Shriver Center IT expert helping to make the Web more accessible to people with cognitive disabilities

May 14, 2015

An IT expert at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center has taken his work on improving Web access for people with cognitive disabilities to the global stage. John Rochford has joined the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Cognitive and Learning Disabilities Task Force.

The W3C is a 21-year-old organization that is dedicated to ensuring the growth of the World Wide Web and setting all Web standards. The 35-member task force was formed to extend Web accessibility standards for people with physical disabilities to include people with cognitive disabilities.

“The first thing we’re doing is an analysis to determine where the holes are in Web access that we have to plug for people with cognitive disabilities,” said John Rochford, MS, director of the INDEX program at UMass Medical School’s Shriver Center, and an instructor in the school’s department of Family Medicine and Community Health. “It’s exciting to work with the W3C, which sets the standards for the Web worldwide, to figure out what needs to change so more people can benefit from it.”

Rochford was asked to join the task force as an invited expert because of his extensive expertise in making the Web more accessible for individuals with intellectual disabilities. He has worked with children and adults with intellectual disabilities or autism since the 1980s. Rochford also has led teams that have built accessible websites, online courses, and learning-management systems since the mid-1990s. He is a co-founder and co-organizer of the Boston Accessibility Group, which sponsors annual conferences about Web accessibility.

In addition to conducting an analysis, the task force is researching challenges that individuals with cognitive disabilities face on the Web. For example, Rochford wrote an issue paper for the task force about how Web security and privacy technologies block access and prevent people with cognitive disabilities from buying goods or registering for services online. Individuals with cognitive disabilities may not be able to complete a multi-step process for submitting text, finish a timed procedure because of slowness in getting through the steps, or enter characters correctly. Their challenges include attention, executive function, knowledge, language, literacy, memory, perception and reasoning. Individuals with these challenges may have age-related cognitive decline, aphasia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, intellectual disabilities, dyscalculia or dyslexia.

“Often people with cognitive disabilities have physical disabilities. Thus, at a minimum, a website’s design needs to be accessible to people with physical disabilities. Equally important for people with cognitive  disabilities is that website content is accessible as well. Many may not understand what they’re reading if the writing is not simple and clear,” Rochford said.

“Web access improvements include delivering content by video or by text-to-speech; writing text at a fourth- to sixth-grade level; and leaving out jargon and metaphors. Such techniques are good not only for people with cognitive disabilities, but also for people with low literacy, speakers of English as a second language, and the deaf,” Rochford said.

As analysis and research are being completed, the task force is reviewing existing techniques, and is working on new ones. Task force members are considering building or experimenting with new techniques to achieve their goals. The task force’s work will likely take years to complete.

 “We’re identifying where the trouble is for people with cognitive disabilities in regard to being able to access the Web, and are working to design solutions,” Rochford said.

Rochford is one of 19 task force members who are invited experts. He has participated in a teleconference with the task force every week since the group was formed in November 2013, and made his first trip to London for a task force meeting in April.