Two ladies sitting in front of laptop

Global Accessibility Awareness Day: Mental Impairments Deserve Awareness, Too

By Katherine Swarts

young adult with laptop

Happy Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD for short)! This Thursday marks the eleventh annual GAAD, a time to consider how digital technology can make life easier for those who struggle to perform basic everyday functions.

When most people hear the word “accessibility,” the tendency is to picture purely physical accommodations: wheelchair ramps, sign-language interpreters, service dogs. Or, in the case of digital technology, clearer imagery or apps that read text out loud. All these are useful and necessary things, but there’s another disabilities category that often gets little attention in accessibility discussions: the “invisible” disabilities that are no less real for being “all in the mind.”

The Scope of Mental Disability

  • Over 6 million Americans have “intellectual disabilities” such as Down syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, or low IQ from unknown causes.
  • Nearly 5.5 million American adults, and a near-equal percentage of children, live on the “autism spectrum” of unusual difficulties with communication and other human interactions.
  • More than one in five Americans have some level of mental illness such as depression, anxiety disorder, or schizophrenia. Over 25 percent of mental illnesses are “serious,” meaning they have substantial negative effects on a person’s ability to function.

While purely mental impairment may not affect a person’s physical senses, it can make many forms of digital input painfully difficult to process.

  • People with autism spectrum disorders are often ultrasensitive to bright colors and loud noises, which causes extreme discomfort if a website/app is gaudy—or turns on videos without warning.
  • Autism can also cause a person to become quickly overwhelmed when confronted with text-heavy web pages (which turn off the majority population of web surfers as well).
  • People with intellectual or autistic issues have special difficulty deciphering instructions with missing steps—which are all too common in the digital world, especially on sites/apps with multiple menus and submenus.
  • Depression and anxiety disorders are aggravated by sensationalist sidebars and even ordinary news-headline links.
  • Other mental conditions can trigger obsessive following of random links, or can simply make it easier for a person to lose focus and become completely lost in a virtual world.

What Can Be Done?

Many of the above issues are problematic for “ordinary” digital users as well; thus, it benefits everybody to simplify design and navigation. If you or someone in your family have special difficulties, the BridgingApps Search Tool is a good place to find digital resources for disability issues. You can also download software that blocks sidebar ads, popups, or whole sites—or, if someone is obsessively spending too much time online, shuts down the whole computer after a set use period.

Your state assistive technology program can also be a great place to find resources. Ask a trusted friend, your counselor or therapist—or even your social media group—for recommendations specific to your situation. And most important, don’t give up. One advantage of the endless options in today’s digital world is that with a little persistence, it’s always possible to find accessible tools for any goal.

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