Employer's Guide to Hidden Disabilities

Cognitive/Learning Disabilities

"Cognition" refers to "understanding" – the ability to comprehend what you see and hear, and to infer information from social cues and body language. People with these impairments may have trouble learning new things, making generalizations from one situation to another, and expressing themselves through spoken or written language. (Disability Law Resource Project)

(For the purpose of this guide the phrase “cognitive disability” does not refer to developmental disabilities or mental retardation, nor does it include cognitive impairments associated with old age. Here we are referring to the cognitive disorders that would likely present themselves in a professional employment situation.)

Below are definitions for some of the disabilities related to cognition. Remember, they are only considered disabilities under the ADA to the extent that they substantially limit one or more major life functions.

Asperger’s Syndrome – A neurobiological disorder similar to autism and characterized by serious deficits in social and communication skills. People with Asperger’s Syndrome often have obsessive, repetitive routines and preoccupations with a particular subject matter.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) - A neurobiological condition characterized by evelopmentally inappropriate levels of attention, concentration, activity, distractibility, and impulsivity.

Sensory Integrative Dysfunction - the inability to take in information through senses (touch, movement, smell, taste, vision, and hearing), to put it together with prior information, memories, and knowledge stored in the brain, and to make a meaningful response. This impairment may co-exist, or even be the result of, other disorders such as learning disabilities, ADHD, autism, or brain injury.

Specific Learning Disability – “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using spoken or written language, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or to do mathematical calculations". Learning disabilities do not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities; mental retardation; or environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage. US federal code (Section 300.7(c)(10) of 34 CFR Parts 300 and 303)

Dyslexia - a language and reading disability that causes people to have trouble understanding words, sentences, or paragraphs.

Dysgraphia - a disorder that causes difficulty with forming letters or writing within a defined space. People with this disorder need extra time and effort to write neatly. Despite their efforts, their handwriting may be almost illegible.

Dyscalculia - a disorder that causes people to have problems doing arithmetic and grasping mathematical concepts. While many people have problems with math, a person with dyscalculia has a much more difficult time solving basic math problems than his or her peers.

Dyspraxia - a problem with the body’s system of motion that interferes with a person’s ability to make a controlled or coordinated physical response in a given situation.

Visual Perceptual Deficit – Difficulty receiving and/or processing accurate information from the sense of sight, although there is nothing wrong with vision. May have difficulty picking out an object from a background of other objects or seeing things in correct order.

Auditory Perceptual Deficit – difficulty receiving accurate information through auditory means, even though there is no problem with hearing. The problem is in how the brain interprets what is heard. May have difficulty understanding and remembering oral instructions, differentiating between similar sounds, or hearing one sound over a background noise.

Tourette's Syndrome (TS) is an inherited, neurological disorder characterized by repeated and involuntary body movements (tics) and/or uncontrollable vocal sounds. In a minority of cases, the vocalizations can include socially inappropriate words and phrases -- called coprolalia. These outbursts are neither intentional nor purposeful. Involuntary symptoms can include eye blinking, repeated throat clearing or sniffing, arm thrusting, kicking movements, shoulder shrugging or jumping.

Acquired Brain Injury can significantly affect many physical, cognitive, and psychological skills. Physical deficit can include ambulation, balance, coordination, fine motor skills, strength, and endurance. Cognitive deficits of language and communication, information processing, memory, and perceptual skills are common. Psychological status is also often altered. Adjustment issues are frequently encountered by people with this disability.

Brain injury can occur in many ways. Traumatic brain injuries typically result from accidents in which the head strikes an object. This is the most common type of traumatic brain injury. However, other brain injuries, such as those caused by insufficient oxygen, poisoning, or infection, can cause similar deficits.

Impact of Cognitive Disabilities in the Workplace

Cognitive disabilities like the ones listed above can impact an employee’s basic skills, social skills, or both. In some cases the “academic” areas such as reading, writing, and math are affected; in other cases the employee has difficulty reading social cues and interacting with people. Other problems that may exist include inability to manage time, restlessness, distractibility, poor memory, and the need for extra time to complete projects.

It is important for the employer to know that these are real disabilities – no less real than visual, hearing or mobility impairments. One of the most frustrating things for people with cognitive disabilities to deal with is the disbelief of others regarding the authenticity of their problems. Individuals with cognitive disabilities are of average or above average intelligence, yet often they are treated as “stupid”. In many cases they work much harder than their peers to achieve the same results, yet they are sometimes seen as “lazy” or getting “special treatment”. Accommodations such as a flexible schedule, screen-reader or quiet work environment are no different for someone with a cognitive disability than a wheelchair is for a person with a physical disability.

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Last Revised August 27, 2003.
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