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Education and Brain Injury


Many adults who have suffered a brain injury do not seek assistance from the Disabled Studies office when enrolling for higher education. They should provide their documentation, reports and register with the DSS office. I have come to view my so-called disabilities as abilities and I base my achievements upon them. Brain injury (while very different) should not be viewed by the disabled student as anything different than blindness, a limb amputation, a learning disability, or other disability which must be dealt with to persevere. While they know that they are different from others in many ways, they often believe that they can succeed without such assistance. They fight for normalcy and many do not want to admit they are not normal, as the word equates to the general student population. The reasons given for this vary but many rationalize their deficits as producing less interference with their ability to learn. Composition skills are extremely important for the success of a brain injured student. All brain injured students are intellectually disabled although the number (brain regions effected) and severity of the deficits differ from one to another. Problems with writing is one of the most striking and persevering deficits of the brain injured. Teachers in a course requiring composition, like the CSU system requires of every class, will find themselves dismayed or perplexed by the apparent inability of the seemingly normal student to organize and write. Tasks that seem simple to the teacher will be said to be understood by the student but accomplishing the task as called for turns out to be virtually impossible.

Most who teach composition are not usually well educated in the more complex dynamics of the symbolism involved in written expression and the specific difficulties these present the brain injured. The skill of writing is premised upon clear knowledge of the complexities of American Standard English rules. Usually taught in elementary, middle and high school, many of the first year students I see in my first year composition class still do not have a good grasp of the rules and, when handwriting an essay for diagnostic purposes of for an exam, this lack of knowledge becomes disturbingly conspicuous. The skill of writing is based upon the knowledge of the language system and then further upon the skill of reading. All of these skills may have been impaired by brain injury. Rehabilitation efforts almost never adequately address these skills in adequate depth. For older adults with experience writing complex documents, writing becomes an over-learned skill and is usually retained after brain injury.

Our educational system, particularly at the university level, naturally places a high value on written language. Even foreign language students are expected to adhere to the written demands of the university system and American educated brain inured students may be and usually are seriously and deeply challenged. Most first year students regard the first year required composition course, called GEW 101, as just another perquisite they need to get at least a grade of C in before they move on. The same course may epitomize a virtual barrier to a degree goal. While it may be easy to blame the brain injured student for failure because no identification was made as a disabled student, the excuse is farcical under the circumstances. The brain injured student, who has achieved great leaps ahead after months and often years of rehabilitation, may not be aware of the depth of their deficits. Unfortunately, some rehabilitation professionals do not recognize the depth of regional damage.

Our communication is commonly based upon the written word rather than voice. Whether it is text messaging, e-mailing, notes, stickies, or formal correspondence, our inner and outer worlds are charged with words. Given the value placed on word usage, anyone who has a problem with this, especially at a high level, are at a disadvantage. Educators, used to teaching classes full of relatively normal students, often do not know how to recognize an intellectual disability, much less individual learning disabilities and brain injury. Brain injury is not always obvious. The most common apparent brain injury disability is a speech deficit, the next is a limp, tremor, or tic. Intellectual disabilities (for purposes of ADA accommodations) are far less detectable. When our teachers expect reasonably skillful writing after the first year, they commonly assume a disabled student will be registered with the DSS office and will make herself known to seek accommodations.

In a class of thirty students, it may be presumed that there will be at least one disabled student. The possibility the student will be a brain injured student is more remote. But brain injured students tend to talk about their brain injury to peers. The student may be seeking understanding, recognition of normalcy, acceptance or some other like reason. Too often, teachers fail to recognize disability using the student’s writing as a source to do so. The in-class diagnostic essay is a way to detect a writing disability. The student who has a disability that effects her writing will present an essay in which the spelling, punctuation, grammatical, structural and organizational problems will permeate the writing. The handwriting may appear childish, with unusually large letters and more like a scrawl than careful penmanship. Performance on computer generated writings will be inconsistent. There will likely be a great difference between in-class writing and computer produced writing. While learning disabilities may be detectable by studying the spelling, letter transposition and sentence structure problems, the brain injured student writing problems will be quite different.

Poor organization, tangential points of discussion, misinterpretation of the essence of the writing prompt, misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the meaning of textual evidence, misuse of quoted text, miscomprehension of assignments and text, and inclusion of unrelated information are some of the problems that may be seen in a brain injured student’s writing. Spelling, letter transposition and other learning disabled issues are not often seen in the brain injured student’s writing unless she had a pre-existing learning disability. A composition teacher should arrange a personal meeting with a student who exhibits these issues and inquire about the possibility of a disability. Some disabled students will resist the suggestion of disability if previously undiagnosed.