Part 5 - Disabilities Affecting Cognition, Memory, or Attention

Part 5 - Disabilities Affecting Cognition, Memory, or Attention Department

Acquired Brain Impairments (ABI)


More than one million people between the ages of 15 and 28 incur head injuries each year. Head injuries, also called traumatic brain injuries, result from either external events, such as a blow to the head, or internal events, such as a tumor or stroke. Consequences vary dramatically, depending on the type, location, and severity of the injury.

Understanding the cause or type of injury is less important for educators than knowing how the brain functions after the injury. Head injuries can result in impairments to mobility, cognition, and speech that require accommodations in the classroom. In some cases, students may have limitations that are not readily apparent, and students may be reluctant to reveal their disabilities. In others, the limitations are very apparent.


Head injuries cause cognitive impairments in the following areas:

  • Memory—The inability to store information for immediate recall can occur, although long-term memory or previously acquired knowledge may be intact. This is the most troublesome for students reentering school.
  • Concentration—Distraction caused by external or internal stimuli may interfere with the ability to focus
  • Speed of response—Responding to or processing information may take longer.
  • Communication functions—Problems in reading, writing, speaking, or listening may result in inadequate communication or inappropriate interaction.
  • Spatial reasoning—Diminished ability to handle spatial reasoning functions, such as shape, distance, and position in space, may result in difficulty manipulating objects or navigating.
  • Conceptualization—Diminished ability to categorize, make a sequence, abstract information, or identify cause and effect may be evident.
  • Executive functions—Loss of planning, goal-setting, or problem-solving abilities result in losing the “big picture.”
  • Psychological behavior—A variety of problems in the psychosocial area may result.
  • Depression, fatigue, impaired social judgment, or inflexibility are also possible outcomes.

Many students have undergone extensive rehabilitation and are quite proud of their progress. At the same time, they may be painfully aware that they do not learn as easily as they did previously, and this can cause frustration. Although dramatic improvement occurs in the immediate period of weeks or months after injury, many people continue to slowly improve over long periods of time, particularly with stimulation and activity

Problems encountered by these students may seem similar to those of students with a learning disability, but there are significant differences. Although the classroom strategies listed in the Overview of Disabilities Affecting Cognition, Memory, or Attention (in Part 4 of the GUIDE) may help. The individual’s limitations may require other strategies or resources, including those offered by community agencies. Consult the DSPS Division if necessary.


Classroom Strategies

  • Consider alternatives or supplementary assignments for evaluation purposes, such as using items that require students to recognize answers rather than those that require total recall.
  • Use multiple-choice rather than fill-in-the-blank questions.
  • Accept materials in taped or visual formats, such as video presentations.


Creative Solutions

Javier enrolled in a political science class. He is bilingual and lives some of the time with his father in South America helping with a family business. The rest of the time he lives with his mother, who often travels throughout the US, Europe, and South America. He places in the above-average range on standardized tests of verbal and nonverbal intelligence and has completed extensive remedial work. Nevertheless, he is unable to read above the fifth-grade level. After getting to know Javier, the instructor was helpful with his accommodation requests.

He helped Javier obtain a competent note-taker from the class. Javier arranged for a private tutor, books on tape, and examinations with a reader/scribe. His excellent contributions to class discussions and his dictated essay answers, which demonstrated a clear mastery of course objectives, earned him a well-deserved “B” in the challenging subject matter.


End of PART 5 - Return to the Faculty Disability Resource Guide - Table of Contents

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Last Updated: 6/13/17