2002 Conference Proceedings

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COGNITIVE DISABILITIES AND ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGY: A CONSUMER'S PERSPECTIVE

Christopher M. Lee, Director - Georgia Assistive Technology Project: Tools for Life
1700 Century Circle NE, Suite 300
Atlanta GA 30345
(404) 638-0388
christopherlee@mindspring.com 

Carolyn P. Phillips, Assistive Technology Specialist
Tools for Life
1700 Century Circle NE, Suite 300
Atlanta GA 30345
(404) 638-0389
carolynpphillips@mindspring.com

In order to show the social relevance of our presentation we have provided the following statistics:

50% of all students in special education in the public schools have cognitive disabilities - 2.25 million children! SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education 1992

35% of students with cognitive disabilities drop out of high school. This is twice the rate of their non-disabled peers. ( This does not include the students who are not identified and drop out.) SOURCE: National Longitudinal Transition Study ( Wagner 1991)

60% of adults with severe literacy problems have undetected or untreated cognitive disabilities. SOURCE: National Adult Literacy and Learning Disabilities Center 1994

50% of juvenile delinquents were found to have undetected cognitive disabilities. SOURCE: National Center for State Courts and the Educational Testing Service 1977

Up to 60% of adolescents in treatment for substance abuse were found to have learning disabilities. SOURCE: Hazelden Foundation, Minnesota 1992

62% of students with cognitive disabilities were unemployed one year after graduation. SOURCE: National Longitudinal Transition Study (Wagner 1991)

31% of adolescents with cognitive disabilities will be arrested 3-5 years out of high school SOURCE: National Longitudinal Transition Study ( Wagner 1991)

Individuals with cognitive limitation face a variety of hurdles, from struggling to form each letter of a word, copying from a checkbook to make sure their name is spelled correctly, as well as dealing with the frustration of trying to read to their own child or not being able to realize that they have been given the wrong change at the grocery store.

These are just a few of the hurdles that people with cognitive disability share. They have the intelligence to accomplish all of these tasks - they have just not found the means to accommodate their needs. But, there are ways for them to reach their goals if they have the appropriate support. Such is our purpose - to provide information on assistive technology for individuals with cognitive limitations and their providers.

Assistive technology is an important piece of the whole support system individuals with learning disabilities require to achieve success. Exactly what is assistive technology (AT)? AT is any item, piece of equipment, or product that is used to increase, maintain or improve the abilities of individuals with disabilities: tools to promote independence across all areas of daily living. These common tools extend from low-tech, low-cost items to high-tech, more expensive devices. Low-tech devices require little or no training; high-tech devices may require extensive training.

Technology can affect the lives of people with disabilities in daily living, whether it's in the classroom, at work, in the home, or in other social settings. Technology provides, in other words, valuable tools for life. The simplicity and ready availability of low-tech devices should not be overlooked. Inexpensive color highlighters, for example, can help individuals with reading difficulties distinguish words that appear the same, like proud, pound, and pond. Providers help the student highlight the troublesome words in different colors and make the reader visually aware of the differences between these words. Such training leads the student to a higher level of awareness of his/her disabilities. High-tech devices, such as an optical character recognition (OCR) system, provide a means of entering text or printed material directly into a computer by use of a scanner. Once the text has been scanned into the computer, it can be read back to the user by means of a speech synthesizer. Another useful accommodation is a speech recognition system. Appropriate for adults with cognitive disabilities, the system operates in conjunction with specially equipped personal computers. Such programs enable users to dictate to the computer, converting oral language to written text.

New technological systems and their applications continue to evolve rapidly. In the recent past, technologies now applied to individuals with learning disabilities were originally developed for people with other disabilities. OCR programs, to select one example, appeared at first for individuals with visual impairments or blindness. Only recently were these programs found to be effective in the cognitive disability community.

Technology in itself is not the answer to all problems faced by people with learning disabilities or for their service providers. Technology does, however, provide valuable tools for life. Those seeking technological assistance should focus not on the device, but on what the device can do for the individual in need. The fit must be right. The biggest or most expensive may not always be the best fit. The key to selecting the most appropriate tool involves many elements: seeking a thorough team evaluation, finding the resources to obtain the technology, customizing the technology to make the best fit, and providing the time as well as the patience for training.

Broadly defined, the term cognitive disability has been used to describe a variety of problems in acquiring, storing, and/or retrieving information. People with cognitive limitations have difficulty taking information in through the senses and processing the information with accuracy to the brain. The information becomes scrambled, like a short circuit, a distorted radio signal, or a fuzzy television picture. Hidden disabilities occur irrespective of race, culture or class. People with cognitive disabilities possess average or above average intelligence levels; however, the disability is often confused with other difficulties including slow learning, retardation, emotional and/or behavioral disabilities.

Thought to be a neurological based disorder, cognitive disabilities are not the result of visual, hearing, and/or physical disabilities; mental retardation; emotional disturbance; acquired brain injury; ineffective instruction or lack of motivation to learn; cultural background; and/or socio-economic conditions. Cognitive disabilities can be genetic or acquired and may accompany other disabilities such as deficits in sight and hearing. They may also be the result of birth trauma, low birth weight, lead poisoning, fetal alcohol syndrome/effect, and long-term chemical dependence.

The inaccurate sensory transmissions to the brain may often lead to difficulty learning and performing in training and job settings, as well as to emotional instability. The most common manifestations occur in the areas of reading, writing, and/or mathematics, subsequently affecting a broad range of skills and functions. Additionally, manifestations are commonly found in attention, reasoning and processing, memory, oral communication, coordination and motor functions, social competencies, and executive functioning skills such as organizing, problem solving, prioritizing, and self-management.

This condition is the most neglected, most misunderstood disability due to its hidden nature-and there is no cure. However, with appropriate accommodations and training strategies, the person with learning disabilities can learn to take advantage of strengths and minimize weaknesses, and thus enhance the potential of success in training and employment environments.

Without reasonable accommodations, the person with cognitive disabilities is presented with innumerable barriers. The inability to demonstrate skills adequately results in poor performance evaluations; stress related health problems, and job instability, not to mention the unrealized productivity standards of the employer. Without appropriate education and training, there are few employment opportunities which allow advancement.


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