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Telecommunications Problems and Design Strategies for People with Cognitive Disabilities

(August 16, 1999)
Ellen Francik, Ph.D., Suzanne Levine, M.A., Shelley Tremain, Ph.D.
fomerly of Technology Policy at World Institute on Disability

This report summarizes a literature review on use of telecommunications by people with cognitive disabilities. Section 1 of the report describes the research methodology. Section 2 discusses general accessibility guidelines, identifies those that appear to be relevant to cognitive disabilities, and notes some of the barriers to usage they are designed to overcome. It outlines four classes of universal design strategies designers might employ:

  • Redundant, user-controlled modality of information.
  • Streamlined, user-controlled amount and rate of information.
  • Procedural support.
  • Content organization.

Section 3 describes underlying cognitive abilities and notes some of the functions or user tasks which they may affect. Section 4 reviews detailed findings from the literature for some specific disabilities: age-related cognitive disabilities, learning and language disabilities, brain injury, and mental retardation. Section 5 summarizes research that relies on very detailed analyses of tasks, cognitive abilities, and interface design changes. Section 6 concludes by suggesting areas for further research. Better design leads to better guidelines, and so the first priority is the continued development of “reference designs,” sample accessible telecommunications devices and services. Other areas of research include:

  • Layered or streamlined functionality.
  • Training, procedural support, and problem-solving.
  • Better user descriptions to help designers envision actual product use by people with cognitive disabilities.
  • Increased attention to human performance modeling, developing parameters that represent people with disabilities.
  • Correlative research, tying design to specific cognitive abilities, which will benefit the nondisabled population as well as those with cognitive disabilities.
  • A unifying framework, or “roadmap,” to better link theoretical and practical work for designers’ benefit.

The appendix of this report contains an annotated bibliography.