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Designing accessible services: don’t exclude the neurodiverse

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Craig Abbott is head of accessibility at DWP Digital. He’s responsible for making sure DWP’s services are accessible, and he recently published the DWP Accessibility Manual to help teams better understand the principles of accessible design.

Craig Abbott, DWP Digital's Head of Accessibility stood up giving a talk on accessibility in service design at DWP's Newcastle Hub during Services Week 2019, in front of an audience of people, with a display screen behind him

Why is accessibility important?

Designing accessible services means making sure they are intuitive and work for everybody. With almost everyone in the UK using DWP’s services at some point in their life, it’s important that our services exclude no-one. 

What are web accessibility standards?  

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are an internationally recognised standard for accessibility, and have 3 levels - A, AA and AAA. By law, public sector websites and mobile apps need to meet the WCAG 2.1 AA accessibility standard 

But this means that often a lot of the AAA WCAG criteria isn’t considered, which are the ones that help people with cognitive impairments such as dyslexia, autism or brain injuries.  

Currently in the UK, it’s estimated that 10% of the population are dyslexic, one in 100 people are autistic, and 900,000 have dementia - so not complying with the AAA criteria excludes a lot of people. As someone who has ADHD, I’m particularly passionate at advocating that these criteria are not overlooked.  

Cognitive impairments can be permanent, temporary, situational or a combination. They can also be temporary for people who are generally considered to be neurotypical – as an example, fatigue, stress or bereavement can happen to anyone at any time. Accessibility is really for everybody.  

Making things work for people who are neurodivergent 

 Some of the AAA criteria which help neurodivergent people include:  

The obvious conclusion to making sure services don’t exclude the neurodivergent would be trying to meet AAA across the board. However even WC3 don’t recommend that, as it’s not possible to satisfy all level AAA criteria for some content. And it can also create more issues beyond accessibility – for example changing colours to meet AAA for colour contrast goes against the GOV.UK brand colour palette used on almost all departments’ digital services. And if it doesn’t look and feel like a government service, people aren’t going to trust it and they won’t use it. 

Don’t just stop at AA compliant 

One thing that designers can do to make services accessible for the neurodiverse, is to consider the Cognitive Accessibility Guidance (COGA) in conjunction with WCAG. 

 COGA helps to bridge the gaps in WCAG by being very specific about what needs to be considered. The 8 COGA objectives have example user stories and design patterns to make sure people with common cognitive impairments are not excluded. 

  1. Help users understand what things are and how to use them 
  2. Help users to find what they need 
  3. Use clear and understandable content 
  4. Help users avoid mistakes and know how to correct them 
  5. Help users focus 
  6. Ensure processes do not rely on memory 
  7. Provide help and support 
  8. Support adaptation and personalisation 

To build truly inclusive services, don’t just stop at AA compliant. Look at the AAA criteria and see what you can do to make things better for even more people. And then cross reference COGA to see what design patterns and user stories you can implement to meet a wide range of additional needs.  

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