Cognitive Accessibility 103

Presented at CSUN 2017 on Friday 10 March 2017

This article is a summery of a presentation i gave at CSUN in San Diego on the 2nd of March 2017. I am extremely grateful to the BBC who allowed me to present this session alongside my BBC commitments.

My slides are quite minimal and visual, so the aim of this article is to explain the slides so they make a bit more sense.

Introduction & Disclaimer

The presentation starts with a slide explaining who i am and what i do. The normal stuff, i am autistic, i have a big lion plushie who goes everywhere with me and i work for the BBC.

This talk is not science, its my account of how i use technology. It’s anecdote and i only speak for myself and not all autistic people.


This presentation is all about cognitive accsessbility from my perspective as an autistic person. I want to explain what i do and how i do it, but before i can do that i need too explain a bit about how i model my autism to give context to this talk.

I will then detail a quick model of how i approach things, before diving into a series of examples. I will finish up by considering the broader question of "the future".

Modeling Disablilty.

I think its important to first look at the terms we use. For example, what is disability?

It seems like an obvious question but when you look deeper there is some important aspects which need considering. First, lets define "impairment".

Impairment is defined in OED as:

The state or fact of being impaired, especially in a specified faculty.

The impairment is the bit which is about my body. It’s a fact.

For exanple, some people have impaired hearing or vision.

However, there are other impairments. This talk is being presented in san diago. It has some specific impairments due to popular activity in this region.

Someone who is stoned after smoking weed.

But other impairments are more common. At the party last night some people has some "alcohol induced" cognitve and motor impairments.

Other impairments are also simply due to human variability. We all come in different shapes and sizes.

The second term i’d like to define is environment. The environment includes lots of things. For example how we design buildings, private and public spaces.

Environment also includes social elements. The assumptions and beliefs we hold about each other. They are environmental, they exist in the world in which we operate.

Finally environmental aspects include more subtle things. For example low expectations, is an environmental factor. In my experience, being over estimate is as damage as being underestimated, but really both situations are problematic.

Heres the thing. When you have someone who is impaired or different and you place them into a badly designed environment. The environment disables them.

This is a really important point. I am not disabled, but when the enviroment is badly designed i am disabled by it. This is known as the social model of disability.

This talk is my attempt to explain the ways in which many environments disable me. I hope the model i present is useful for considering in your own interactions and work.

Ultimately, we are the gate keepers of the environment. Our users do not come to us disabled. We disable them when we build a bad enviroment for them. In short, as designers we disable people when we get it wrong.

How i do things.

This section is about how i do things. Its kinda simple. It turns out there is a pretty simple process i repeat over and over all day which describes how i interact within my environment.

I do three things when i interact in my environment and process information.

Receiving - First i have to recieve information, get it out of my environment and into my brain.

Processing - Once the information is inside my brain, i then need to process it and reach an understanding. The processing may then lead to needing to do something.

Actioning - Finally, with the information understood, i normally need to do something.

This isnt very complex. But i think the simplicity hides something quite useful. It gives a framework for analysing and thinking about everything from buildings to websites.

The tools that help me.

So with the model introduced, i’d now like to go a bit deeper and explain some examples. Add some meat to the bones of the model

Lets start with receiving information.

Receiving Information.

I need to extra information from my environment so i can use it.


Receiving information from my environment starts with being able to perceive it.

The environment needs to provide me with information in clear ways without assuming to much context.

The simple example would be color contrast. If i cannot access the information visually, i do anything with it.

A more complex example would be my fire alarm.

Old fashioned fire alarms overload my sense. My body then freezes up and i become very muddled. The Nest protect is a smart smoke alarm. When triggered it speaks in a clear voice. It tells me where the smoke is and what to do about it. It also contacts my friends to tell them if my fire alarm has been triggered.

This is a good example of making information more percievable to me. Its explicit, clear and tells me what to do.


After i have percieved the information i need to be able to understand what i can actualy DO.

The environment needs to make possible actions easy to see and comprehend.

For example, i really like these door signs. They are super clear about what i can do. Icons, colours and words all working together to communicate what is possible.

Another good example is the shut down screen on my Mac. The visual buttons and gradiants help me to see what i can do. Additionally the consistancy throughout the Mac operating system allows me to gain and reuse my understanding.

The BBC log in forms are a great example of my environment disabling me.

The controls are entirely non standard. There is no indication of what to do, and it assumes i have magic knowlege of what to do next.

This design is entirely affordance free. It’s very pretty but it doesn’t meet my actual need and after user testing it didn’t meet the needs for many other users either.

To make it worse, the login form is the gateway to other BBC services. Thus it could be excluding me from accessing things i would otherwise be able to use. I’d strongly recommend that login forms are not used as places for "innovation". If you must do something non standard, test it extremely well.

Processing Information

Now i have been able to receive the information in my enviroment and gain a basic understanding. I need to start processing that information.


To process the environment, first i must filter out the information i don’t need so i can isolate the information i do need.

A good environment gives me control of options and sensory input. Allowing me choices. It never assumes ability.

Some of my filtering will be sensory. For example, my noise cancelling headphones filter out all kinds of audio information i don’t need.

Sometimes, filtering is part of the environment itself. For example, this is the filtering options for Lego models on Amazon. The filtering tools are part of the core experience.

Other times, the environment goes a step further and does the filtering for me. For example the BBC news homepage is filtering the news and giving me an editorialised view.

Finally, sometimes i can filter the environment by using tools built into the operating system on my Mac. For example, when i use the web i zoom in on pages. When zoomed in, the content i want is big and everything else is hidden. This simple trick allows me to process information in smaller more manageable chunks.


After filtering information i need to do something with it.

I need to make decisions. So a good environment makes it clear to me what decisions i can make and what the consequences are.

Make decisions easy for me by allowing me ample time to think, allowing me to cancel interactions and to undo mistakes.

Actioning information

Once i have reached a decision i need to act on it.


The environment needs to give me time to plan how to achieve a desired action (movements, words etc).

Planning can both be something obvious (like planning a trip) but also subtle things. Planning how i will move my body, or how i will use a tool.

In the USA i really like the traffic lights which provide a count down. They give me useful infomation and the environment is supporting my ability to plan an therefore its not disabling me.

Another good example of planning is the british government digital service. (GDS). They put the information i will need for a form at the start. This aids my planning and makes it more likely for me to succeed.


Finally, once i have a plan i have to be able to do it.

The environment needs to allow me to do things i have decided to do.

For example this can be physical. My bowls at home are well designed. I can hold them and they use rubber parts so they stay in place. Another physical example is the provision of a quiet space on trains and in the workplace

In the digital world ‘doing’ also includes supporting tools which help me. For example, i use a screen reader to help me use software and web pages. Getting information and actions in visual and audio form is very useful.

The Future.

To finish up, i want to change focus a little and consider the future.

Hopefully, theres something in this talk which makes some sense. By making better environments we reduce the amount we disable people. Allowing greater autonomy and and independence.

This is a great example of accessibility crossing over with usability. After all, usability is simply the name we give to accessibility for the majority.

If we consider the ability of our audience as a distrbution we tend to go for the middle. This seems to make sense.

However if we add together everyone else, we may find that the middle may not actually be the majority.

More variety is a good thing

When we make things easier for the diverse, we also tend to to make things easier for everyone else. Everyone will experience cognitive impairment at some point in their lives. Therefore eventually everyone will benefit.

Humans are neurologically diverse. We all have different needs from our enviroments.

I phrase it as considering the needs of the diverse, the impaired and the distracted.

Thanks for reading. I use noun project for icons and the colours are from the adobe kuler project.


Spaced Out & Smiling is about exploring the fun side of Autism, and trying to understand what it means to be Autistically Happy.

Social Links

Get In Touch

Jamie: @JamieKnight
Lion: @Lickr