Cherry Thompson talks about cognitive impairments and web accessibility


Thanks to Tenon for sponsoring the transcript for this episode.


Nic: Hi. I’m Nic Steenhout, and you are listening to the Accessibility Rules Soundbite, a series of short podcasts where people with disabilities explain their impairments and what barriers they encounter on the web.

Nic: Thanks to Tenon for sponsoring the transcript for this episode. Tenon provide accessibility as a service. They offer testing, training, and tooling to help fix accessibility fast.

Nic: Today I’m talking with Cherry Thompson. Cherry is an Accessibility and Inclusion Consultant. They’ve got a background of professional visual arts and photography. Cherry changed field after a little bit over a decade. Cherry, thanks for being onboard.

Cherry: Yeah, thanks for having me.

Nic: So, let’s get straight to it. Can you tell me what your disability is, what your impairment is?

Cherry: Yeah. So I live with a rare disease called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. It’s a disease that affects my connective tissues and soft tissues. It’s kind of like brittle bone disease but for the soft tissues in my body, so my muscles, my tendons, my ligaments, things like that. It largely affects my joints and strength, and I’m also autistic and have ADHD.

Nic: How does that mix together and how does that impact your ability to work on the web? What would be the biggest barrier you encounter when you’re going on the web?

Cherry: Most of my biggest barriers on the web are probably cognitive. I am affected a little by some fine motor skills, so if buttons are too small or too close together and the click point is too fine, then that can be a problem. But largely, things like CAPTCHAs, like you know when you have to login somewhere, the security CAPTCHAs, selecting the images. The reason for that is because cognitively, sometimes it can be really difficult to assess those images or to keep doing it. Sometimes it keeps asking you to do it for a few minutes.

Cherry: And then also, things like dark mode or websites that have much too much contrast, so a really dark background with a really bright white fine text is really hard for me to read, from a cognitive standpoint and from a physical standpoint ’cause my eye muscles are affected. It leaves ghosting and things like that.

Nic: That’s interesting, because one of the things that is pushed for quite a bit is high contrast that helps people with low vision. So here we have an accommodation that works well for many people that actually has a negative impact on you, right?

Cherry: Yeah. Dark mode does help me sometimes, but really it has to be not too strong a contrast. I much prefer dark mode in some applications, but if it’s a dark gray with just a slightly off white text with a bolder font, then that works much better for me than say black background or nearly black background with white text. So it really depends on the contrast. If the contrast isn’t too bad, then dark mode is incredibly helpful for me.

Nic: Have you found a solution to that when you get to these sites? Is there something that allows you to work around it so it’s more comfortable, easier to use?

Cherry: If it’s a website where there’s a lot of text where I have to read it for my job or something like that, then I’ll usually just go into the browser settings and try and change the system font and things like that and see if that will help. That depends obviously on the coding for the website, whether that takes effect or not. But often if it’s not a website that is necessary for me to look at, then I just won’t look at it if it requires too much reading with too much contrast.

Nic: Yeah, that’s fair enough. Cherry, if there was one thing that you would like developers or designers to remember about accessibility, what would it be?

Cherry: Yeah. I think the biggest thing that I often like to remind developers and designers is that accessibility for one group of people often helps with accessibility for another group of people.

Cherry: So for example, I work in video games, and one of the things I like to remind people is that accessibility for deaf and blind people often helps people with cognitive disabilities, and the same with colorblind options and things like that.

Cherry: Basically, it’s hard to design for every single type of disability. There’s just way too many out there and the spectrum is just too huge and everything overlaps. My disabilities overlap and clash with each other and cause problems for each other. The kinds of accessibility I need all overlaps, so really the best thing you can do is give people the options to customize their experience where you can because for me, that’s the best way to design accessibly.

Cherry: The reason I say that is because often options or things that can be activated on the web and things like that for deaf and blind people really, really help me. So for example, being able to skip CAPTCHAs for blind people really helps me because CAPTCHAs are such a huge barrier for me. Having two-factor authentication, for example, is slightly better and things like that.

Cherry: So, it can really vary, but colorblind accessibility is also really helpful for me ’cause colorblind accessibility, often what that does is change the contrast of something as well as change the color. It can just be better for me that way depending on the type of color that has been chosen.

Nic: One thing I picked up on what you were saying was this concept of giving ways for users to customize the output so it actually works better for them. Have you found places on the web, as opposed to just in games, that do that successfully?

Cherry: Yeah. So sometimes on forums for example, forums are a big cognitive barrier to a lot of people. I’ve seen some, occasionally you can change the font of the forum, or I’ve definitely seen websites that have light and dark modes, which is great. A light, dark, and mid mode might be more helpful for people if they’re somewhere in the middle.

Cherry: Yeah, I’ve seen colorblind options on some websites too where it’s almost like it just changes the CSS, light and dark mode, and you can choose between different things in a dropdown. That’s really helpful, especially for any kind of forums or input, especially research. I come across a lot of research forums and things like that that can be quite inaccessible. Being able to give people alternatives or just a few different formats of the forum I think would be greatly helpful to various disabilities. We don’t see it enough, but I do occasionally see it.

Nic: Cherry, thank you for your input. It’s been great. I’ll see you on Twitter at some point. Cherry Thompson, thank you.

Cherry: Thank you so much, Nic.

Nic: That’s it for now. Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed this accessibility soundbite, please pass the word. Share it wide and large.