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Learning from Inclusive New Media Design

Last week I attended the final session of Inclusive New Media design, a project at the Rix Centre, The University of East London. I'm sure the project team will be publishing their findings in due course, but until then here is what I learned from the study.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Table of contents

Not the same

Intellectually Disabled users are a broad and diverse group. Suggesting they are a homogenous group is wrong. Simon Evans gave an excellent presentation about the semantics of disability and showed that terms can vary depending on location and nation. He also showed how disability is often complicated by a combination of conditions, so people are not just intellectually disabled but may have a number of conditions. Clinical definitions of disability are not necessarily helpful in trying to create uniform recommendations as users are simply very diverse in their capabilities. The fundamental point is that within the definition of Intellectually Disabled abilities vary hugely. It is important, as much as you can, to understand the group of users you are designing for.

Reading Ages

Reading Ages also vary hugely with Intellectually Disabled users but actually practices that help able bodied users are also useful for Intellectually Disabled users. Line-height and line length are important. Ensuring there is adequate space between lines and that the line length is 9 - 12 words can help ID users to read the page more easily. Font size should be slightly larger than average and in my testing I found dark on light text worked best.


Symbols are an effective way for ID users to read and understand text. SymbolWorld is an example of combining symbols and text to help users to read. There are several different symbol libraries on offer. Advice given by Simon Detheridge of SymbolWorld is that people who read symbols tend not to see punctuation so keep one sentence on a line. Sentences running onto each other are confusing. Too many symbols on a page is a problem so use small menus and split content up into lots of small blocks.


Browsealoud - was introduced as a product to read out websites to users. This was shown to be very useful for ID users who may not be fully capable of using screen readers. This product comes with a license fee so may be an issue for projects with smaller budgets, although there are a number of open source alternatives.

User testing is key

Perhaps the key point that came out of the study for me was that user testing is key. We had the opportunity to meet and test prototype sites with men and women from Ellingham Employment Services. For me this was the point at which I began to see and understand the issues. Some users were able to use keyboards and engage with content heavy sites, whilst other responded more to sensory stimulation. Seeing users actually using swtiches was illuminating. Working with Alex Beech and Lisa Haskel we created an application to show users pictures of their favourite things. If other users in the application liked the same thing their picture was also shown and a connection was made. It was amazing to see that face recoginition was a strong stimulus, and they loved making connections and seeing pictures of things they liked.

Users are not confident

A common point that came out of user testing is that users are not confident. They are reticent about completing actions and if they do not succeed first time they will feel that it is there fault and lose interest in the task. As such user feedback is key both from the assistant if there is one and from the website.

Web standards are a good base

In discussions between the participants on the project a predictable conclusion was that web standards are a good base from which to support users with Intellectual Disabilities. Most professional designers and developers are now using standards by default but it is worth mentioning anyway.

More work to do

WCAG 2.0 gives more guidance on Intellectual Disabilities but there is still more work to do to understand how this user group can be given as much access as possible to content available on the web. Disabilities can range from mild to profound so it is difficult to say this is how you should build sites for Intellectually Disabled users. But small things can make a big difference and there are practices that can help all users.


Meeting the men and women from Ellingham I really understood that behind the term Intellectual Disability is a complex and broad range of conditions. More importantly though there are people. Funny, enganging, and interesting people. I met men and women with broadly the same requirements as able bodied users. They want to be entertained, to connect, to access information quickly and easily. As such building sites with good usability and web standards is a good start. User testing is then the best way to test assumptions and gather feedback from ID users, much in the same way as you would for able bodied users.

Finally creating sites that support ID users can be daunting in that there is a huge amount to understand. Nick Weldin from Paddington Arts pointed out that small things can make a huge difference and Ann McMeekin mentioned that it should be a journey not a destination. In many ways recommendations are in a similar position. What’s clear though is that this user group can engage with and get a huge amount from the internet. We should continue working hard to ensure this happens.

Have an update or suggestion for this article? You can edit it here and send me a pull request.


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