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Not all disabilities are visible. So to make your digital spaces more accessible for neurodivergent users, writes Ell Powell, there are some key things to consider.

Concept of the diversity of people's talents and skills stock illustration

Iryna Spodarenko

Arts venues can be alienating for neurodivergent people. Flashing lights, sudden noises and having to remain silent and still for extended periods can be particularly challenging. 

Many arts centres are beginning to consider the needs of neurodivergent visitors, with some venues offering specific events designed with this audience in mind. When making accommodations, often only physical accessibility is considered. 

But not all disabilities are visible, nor are they all physical. So accommodations for a neurodivergent audience shouldn’t only extend to your venue, but your digital offering too.

What is a neurodevelopmental condition?

Neurodevelopmental conditions affect the way the brain works, often having an impact on emotion, memory, learning ability and self-control. Widely known conditions include autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, Down’s syndrome and Tourette’s syndrome.

Many conditions fall under this umbrella with a wide variety of unique traits, so making generalisations can be unhelpful. But one key shared characteristic is that they’re related to genetics and the development of the nervous systems. 

What is neurodivergence?

Neurodivergent describes anyone whose brain functions differently from what is considered ‘typical’. It’s a helpful and respectful way of referring to anyone who may have access needs or require accommodations that aren’t related to a physical disability.

The term includes anyone with a neurodevelopmental condition as listed above but also includes people with conditions caused by traumatic brain injury or serious illness, mental health conditions or conditions brought about by age, such as dementia.

Why is neurodiversity important?

Neurodiversity is a framework that celebrates differences in brain types. It helps us to better understand, accept and include neurodivergent people in society. Everyone has different skills, needs and abilities.

Digital spaces often have barriers that limit the access of neurodivergent people. Information can be just as inaccessible as physical spaces. But there are some changes you can make that will improve accessibility and widen your potential audience.

What do neurodivergent people require?

Neurodiversity varies enormously, so the best approach is to cover the basics and keep an open mind. If people feel an arts venue is taking steps to be an inclusive and accessible space, they’re far more likely to share their unique accommodation needs with you.

Remember that many of the accommodations to improve access for neurodivergent people often benefit the whole audience. A recent YouGov poll revealed that 61% of young adults watching movies and TV shows in their native language prefer to have the subtitles on. So why then do cinemas and arts venues so rarely screen content with captions?

What you can do better

•    Add an accessibility statement to your website (that includes neurodiversity)
Many arts centres have a webpage dedicated to the physical accessibility of their spaces. Consider including neurodiversity here too. If you’re unsure of what measures to take, ask people for suggestions.

•    Add labels to show which events are neurodivergent-friendly
Consider offering shows or screenings designed specifically for neurodiverse audiences (if you don’t already). By making small changes – such as removing sudden noise effects or flashing lights – you can welcome an underrepresented audience of neurodiverse people. This could include welcoming self-stimulation behaviour (‘stims’) such as hand flapping, rocking, calling out and using fidget toys. These shows are often termed ‘Relaxed’. Don’t forget to add events filters so users can quickly find all the neurodivergent-friendly shows you’re offering.

•    Add event content warnings
It’s a non-exhaustive list but the most common content warnings to include are for flashing or strobing lights, sudden loud noises and any content that is disturbing, violent or discriminatory. Warnings help audience members make informed choices about the shows they attend, allowing them to prepare and protect their wellbeing. This is particularly useful for neurodivergent people with sensory processing sensitivities, epilepsy, anxiety or PTSD.

•    Offer digital (and accessible) events
This is a two-in-one accessibility tip. Making shows available online allows anyone who cannot attend in person to enjoy your offering. But you should make the content of these recordings accessible. Captions, for example, are used by many neurodivergent people – such as those with ADHD and sensory processing conditions – as well as d/Deaf people.

•    Ensure your web design has accessible text
Now we’re talking about fundamental design elements of your website. You may have considered these for visually impaired users, but certain visual features can also affect neurodivergent people, including those with sensory processing sensitivities or dyslexia. 

You might not be able to makes change if they’re hard coded into your site, but you should consider it if you’re developing a new website. The typeface should be really easy to read, so avoid overly fancy serif fonts. You can search for ‘dyslexia friendly fonts’ for excellent alternatives.

•    Ensure your web design has high colour contrast 
Colour combinations should offer a high contrast between content and the background. Over 350 million people have one of the many conditions commonly referred to as ‘colour-blindness’. Avoid problematic colour combinations and remember never to rely on colour alone to communicate anything, such as ‘click the green button’. Use white or black space on webpages, as this can help break up low contrasts.

•    Choose content and layouts that don’t overstimulate
Arrange text and information in a way that isn’t cluttered. Unexpected noises or sudden visual changes can easily overstimulate and make users abandon their journey. Simplify where you can and include clear visual cues to enhance content, such as a phone icon next to contact information. These are just principles of good web design but they particularly impact neurodivergent users.

•    Make the user journey cater for neurodiversity
This involves most of the above but also includes navigation. Remove any barriers that slow a user down. Responsive hover elements can help, such as buttons that change colour when a mouse interacts with them, making it really obvious where to click. 

It’s as simple as that. Well, not quite simple but a process worth exploring. Improving accessibility invites a more diverse audience to experience your arts offering. That’s not only a socially worthwhile endeavour but a sensible marketing strategy that broadens your potential audience of ticket-purchasing patrons.

Ell Powell is Senior Content Writer at Splitpixel.

This article is part of a series contributed by Splitpixel to share expertise on how to best apply accessibility and inclusivity principles in digital spaces. 

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