Cognitive Disabilities

  1. As a general rule, you can expect individuals with cognitive disabilities (i.e. mental retardation) to behave linguistically much like younger persons with normal intellectual functioning.
  2. Be aware that there is a high rate of speech and hearing disorders that in many cases may go undiagnosed for individuals with mental retardation. Therefore, an inability to answer a question, cannot automatically be assumed is the result of just cognitive challenges.
  3. Wording of questions is extremely important. More commonly used words are preferred. Use of concrete language may be critical for greater understanding with these individuals.
  4. Structure of questions should also be kept as short and simple as possible. Beware of the use of complex questions with multiple ideas. However, know that individuals with cognitive disabilities can generally understand more advanced linguistic forms (receptive), without being able to fully express themselves.
  5. Visuals, drawings and communication boards can also assist in effective communication.
  6. If when asking a question you do not receive a related response, it is oftentimes better to repeat the question in the identical form that it was originally asked. It is sometimes helpful to allow an individual to hear the question several times before resorting to rephrasing. Rephrasing a question too soon can result in increased confusion, and can decrease the validity of a response.
  7. Avoid yes/no questions for similar reasons as you do with younger children, (i.e. the effects of acquiescence). Individuals with mental retardation may answer affirmatively when the answer is unknown or even in cases when the affirmative response is later invalidated by other sources because of fear, or unclarity.


Am I really understanding the ability level of this particular individual?

Are my questioning and materials appropriate for the situation?

Ability levels of Individuals with cognitive disabilities can sometimes be deceiving, if you are not careful to consider all of the Pre-Interview Concerns.