When you take longer to understand or react to information that's thrown at you. Think of the last time someone told you their phone number, and you need a few extra seconds to write it down correctly. Or on the web, when a form times out too quickly, not giving you enough time to enter all the required information.

3. Attention deficit challenges

When you have difficulty focusing on one thing and you get easily distracted. For example, when you try to read a book and you find your mind wandering every few sentences. On the web, long-form articles without headings, bullet points or any visual breaks to help you maintain your focus will have the same effect.

4. Memory retention issues

When you have trouble remembering new information or recalling things you've learned. Anyone else forget where they parked their car at the grocery store or is that just me? Or on the web, when you have a multi-step checkout process that doesn't save progress and requires you to have to remember previous selections you've made, how lost do you feel?

5. Sensory processing difficulties

When you're feeling overwhelmed by the lights, sounds and smells coming at you all at once in a busy shopping mall. I know there's no smell on the web, but imagine a website with flashing animations, high-contrast colour schemes and auto-play audio. That can be overwhelming and disorienting.

6. Executive function limitations

Ever had a hard time going through your wardrobe and deciding what to pack for a trip? It's the same feeling on the web when you see a cluttered homepage with too many options and no clear hierarchy. It's difficult to decide where to go or what to do next.

7. Reading comprehension struggles

I don't know about you, but I sometimes have to re-read a paragraph several times to fully understand what they were saying. On the web, these dense paragraphs of text without summaries and all the important information buried in the middle of long blocks of content aren't much help.

Our design choices have an often-overlooked impact on people with diverse cognitive abilities. And because this email has gotten a bit long already, I'd like to break it off now and explore some of the seemingly minor design choices that can create major obstacles for users with invisible disabilities tomorrow.

See you then!

Did you enjoy this bite-sized message?

I send out short emails like this every day to help you gain a fresh perspective on accessibility and understand it without the jargon, so you can build more robust products that everyone can use, including people with disabilities.

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