World Down Syndrome Day and Digital Accessibility

Advocating for the rights of people with Down Syndrome

  • Sam Dancey
  • 20 March 2022

The 21st of March is World Down Syndrome Day. Down Syndrome is the most common chromosomal condition. Approximately 6 million people worldwide have Down Syndrome, and Down Syndrome occurs in all races and cultures at the same rate. There is only one characteristic that presents in all individuals with Down Syndrome, and that is some form of intellectual or cognitive disability.

In this article, we highlight how designing digital environments with accessibility in mind enables people with cognitive disability to participate equitably. We also highlight how the upcoming Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.2 can improve the experience for people with Down Syndrome and other conditions.

Summary

  1. The upcoming WCAG version 2.2 extends provisions for people with cognitive disability.
  2. Additional provisions in relation to barriers for people with cognitive disability accessing the digital world include understanding, consistency, use of assistive technology, orientation and navigation, simplifying process steps, and memory.
  3. People with Down Syndrome can experience a variety of impacts that also relate to physical requirements and vision. Version 2.2 extends provisions for people with physical and vision disability.

What is Down Syndrome?

Down Syndrome is a genetic condition that is often misunderstood. It is related to the presence of an extra chromosome 21 (full or partial). Most people have 23 pairs of chromosomes (46 in total). People with Down Syndrome have 47 total chromosomes.

Apart from cognitive disability, other impacts often attributed to Down Syndrome (which may not always be present) include physical growth delays, characteristic facial features, fine and gross motor skill requirements, impacts to speech, vision and/or hearing, gut sensitivities, and heart conditions. The impact of a person with Down Syndrome’s cognitive disability does not correlate to the severity of other symptoms. E.g., where an individual may have significant impacts to their speech or gross motor control their cognitive disability may be minor and vice versa.

People with Down Syndrome are often underestimated by society, and their needs in the digital space are frequently overlooked. Intellectual disabilities and cognitive disabilities have not always been factored into designs for our digital world. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), a framework of principals, guidelines and success criteria which can be used to design and assess website for accessibility, do include criteria which relates to users with cognitive disabilities. This has been extended in the soon to be released 2.2 version.

The WCAG 2.2 Introduces:

  • 1 new guideline
  • 9 new success criteria
  • 1 altered existing success criteria.

Each of these success criteria can support individuals who have Down Syndrome. In the spirit of Down Syndrome Awareness Day, let’s look at these criteria and how they can help individuals who have Down Syndrome and people with other cognitive disabilities.

WCAG 2.2 Criteria for Cognitive Disabilities.

As previously mentioned, some level of cognitive disability is present for all people with Down Syndrome. The following criteria guide organisations to remove barriers to accessing digital environments for people with cognitive disability.

3.2.6 Consistent Help (Level A)

Criteria

Pages which include help features should have at least one help feature in the same order and location in all pages.

How this helps people with cognitive disability, including people with Down Syndrome

People with cognitive disabilities may rely on a number of help features including inline help, help searches or bot interactions to understand the site they are using and aid their understanding. By ensuring at least one help method is available, operates in a consistent way and is in the same place on all pages, users can reduce their mental load and find help easily when they need it. Failure to supply help features in a consistent way could lead to users being unable to find the information they need and move away from the site.

3.2.7 Visible Controls (Level A)

Criteria

User interface controls are visible, and state can easily be determined when an item is hovered or receives keyboard focus.

How this helps people with cognitive disability, including people with Down Syndrome

It can become quickly disorienting for a sighted user if they are navigating by a screen reader or keyboard only to find that items which they are interacting are not also displayed on the screen. Some people with Down Syndrome may use screen reader technology to read them the content of a website to aid their understanding.

3.3.7 Accessible Authentication (Level A)

Criteria

For each step in an authentication process, where there are cognitive steps occurring (such as specifying a password) there is a mechanism to help users or remove the need for cognitive tests

How this helps people with cognitive disability, including people with Down Syndrome

Cognitive disabilities such as Down Syndrome can impact a person’s memory. Trying to remember a long password can be problematic. This criterion ensures that another option is available to users which does not require complex thinking. E.g., being able to prepopulate data from a password manager or simply being able to copy a password from another location.

3.3.8 Redundant Entry (Level A)

Criteria

Information entered by a user within a process is automatically populated again if required by the same process or can be selected by the user

How this helps people with cognitive disability, including people with Down Syndrome

Apart from being time consuming, asking for the same information in a process multiple times can cause confusion and increases the risk of errors for multiple re-entries. For people with cognitive disabilities this can be worsened. By allowing the information to be kept and prepopulated it reduces the overall concern for data entry issues and confusion by the user. An example where such as process is useful is for billing and shipping addresses or where a user is asked for their mobile phone number for verification purposes and later in the process again asked for their mobile phone information to ensure they can receive alerts. Users with Cognitive Impairments may find remembering a phone number difficult and may have to look this up each time it is requested.

WCAG 2.2 Criteria for Physical Disabilities

Some people with Down Syndrome may have low muscle mass and reduced fine motor controls or hand dexterity. This can impact tasks such as using a mouse or keyboard. Criteria 2.5.7 Dragging Movements and 2.5.8 Target Size Minimum, assist in alleviating difficulties faced by users by ensuring controls can be operated by single commands rather than complex selections and dragging motions. In addition, the criteria assist in increasing the area of controls, so it is easier to interact with them through a mouse or touch gesture.

WCAG 2.2 Criteria for Vision Disabilities

Some people with Down Syndrome experience low vision. While there are several criteria across different versions of the WCAG, version 2.2 further extends this coverage through 2.4.7 Focus Visible (Level A – Previously Level AA), 2.4.11 Focus Appearance (Minimum) (Level AA) and 2.4.11 Focus Appearance (Enhanced) (Level AAA) improve location reporting within a site. These criteria provide guides to ensure that when elements of a webpage are selected (or in focus) there is a visible indicator of the selected item which is clearly identifiable through a size requirement, change in colour or action and that this indicator is not obscured in whole or in part (depending on criteria).

The final new criteria in WCAG 2.2 allows direct content navigation strategies. Where content is page breaks or page location identifications, users can navigate to those breaks or content locations directly. For example, using an e-book reader where increased font size may result in multiple pages in the digital format equating to one page in a print format. This is covered through criteria 2.4.13 Page Break Navigation (Level A).

If you would like to know more about digital accessibility or TTC’s Lived Experience training, which starts a conversation with people with disabilities and how they interact with digital content and environments, reach out to TTC’s Global Accessibility Practice Lead: Samantha Dancey at samantha.dancey@ttcglobal.com or +61 415 050 221