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Cognitive disabilities

Page history last edited by Lara Malpass 13 years, 5 months ago


Upon completion of this section, teachers will be able to:

1. Identify what some difficulties students with cognitive disabilities may have in learning.

2. Techniques they can use to address and accommodate for students with cognitive disabilities in their classroom.


Cognitive disabilities refer to a broad spectrum of disabilities that are hard to define.  Most broadly people with cognitive disabilities are said to have greater difficulty with one or more mental tasks than the average person, exhibit significant delays in measured intelligence, or any disability that affects mental processes.  Cognitive disabilities include autism, down syndrome, traumatic brain injury and dementia. Cognitive disabilities are associated with a lower IQ and therefore sometimes includes people with learning disabilities.  Students with cognitive disabilities can effectively be included in general education classrooms but can be more difficult than a student with another disability.  Teachers of these students need more support in the classroom and may require more specific training.   


Some of the main deficits that people with cognitive disabilities demonstrate are:

1. Memory

Memory refers to the ability to be able to recall what has been learned over time.  Below is a model of working, short term, and long term memory.  

(Nolet & Mclaughlin, 2005)

Meaningful information is typically moved from sensory memory (stored for seconds) to working memory (stored minutes) and then stored in long term memory.  People with cognitive disabilities have difficulty with one of these types of memory but sometimes all three types of memory.  It is important to provide supports so that students with cognitive disabilities can get from one memory storage to the next.  Supports will include verbal clues to retrieve information from long term memory, faster ways for information to get from sensory memory to working memory to long term memory such as reading aloud to the student or visual aids.     

2. Problem-solving

People with cognitive disabilities often have difficulty problem solving.  One difficult problems arise, such as learning new material in class, they can typically become frustrated and have difficulty expressing their frustration.  Typically when they become frustrated the best method is to remove them from the situation to return at a later time. 

3. Attention

Often time people with cognitive disabilities have difficulty focusing on the task at hand.  This is where an aid or another adult in the classroom would be extremely helpful.  They need assistance maintaining focus and not getting distracted.

4. Reading and verbal comprehension

Often times, people with cognitive disabilities have difficulty with reading comprehension. Graphics, pictures and gestures can be helpful in helping to comprehend text.  Unstated assumptions in texts are also difficult to understand and they will thus need assistance in understanding innuendos.  

5. Math comprehension

Math computations or formulas are difficult for many people to understand let alone people with cognitive disabilities.  It is often helpful to explain math conceptually.

6. Visual comprehension

Some cognitive disabilities cause difficulty with visual comprehension.  To accommodate for people with cognitive disabilities it is best to provide information in multiple formats.


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Web Accessibility in Mind. (2010). Cognitive Disabilities. retrieved from http://webaim.org/articles/cognitive/design

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