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Shriver Center IT expert enhancing web accessibility for people with cognitive disabilities

By Ellen Moran

UMass Medical School Communications

May 18, 2015

An IT expert at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center has taken his work on improving web access for people with cognitive disabilities to the global stage. John Rochford has joined the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Cognitive and Learning Disabilities Task Force.

The W3C is a 21-year-old organization that is dedicated to ensuring the growth of the web and setting all web standards. The 35-member task force was formed to extend web accessibility standards for people with physical disabilities to include people with cognitive disabilities.

“The first thing we’re doing is an analysis to determine where the holes are in web access that we have to plug for people with cognitive disabilities,” said John Rochford, director of the INDEX program at UMass Medical School’s Shriver Center, and an instructor in family medicine & community health. “It’s exciting to work with the W3C, which sets the standards for the web worldwide, to figure out what needs to change so more people can benefit from it.”

Rochford was asked to join the task force because of his extensive expertise in making the web more accessible for individuals with intellectual disabilities. He has worked with children and adults with intellectual disabilities or autism since the 1980s. Rochford also has led teams that have built accessible websites, online courses and learning-management systems since the mid-1990s. He is a co-founder and co-organizer of the Boston Accessibility Group, which sponsors annual conferences about web accessibility.

In addition to conducting an analysis, the task force is researching challenges that individuals with cognitive disabilities face on the web. For example, Rochford wrote an issue paper for the task force about how web security and privacy technologies block access and prevent people with cognitive disabilities from buying goods or registering for services online. Individuals with cognitive disabilities may not be able to complete a multi-step process for submitting text, finish a timed procedure because of slowness in getting through the steps or enter characters correctly. Their challenges include attention, executive function, knowledge, language, literacy, memory, perception and reasoning. Individuals with these challenges may have age-related cognitive decline, aphasia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, intellectual disabilities, dyscalculia or dyslexia.

“Web access improvements include delivering content by video or by text-to-speech; writing text at a fourth- to sixth-grade level; and leaving out jargon and metaphors. Such techniques are good not only for people with cognitive disabilities, but also for people with low literacy, speakers of English as a second language and the deaf,” Rochford said.