Search Research Note SR3 – impact of dyslexia on web application accessibility

by | May 18, 2020 | Digital workplace, Intranets, Search

For many years now web interface designers have taken care to support employees who have a range of physical and visual conditions that have an impact on the extent to which they can use a computer interface effectively. Most designers are conversant with the Web Accessibility Initiative provisions though even though there are often indications that design has triumphed over accessibility.

 Employees with these physical and visual conditions are inevitably visible in the office environment. In the case of open plan offices this visibility may in fact be a challenge and not be conducive to their well-being. We ourselves can have some sense of the challenges a blind or partially sighted employee must have, or someone with poor motor control in their hands. Try using a mouse wearing gardening gloves!

 The condition that is totally invisible is dyslexia, often given the unfortunate description of ‘word blindness’. Dyslexia is a cognitive spectrum condition that could affect more than 1 in 10 employees. A ‘spectrum condition’ is because there is wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms people experience. This also makes it very difficult to recognise and diagnose because people with the condition have no baseline of ‘normal’ against which to compare their own experience

 It is quite common for people to conceal the extent of their dyslexia as it still has connotations of being stupid and slow to learn. It is also very difficult for people without the condition to imagine what it must be like.  There are some simulations of dyslexia which given at least an initial impression but cannot reproduce the frustrations that people with the condition must have to cope with.

This is especially concerning when it comes to social media, which may well be seen as unsocial media by employees who have some form of dyslexia. I am including collaboration applications in this category. Organisations increasingly rely on social networks to link Work From Home employees together without considering the challenges that dyslexia causes in contributing to social media and also understanding its fragmented language and organisational jargon.

Finding technical solutions is not easy because it is a spectrum condition and some employees may just have a problem with a certain font or colour contrast.  Others will find it almost impossible to comprehend written text. Many will find workarounds to a particular design or font and are then thrown a very difficult situation when the font of (say) an intranet is changed without any thought about the implications for these employees.

 Working at home may well be even more stressful for employees with dyslexia that in the office because of the pressure they may well feel of being under pressure to maintain productivity. In the office they can meet up with either someone from HR or with a mentor, to talk through a problem they face, or frankly just to talk to someone.  We are now seeing a trend towards employees spending more time working from home in the future. It will become ‘the way of working’ for a much greater number of employees, but remember that at least 1 in 10, and it may be more, is somewhere on the dyslexia spectrum.

I have listed out a range of research papers on web accessibility, and in particular the impact on searching, in a  recent LinkedIn post. Most, but sadly not all, are open access. 

Martin White