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Defining cognitive disability

written by: Finn Orfano • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 9/11/2012

There are many definitions of a cognitive disability. Read on to see exactly what it means.

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    What is a Cognitive Disability?

    Defining the term cognitive disability is rather hard to do because it covers a range of intellectual disabilities. The term generally refers to anyone with lower than average intellectual functioning. A person who has a cognitive disability has trouble performing mental tasks that the average person would be able to do. The term cognitive disability can be used to describe other various disabilities such as mental retardation, dyslexia, autism, and other learning disabilities. In simpler terms, a cognitive disability is a disability that adversely affects someone’s brain in such a way that it is harder for them to do normal tasks that average people can complete. The severity of the cognitive disability has an affect on how independently the person can function.

    Cognitive disabilities do not include the category of physical disabilities. A person may have both cognitive and physical disabilities but they are separate entities. The term cognitive refers to the brain, so another way to think of cognitive disability is a brain disability. Cognitive disabilities are also referred to as developmental disabilities.

    Cognitive disabilities can affect a person’s performance in any of the following areas: memory, attention, problem solving, math calculations, and reading comprehension.

    There are some characteristics of having a cognitive disability, here are a few examples:

    • Problems remembering
    • Difficulty processing emergencies
    • Problems processing information
    • Problems accessing information

    Special education teachers teach students with an array of cognitive disabilities. It is important for teachers to do research on the types of disabilities that are present in their classroom, that way they can provide the appropriate specially designed instruction and accommodations. This also applies to regular education teachers as well. They need to know what specific disabilities actually mean.

    There are some general accommodations that can be beneficial when working with any student who has a cognitive disability. Here a just a few:

    • Extended test/quiz time
    • Tests/quizzes taken in a special education
    • Calculator for math computation
    • Repetition of new concepts
    • Prompts to remain on task
    • Positive praise
    • Use of agenda book to record homework assignments
    • Study guides for tests
    • Modified homework
    • Time in class to start homework

    These above examples are just a few that can help accommodate any student with a cognitive disability in any type of classroom. Remember that each student is unique and may need additional accommodations as provided for by the IEP. However, in general, these are great accommodations to provide to all students with special needs to make their education more meaningful.

    A main goal for students with developmental disabilities is independent living. These students need to be prepared for what will happen after they graduate high school. Our job as educators is to make sure we prepare them as much as we can. Not all of the students will be able to live independently, but many of them can. The IEP team needs to decide what is best for each student.

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