Apparently, people don’t understand the learning disability I have. So here are a few facts.
I have dyscalculia. It’s a bit like dyslexia, of which you may have heard, only with mathematics and numbers instead of reading and letters. People have it to varying degrees. Mine leans toward severe, enough to interfere with daily life and my ability to do certain kinds of jobs.
Symptoms vary (see the link), but some of mine include:
- Can’t retain math processes. I struggled to grasp them and would forget them after being shown.
- Can’t keep score during games. This is why I don’t do it when we go bowling, guys.
- It’s hard to make change and handle money. Me and a cash drawer that has to be balanced do not get along.
- I have trouble figuring how long something will take, or how much time is needed to get somewhere–I’m frequently either early or late.
- Everyone who skated with me knows it took me ages to learn choreography. And, if we moved an ice show to the opposite rink after I’d already choreographed my program, it took a monumental effort to re-orient myself to the flipped setting. Since we never knew if this would happen, I coped by learning to choreograph in ways that didn’t depend so much on facing the audience. It got easier with time, though since I no longer skate, it’s irrelevant now.
- I have a hard time recognizing patterns. In music school, I never learned key signatures despite daily drilling. Sight reading was a nightmare made flesh. If a composer inverted a chord, I could not read it. I just sidestepped and did everything by ear.
- I can use Excel but not create a spreadsheet, because I don’t grasp the mathematics in formulas or how to apply them to a formula. You can’t use a calculator either if you don’t know what data to enter.
- Division and fractions–nope. Word problems–nope. I don’t understand what processes to apply in a word problem. If you think you don’t do this in real life, just try to estimate mileage on a trip sometime.
- If I don’t remember your name, I’m sorry; just keep reminding me until I remember. I will eventually. Sometimes I get it right off, sometimes not. But I won’t forget your face.
- Never ask me to do math in my head. If I even could, it would take much longer than if you just whipped out your phone and used the calculator yourself.
It takes much, much longer to learn simple math equations. For more than twenty years, I carried a tip table in my wallet. I did finally learn how to figure percentages–by multiplying the amount times the percentage (after moving the decimal two places to the right)–but it took me that long to grasp it.
I can ONLY do it on a calculator and ONLY this way. If you tried to show me a different method, you would break my brain (just don’t). I can estimate a tip now. What a brilliant day when I finally threw that ragged old tip table in the bin!
Along with dyscalculia, I have a touch of dyspraxia as well. I have trouble with both fine and gross motor control. These conditions are often co-morbid, meaning they occur together.
- I whack myself on all sorts of things. And trip. It’s hilarious.
- I had a hell of a time with choreography when skating or dancing due to the dyscalculia, but I also had trouble actually performing certain movements or elements.
- It took me ages to learn to whistle. Also, I could not blow a bubble with gum until well after my peers learned. My siblings made fun of me for this, but there was an actual, literal reason why I couldn’t.
- Skating improved my balance, but I still often leaned too far over or not enough.
- My handwriting starts out neat and gets bigger and less legible as I go.
- Cross stitch is easy but learning to knit has been an ordeal, and I’ve given up on crochet.
In essence, I have a hidden disability. You can’t see it. You would only know if I told you.
Things not to say to someone with a learning disability:
But you don’t look like you have a learning problem!
You can do X; why can’t you do Y?
Because it doesn’t affect all my functions. Please don’t dismiss my explanation; I know my limitations and what I’m capable of much better than you because I’ve lived with it my entire life.
Oh, I have trouble with algebra (or calculus); I must have it too.
You can do calculus? That’s marvelous, because I don’t even know what it fecking is.
You’re just saying that to get out of doing X.
When I screw up your payroll, you’ll never say this to me again.
Oh, I could teach you!
If you are not a certified special education teacher or education therapist, I doubt it. I’ve worked with these folks and it didn’t help much. It probably needed to happen when I was a child.
Dyscalculia and dyspraxia are static conditions. This means I’m stuck with them for life. There will always be things I cannot do. I can never get a job with accounting or statistics. Although I love science, I can never do that kind of work. Despite many attempts, I was never able to learn to play the piano.
Early intervention might have resulted in a better outcome for me. However, at the time, educators remained unaware of these conditions and had even more trouble identifying them in an otherwise intelligent student, especially one who seemed gifted in other areas. Teachers frequently told me I was lazy, or unmotivated, or accused me of not liking math. Well yes, most people dislike things they can’t do.
But these issues don’t affect my intelligence. I regularly outperformed my peers in spelling, writing, and verbal ability tests. I read at a twelfth-grade level in second grade. I don’t have speech issues, which can occur with dyspraxia. I don’t have ADHD. I’m a whiz at writing procedural documents–I’ve had to develop this skill in order to learn sequential processes I need to do at work. I can write novels.
I’m not just my disability. Nobody is.
Support and Resources for Adults with LD — Learning Disabilities Association of America