Websites for adults with learning disabilities: Accessible?


Access to the internet is now a part of modern life, but how far is the design and development of sites specifically for people with learning disabilities helping or hindering this access?

The Web Accessibility Initiative has produced internationally recognised standards for accessibility, but these have been criticised as focusing on accessibility issues relating to physical access difficulties or sensory disabilities.

There are additional guidelines for the production of websites for people with learning disabilities, but as the authors of this paper point out, there can be some practical difficulties in trying to follow them. For example, one recommendation is to keep all information on one screen but to have large font (Type 14+) with supporting images to support text, but achieving one might make achieving the other a little difficult.

If adults with learning disabilities are to have equal access to the world wide web, then appropriate design and clear accessibility standards will be crucial.

In this study, the researchers set out to look at what was currently available and what lessons we might be able to learn


What they did was search for websites offering accessible information for adults with learning disabilities using the search term ‘easy read information’. Sites that were returned from this search were examined and links from them followed up.

83 sites from this phase were screened and 25 of them were assessed as being designed primarily for people with learning disabilities.

These 25 sites were investigated using inclusion criteria which left 19 site to be reviewed.

Analysing the topics covered resulted in 39 categories grouped into seven themes

Finally, each site was accessed using an iPad. The researchers suggested that this was likely to be the method most used by adults with learning disabilities (e.g. through mobile device)

Researchers looked at 19 sites specifically designed for adults with learning disabilities

Researchers looked at 19 sites specifically designed for adults with learning disabilities


Subjects covered by the 19 sites were divided into five categories

  • health
  • social care
  • advocacy
  • leisure
  • transition to adulthood

Some sites of course covered more than one subject.

Seven were specific to their local area; 11 had more general information.

The remaining site was a search engine designed for adults with learning disabilities.

Five sites appeared to have people with learning disabilities actively involved in their design.

Locating/finding the website

There were some difficulties with searching for some of the sites as the page titles were also, for example, song titles. This meant that they did not always appear on the first page of search results.

Some of the video features of some sites did not work on the iPad.

Website features

All 19 sites used a sans serif font and had buttons to navigate with images to support text

The researchers found little consistency across the sites.

On 12 of the sites, it did not appear possible to change font size and screen back ground colour – accessibly features recommended by the Web Accessibility Initiative (Abou-Zahra 2012a, Abou-Zahra 2012b, Abou-Zahra 2012c).

7 sites had audio support, but on five of these, this meant using additional software like Browsealoud.

12 sites had video features and on three, the video would start when the site was opened, usually as information on how to use the site.

Where video was used to read the text on a page, the researchers timed the video to calculate a mean time which was 78.48 seconds (24.4 to 194 seconds)


The researchers identified a significant diversity in website design for people with learning disabilities.

A number of issues were raised:

  • The need for literacy skills to access sites
  • Use of strategies to reduce dependency on reading – e.g. navigation images, audio and video
  • Use of screen readers, but often requiring additional software and lengthy and sometime difficult to follow passages of text.
  • Whilst video was used, many people would have difficulties remembering the information contained in sometimes lengthy passages of reading.

The authors also commented on the sites where people with learning disabilities were reading text on the site, commenting that

whilst demonstrating their active involvement in the website development, it did not necessarily lead to clarification of the text, especially if the person was having difficulties reading the text or articulating the words.” Asking the question of whether this was “an exercise to inform or include?”

The researchers found evidence of involvement of people with learning disabilities in site design and development on five of the sites, although it was not clear whether people had been involved in the structure, content and organisation or just been given examples to approve or comment upon.

Help button on a computer keyboard

Use of screen readers often required additional software and did not always render text easier to understand

Strengths and limitations

This was a thought provoking piece in many ways. The approach to identification of the sites could be critiqued, but as the authors say, the study was time limited and ‘quick’. The point was to identify what easily available. I would imagine that many people would have given up long before the researchers did when searching for accessible sites.

It might be interesting to think about what sites would have been found if the research team had been composed of a number of people with learning disabilities. Site testing for accessibility is well established as an approach and it would have been interesting to see if different points about strengths and weaknesses of approach in the sites would have been identified by such a team.


This quick trawl of the internet for accessible sites has raised some interesting questions about what accessibility of design, navigation and content mean in sites designed for adults with learning disabilities.

The authors found a diversity of approaches in design and delivery which in the small number of sites they reviewed as well as some use of audio and video that might not necessarily have been helpful in making information more easily understandable.

They suggest that

Further in depth study regarding websites with the assistance of adults with learning disabilities is required examining a range of areas e.g. how to chunk audio/video information, ways of navigating through websites, systems of categorising subjects, screen layouts.”

computer_shutterstock_183381731 (2)

Key questions remain: e.g how to chunk audio/video information, navigate through websites, subjects, and mangae screen layouts


Primary paper

Waight, M. and Oldreive, W. (2015), Accessible websites – what is out there?. British Journal of Learning Disabilities [abstract]

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John Northfield

After qualifying as a social worker, John worked in community learning disability teams before getting involved in a number of long-stay hospital closure programmes, working to develop individual plans for people moving into their own homes. He worked for BILD, helping to develop the Quality Network and was editorial lead for the NHS electronic library learning disabilities specialist collection. This led him to found the Learning Disabilities Elf site with Andre Tomlin as a way of making the evidence accessible to practitioners in health and social care. Most recently he has worked as part of Mencap's national quality team and also been involved in a number of national website developments, including the General Medical Council's learning disabilities site.

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