Cognitive Disabilities

Cognitive disabilities are an extremely broad category, and each day we learn more and more about them.

Learning to Process

Meet Stevie

Stevie and her friends all make goofy faces at the camera.Stevie, 31 years old, UI Designer – Stevie looks at the world and sees design. She’s very visually oriented in how she understands and conveys information and sometimes has to really immerse herself into hands-on learning to get her head around different ideas and processes. She also has dyslexia and has always struggled with communicating via writing and processing written information. Nevertheless, Stevie is very skilled in translating complex concepts and user paths into intuitive, easy-to-understand layouts.


Exercise: Mirror Tracing

Explore what happens when your eyes see one thing, but your brain tells you the opposite. This exercise simulates learning or relearning a motor skill.

Part 1 – Trace Star while looking directly at it.

  1. Find Star with “Tracing” at top.
  2. Pick up dry erase marker.
  3. Use stopwatch to time how long it takes you to trace the star.

Part 2 – Trace Star while ONLY looking in Mirror

  1. Find Star with “Mirror Tracing” at top.
  2. Use a file folder to block direct view of your hand.
  3. Use stopwatch to time how long it takes you to trace the star.
    Remember: Only look in mirror, not at your hand, while you trace this star.
Compare Your Results
  • First star shows your brain’s ability to use knowledge of the world and muscle memory.
  • Second star shows the challenge a person with a cognitive disability might face learning or re-learning a task.

Part 3 – Reset for Next Person

Please use the eraser to reset this activity for the next person.

DIY Empathy Exercises

Exercise 1: Mirror

This exercise will test your brain, to see if it can figure out what to do when your eyes tell you something different from what you’ve come to expect. It simulates learning, or having to re-learn, a new motor skill.

  1. Open the Project Neuron Mirror Tracing Game.
  2. Follow the instructions to choose a shape and trace it normally, as well as in a “simulated mirror.”
  3. Compare your results on time and accuracy. The first shape represents your brain’s ability to use its knowledge of the world and implicit muscle memory. The second shape represents the challenges someone with a cognitive disability might face learning or re-learning a task. You can also see how others did on this task in the Mirror Tracing Gallery.

Exercise 2: Aphasia

Aphasia is a type of traumatic brain injury, often resulting from a stroke. It is an impairment of language and can interfere with a person’s ability to produce or comprehend language. Imagine going to a foreign country where you do not speak the language, or you only remember a few words from your high school or college language course. You would have difficulty saying what you mean, understanding what others were saying to you, reading the language, and writing things down. This provides a little insight into what it might be like to have aphasia.
Work through one of the exercises below to experience what it might be like to confuse simple words, have difficulties reading a paragraph, or impairments using grammar.

  1. Exercise demonstrating confusion between words
  2. Exercise demonstrating difficulty reading a paragraph
  3. Exercise demonstrating difficulty using/understand grammar

Exercise 3: Cognitive Load

Cognitive load refers to how much mental effort it takes to perform a task or tasks. Driving your car on a familiar, empty country road is an example of when someone would likely have a low cognitive load. Driving a rental car in a new city during rush hour while trying to have a phone conversation with your boss is an example of when someone would likely experience a high cognitive load. Having to attend to multiple, complex tasks at once can be difficult and taxing.
Performing tasks with a high cognitive load simulates some of the challenges people with intellectual disabilities may face during their everyday experiences. WebAIM’s cognitive disability simulation attempts to provide the user with an understanding of the experience a person with a cognitive impairment might experience while navigating a website. Poorly designed webpages can increase a user’s cognitive load and make it more difficult to complete the necessary tasks.

  1. Open the WebAIM Cognitive Disability Simulation
  2. Follow the instructions to complete the tasks within the sample website.

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