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Accessible Web Design: Dyscalculia

As a web designer your job isn’t to push (X)HTML elements around or to bling things up with CSS… it’s not even the cool dark art of JavaScript. Your job, if anything at all, is to pursue an ongoing study of human nature to better understand the medium, the market and the environment that makes your client money.

This is where usability, accessibility, sociology, psychology, human computer interaction and the ability to read widely come into play. These are what I would consider to be a “professional vocabulary”. To that end, I introduce you to our new best friend in the world – dyscalculia.

Enter Dyscalculia

The ABC Radio National program All in the Mind on 29 January 2011 was called That Does Not Compute: the hidden affliction of dyscalculia.

Here are some small facts from the show:

  • dyscalculia is a physical inability to process or calculate numbers
  • 3% – 6% of society is dyslexic and the same ratio applies to dyscalculia
  • often dyslexia is related to dyscalculia but just as often it is not
  • that means 1 in every classroom is likely to be dyslexic and 1 is likely to be dyscalculic
  • lifting the bottom 10% of math students to minimum OECD standards would improve GDP by around 25%

For a fuller understanding of dyscalculia listen to the All in the Mind podcast (linked above) and perhaps spend some time on the program’s reading list.

Dyscalculia’s Impact on Web Design is a Tsunami

If you’ve listened to that podcast you should be thinking what I’m thinking – we need to start looking at this as a web design accessibility issue from this point forward. With 3% – 6% of society being dyscalculic there might be some fundamental issues with our current expectations of website visitors. You could imagine this as a slow moving tsunami that has taken over a decade to reach us with any force…

… at the moment the bay is draining… fish flap on the rocks… and we get that epiphany that dyscalculia exists.

One direct impact of dyscalculia that comes to mind is our use of honeypots on contact forms intending to trap form submission bots… the tests that ask simple questions like “What is the sum of 4 + 2”? Learning that 3% – 6% of people may have moderate to very serious difficulty processing that sum had never occurred to me… and the impact of dyscalculia on web accessibility is obviously huge.

Any time we work on the expectation that website visitors have a minimum level of math we therefore fail. If we blindly implement paging systems, if we design forms that require any degree of numeric calculation without thinking this through… then we fail as designers. It is precisely at this point, confronted by left-field problems, that we differentiate from people who merely push a little HTML and CSS around.

Dyscalculia is as big as Dyslexia

However, the most worrying part of dyscalculia is that it is just as prevalent in society as dyslexia. And from experience we know this is a huge figure with massive social impact. So where does this leave us regarding dyscalculia?

It leaves us back at basecamp rethinking everything we thought we knew about web design. We’re going to have to think about this one and read and study human nature in its element (again). How do you deal with an issue where the disability means that people can’t process dimensions, volumes, times or railway schedules? The more you think about that problem the faster you realise the tsunami that follows behind it.

Dyscalculia is as big as dyslexia in our society. It’s a physical and not a mental disability. Dyscalculics can otherwise be highly successful people, including computer programmers or public representatives.

They won’t arrive wearing signs or special coloured glasses. And they probably won’t even identify that we failed them. That’s one hell of a web design accessibility challenge for 2011.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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