What Are Cognitive Disabilities?

Published May 26, 2024

In the US, 12.8% of adults have some sort of cognitive disability. That’s a large percentage of the US population. But many people may not be clear on just what a cognitive, or cognition, disability is or how it affects a person and their day-to-day lives. Some people may even be confused as to what counts as a cognitive disability. 

Let’s look into what cognitive disabilities are, the history behind them, and examine some assistive technology that exists for people with cognitive disabilities.

What are cognitive disabilities?

Cognitive disabilities are a “set of conditions that create greater difficulty for people to perform one or more mental tasks than the average person.” Many things fall into the category of cognitive disabilities, including learning disabilities. Essentially, cognitive disabilities affect the brain, causing a person to have trouble with cognitive tasks, or tasks that involve mental function. 

In the past, people with cognitive disabilities were called offensive names. It is important to use proper vocabulary when talking about people with disabilities – and always use what a person with a cognitive disability would like you to use. Cognitive disabilities do not mean a person is helpless or unable to think for themselves. 

Some examples of cognitive disabilities are dementia, Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, and Down syndrome

Does the ADA recognize cognitive disabilities?

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) does prohibit discrimination against people with cognitive disabilities in both employment and education. Under the ADA, people with cognitive disabilities can ask for accommodations that can help them with their work or schooling, such as extra time on tests or extended deadlines, if those are helpful. A person with a cognitive disability is considered a "protected class" and cannot be fired for it.

In school, students with cognitive disabilities can have plans for their education, like 504 Plans, that spell out precisely what a student needs and what a teacher must provide. In college, a student can work with their school’s Disability Services’ office to create accommodations that suit their needs to get the most out of their schooling. All of these options are thanks to the ADA. 

Assistive technology for cognitive disabilities

Assistive technology is a technology that exists to make the lives of people with disabilities easier. There are many options for people with cognitive disabilities. Word prediction software helps people figure out words when writing and assists those who struggle to remember certain words. Talking calculators may help people who have cognitive disabilities that cause problems with numbers and math. Screen magnifiers may help with focus for those whose cognitive disability impairs focus.

The field of assistive technology is constantly changing. New technology is continuously being developed and released, and even if something doesn’t exist for a specific cognitive disability today, it may exist a few months from now. Innovation is the name of the game, especially in today’s world, where accessibility is more of a focus for many people. 

Making your website accessible for people with cognitive disabilities

As a website owner, one of your main goals should be accessibility. With such a high percentage of people with cognitive disabilities, your website should be accessible to them.  However, you might not be sure of how to make your website accessible to people with cognitive disabilities, especially as the term is an umbrella term for a variety of disabilities and needs. 

Though conflicting accessibility needs are a real issue, there are some things you can do to ensure your website is universally accessible. Things like color contrast, providing you use captions, and ensuring your website is keyboard navigable are all things you should do automatically for accessibility. 

You can go further in the name of cognitive accessibility. Having your website content be simple and easy to understand is accessible. So is eliminating or reducing distractions, like pop-ups or GIFs. Any forms on your website can have autocomplete enabled and directions should be clear and easy to follow. These are great ways to ensure your website is accessible to people with cognitive disabilities. 


Cognitive disabilities, or disabilities that impair mental function are common in the US. Many people aren’t unaware of how common they are or what constitutes a cognitive disability and are thus unprepared to be accessible to people with cognitive disabilities. Be sure to brush up on what constitutes a cognitive disability and what you can do to be accessible. 


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