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Accessible Web Design: More Thoughts on Dyscalculia

Recently I wrote an article titled Accessible Web Design: Dyscalculia after listening to the ABC Radio National program All in the Mind on 29 January 2011 called That Does Not Compute: the hidden affliction of dyscalculia.

Issues Related to Dyscalculia

Having thought about this a little more, although I admit that it’s time I locate and read research papers, there appear to be at least seven issues at play with dyscalculia.

  1. Inability to perform simple mathematical equations (addition, subtraction)
  2. Inability to grasp simple mathematical concepts (fractions, percentages, ratios)
  3. Difficulty with the comparison of numbers (weights, areas, distances)
  4. Problems involving the concept of time
  5. Inability to hold number sequences in their mind
  6. It is a physical, not an educational, impairment (with legal implications)
  7. Dyscalculia affects between 3% – 6% of society

The Impact of Dyscalculia may appear Edge Case but it’s Not

The question is whether this impacts our idea of contemporary best practise web design and whether any of those impacts can be addressed in a pragmatic approach to our work. The bottom line is not just about accessibility… if you work on an ecommerce web project you might want to understand whether that 3% – 6% of visitors affects lost sales revenue and cart abandonment.

And if you’re a usability researcher you may want to discover how that 3% – 6% might be skewing your usability test results. However, I’m still thinking about this issue and I can only share my initial thoughts based on a very general understanding of dyscalculia and there are certainly going to be more questions raised than answered in the short-term.

Examples of Accessibility Impact from Dyscalculia

At this point the following examples strike me as worth the time and effort within the industry to investigate – particularly for organisations already working on usability and accessibility research topics.

  • Text discussion that uses mathematical concepts to convey general meaning
  • Presentation of numeric information (particularly tabulated in charts or presented in graphs)
  • Design and process of web forms (required field drop-down list of postcode or birth year selection; or the context provided by the display of process steps)
  • Numeric honeypots on web forms to identify spam bots (and a further nail in the numeric-text CAPTCHA issue)
  • The display and representation of times, weights, areas (including complex calendars and timetables)
  • Representation of service option comparisons or pricing plans
  • Display of entire pages of price comparisons on ecommerce sites (for example, Amazon books)

Examples of Possible Methods to Address Dyscalculia in Web Design

Following the same dot points as the examples it would be interesting to discuss solutions… even if the problem is as yet ill-defined.

  • Text that uses simple mathematical concepts like percentages, ratios or fractions (to name but a few) should be reviewed to assess whether it would make sense to a reader without that concept. We use many mathematical concepts in general life that we may be taking for granted… all jargon to dyscalculics.
  • Charts and graphs will be challenging, particularly numeric based information. A self-identification option on the website could allow a server-side solution to provide similar or equivalent information to the level of understanding of this particular group by swapping in / out content. Alternatively, linking directly to this HTML information would be effective.
  • Automatically calculate the postcode (on the server-side) based on the already provided country / location / area… and why do you need to know birth year? I constantly misinform the Internet about my real date of birth. As for steps in a process, self-identification could allow a simple replacement of “step 2 of 5” for “step B of E”.
  • Cease to use numeric honeypots (yes my contact form currently uses a numeric honeypot) and stick to the hot versus code style of honeypot (avoid CAPTCHAS).
  • Complex calendars and tables will be challenging, particularly numeric based information. Again, self-identification may allow for server-side solutions to this by serving up a restricted view at any given time, rather than entire tables.
  • Usability research into the effect of dyscalculia on the ability to choose a service option from three-to-four options. Can self-identification help us design around this? Also, is this demographic leaving without purchasing solely because of the pricing option barrier? Would it be better to offer them 1 basic option then later to trade up or move down in service?
  • Ecommerce websites could use self-identification (perhaps they retain this in membership information) to provide a less cluttered interface. Instead of a long product page of 20 items they could provide single options with more emphasis on text search?

Obviously Dyscalculia is less Addressable than Dyslexia

So where do we go from here? Well I’ve got a few beginning ideas along these lines but I’m hoping someone out there is just as interested about why this topic is missing from our web accessibility conversations. It’s not as sexy as dyslexia (less public awareness of the issue) and it is less addressable in certain contexts. Some situations will be difficult to remedy without some fundamental mind-shifting on our part.

Part of the answer might be an opportunity to develop mobile applications that target this demographic – noting that people with dyscalculia may be very intelligent, earn high wages and own and run sophisticated businesses. However, that won’t negate our responsibility to our clients. If 3% – 6% of people have this barrier then you can be positive that it’s a barrier your client’s business needs to know about.

There is the added concern that dyscalculia, being a physical disability, may impose future legal problems for your clients. Another reason web designers should think about dyscalculia in a new light.

Further thoughts on the impact of dyscalculia would be welcome.

Update: 8 February, 2011
An email from Gez Lemon pointed out the flaw of using page B of E and offered an example where dyscalculia would pose a real barrier. The relevant paragraph in his email explains:

I think people with dyscalculia would struggle as much with page B of E as they would with page 3 of 5, as it still depends on relative ordering. The biggest barrier I’ve witnessed from testing is the security system employed by some banks where the customer is asked to enter certain characters of their password (Please enter characters 3, 7 and 9 of your password). The idea is to prevent keylogging software from capturing passwords, but it puts an amazing cognitive load on the user; particularly people with dyslexia and dyscalculia. The irony is that this security method usually causes the user to write their password on a piece of paper and number the characters so they can enter them, which obviously introduces security issues.Gez Lemon

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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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