2009 Coleman Institute Workshop on Web Technologies for People with Cognitive Disabilities

Whitepaper Summary


This document is a product from discussions that took place at the 2009 Coleman Institute Pre-Conference Workshop on Web Technologies for People with Cognitive Disabilities on November 4, 2009 in Boulder, Colorado. The initial audience for this document includes workshop members representing industry, academia, government, advocacy, law and policy; however it is anticipated this paper will be shared with other communities. It is also hoped that this whitepaper may serve as a background and motivation for the creation of companion whitepapers that explore in greater detail several of the issues and identified in this summary.


The Raising the Floor (RtF) initiative was launched in October 2008 as an international coalition of individuals and organizations working to ensure that the Internet is accessible to people experiencing accessibility or literacy problems, even if they have very limited or no financial resources. The goal is to ensure that individuals who need special interfaces are as free and able as everyone else to use the new and emerging Internet tools and resources to live more independently and productively, and to achieve their life's goals.


The workshop explored emerging research projects, industry developments, and international standards and practices that have the potential to support inclusive and accessible Web technologies for people with cognitive disabilities. The workshop was not intended to evaluate other people's efforts but to identify the best of what we know, to explore new ideas and to allow a forward-looking free flow of ideas and discussion. Participants represented experts from industry, education, public policy, and disability advocacy organizations. The workshop reviewed recent technology developments and projects promoting universal Web accessibility including the “Raising the Floor” initiative, a National Public Inclusive Infrastructure effort to design accessibility into public information infrastructure, HTML 5 and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.


Workshop members and contributors included:

  • Basman, Antranig (University of Cambridge)
  • Bigham, Jeffrey (University of Rochester)
  • Brown, Brian (AbleLink Technologies)
  • Budris, Michele (Sun Microsystems)
  • Conroy, James (University of Washington)
  • Davies, Dan (AbleLink Technologies)
  • Dougall, David (Research In Motion)
  • Dowds, Murdo (Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital)
  • Ervin, David (The Resource Exchange)
  • Hoehl, Jeffery (University of Colorado)
  • Kohl, Stephanie (Mount Olivet Rolling Acres)
  • Lewis, Clayton (University of Colorado)
  • Long, Lara (Benetech)
  • Ramakrishnan, I. V. (SUNY)
  • Rowland, Cyndi (Utah State University)
  • Slotznick, Benjamin (University of Washington)
  • Stock, Steven (AbleLink Technologies)
  • Sullivan, James (University of Colorado)
  • Treviranus, Jutta (University of Toronto)
  • Vanderheiden, Gregg (TRACE)

Long-Term Goal

The workshop's exploration of emerging research projects, industry developments, and international standards and practices allowed for and encourages a continuing exploration of new ideas and discussions on how web technologies can improve access and use of the web to those with cognitive disabilities.

Discussed Topics

The following projects, themes, and developments were discussed during the workshop:

  • DAISY eBook reader for mobile devices
  • WebAnywhere for sighted users
  • Fluid Engage and web technologies for museums
  • Web accessibility task force through the W3C
  • Web and mobile device convergence
  • Implications of the HTML 5 standard
  • Raising the Floor initiative for increased accessibility in technology infrastructure

Key Issues Impacting People with Cognitive Disabilities

  • Mobile Devices and Web Technology
    • Both commercial and non-profit offerings exist across several platforms and implement different technology standards, application frameworks, and visual symbol sets
    • The market penetration of open-source platforms is important in determining whether they are viable targets for development
    • New mobile devices are coming to market very frequently and mobile devices are growing in use greatly
    • Developing countries have greater access to cell phones than desktops and the technical capabilities of the phones can vary greatly from country to country
    • Regional markets of focus include Africa, India, Canada, and the United States based on both convenience and need
    • New smartphones reveal how built-in accessible design, such as voice commands, can be done well with no additional cost to the consumer
    • The functionality and portability of web applications on mobile devices is increasing but concerns still include whether web applications hinder the ability to extend new features and implement greater feature richness in comparison to native applications
    • Mobile devices have more reach to those needing to be educated
    • There is a need to use mobile applications both with and without web access as well as with and without an active service provider
    • Audio on websites does not play on most mobile devices, but HTML 5 may allow audio to be played on mobile devices
    • Alternative input mechanisms are still lacking for mobile devices but voice input is becoming increasingly popular and robust
  • Emerging Web Technology
    • Website-based text-to-speech can assist with multimodal learning by having users see highlighted words and hear them spoken while reading
    • Media formats are not handled well with online text-to-speech tools
    • There is a large gap between what technologies are available and what technologies are used in schools
    • The playing field for education and technology use is not even
    • HTML 5 provides many new features but browsers must be created to support HTML 5 first
    • Cognitive access is not always about the steps required or complexity but often about consistency
    • It requires a large amount of resources to maintain resources like tutorials, links to content, expert opinions, and educational material
    • Many people are using public libraries to get access to information they need
    • Simplified presentations for mobile hardware can be preferred for presentation on desktop hardware, but maintaining different presentation modes increases maintenance costs
    • There are lots of independent preferences and opinions and not strong trends for presentation profiles

Web Technology Recommendations

Workshop members identified key challenges and potential strategies for making Web content more accessible and comprehensible, especially on small mobile devices. Discussions included the importance of usable built-in controls to support navigation and functionality such as voice commands and touch screen manipulation without visual feedback. Mobile applications should also work while online or offline and support multimodal input as well as output including automatic translation between modalities such as automatic text-to-speech and speech-to-text.

Other discussions included the value of “interaction design”, representative usage scenarios and personas to guide development activities, and large and small scale collaboration opportunities. Personal presentation preferences were highly encouraged to be supported to handle variations in displaying levels of cognitive complexity, density of views, serial or hierarchical organization, and visual layout preferences. In general, consistency of layout and procedures should also be addressed in addition to complexity. Recommendations also included trainings for users on how to use the web and technology in real-life situations as well as how to use cell phones and mobile devices in general.

Workshop participants agreed to continue discussion, debate and exploration of collaborative activities at a newly formed Raising the Floor Cognitive Language and Learning Discussion Group - you can follow the discussions at: http://groups.google.com/group/rtf-clldg?hl=en.