I was 33 when I started talking about my dyscalculia. One of the overriding memories I have of this time is talking on zoom with a close friend. I felt embarrassed and ashamed to explain that I had never passed a Maths GCSE and that I would have to attend an adult education centre to re-sit it. I remember the buzzing in my ears, the heaviness in my stomach and the struggle to vocalise words and feelings that would prefer to remain unspoken. It reminded me of something similar I went through with the same friend some twelve years earlier when I came out as gay. In fact, I still refer to first talking about my dyscalculia as my ‘second coming out’.
Lifestyle changes triggered by the pandemic forced me to face my dyscalculia. Prior to 2020, I had been teaching comparative literature at a university in Turkey. I had been in a relationship which had ended badly, and I was struggling to find work back in the UK. I was hauled up at my parents’ house with the signs and symbols of my adolescence all around me and no moving out date in sight. It felt as if my previous independence and freedom were now a thing of the past and that dyscalculia was condemning me into a new state of perpetual adolescence.
I had made a career decision which at the time seemed to make sense: to draw on my years of teaching English as a foreign language in Istanbul, my PhD in comparative literature from Edinburgh University and my time teaching at universities in Turkey to retrain as a secondary school English teacher. However, I soon found that this was not a wise choice after all. I was ineligible, because of my lack of a Maths GCSE which was of course down to my dyscalculia.
Dyscalculia, pronounced to rhyme with Julia, affects 6% of the UK population (roughly the same amount as dyslexia), and can manifest in difficulties understanding place value, memorising numerical facts, reading numbers and mental calculation. The UK’s only organisation dedicated to supporting the 2-3 million children and adults with dyscalculia, the Dyscalculia Network, estimates that research and awareness of dyscalculia is about ten years behind its more famous sibling, dyslexia.
Anecdotally I can believe this. When I first explained that I had not passed my Maths GCSE with those that interviewed me for a teacher training course I was met with a puzzled look – ‘what is dyscalculia? We work in education and why haven’t we heard of it?’. In actual fact, some of the Dyscalculia Network’s Board of Trustees have been researching, writing and campaigning on dyscalculia for about thirty years yet none of this work seems to have reached the eyes or ears of our Prime Minister. His proposed ‘Maths to 18’ policy has made no concessions to the millions of kids struggling with dyscalculia in classrooms up and down the country. It is still baffling to me that there are many maths teachers in classrooms up and down the UK that have received no training to deal with dyscalculia.
It wasn’t that dyscalculia had not appeared in my life up until this point but, like one of the Dyscalculia Network’s resident experts Cat Eadle was later to tell me, I am ‘an effective masker’. I often avoided maths like the plague and used calculators practically every waking moment of my life. I can remember many occasions secretly sneaking into toilets to calculate bills. In the days when paying with cards was less common, I would often habitually put down a big, round number knowing that I didn’t need to worry about calculating the exact amount. Money had always been a secret source of anxiety for me as I shifted between periods of intense frugalness and overspending. Dyscalculia also appeared in my persistent habit of being late to things or, as even today, missing a bus because I misread the numbers. Then there are all the other ways numbers are in our lives that affect people with
dyscalculia, from calculating amounts for a recipe, to keeping track of reps during exercises, all the way to counting calories when dieting. To remember PIN numbers, for example, I have to associate them with a historical date, like 1453 for the Ottoman invasion of Constantinople, 1917 for the Russian Revolution or 1945 for the end of World War II.
I think masking is something of a toxic trait of mine. Whether it refers to my sexuality or my dyscalculia, I find it a little too easy to put up a front or hide my true feelings. I grew up in a town in West Sussex where the local secondary schools were still gender segregated. At my school, boys were expected to be good at maths, science, and technology – it was even emblazoned on the school tagline which referred to itself as a ‘school of enterprise and technology’. In assemblies, the headmaster even spoke of boys’ natural affinities to all things mathematical and technical.
I, on the other hand, was a voracious reader who excelled in English and often won the best marks for the subject in my year group. It was my abilities in English versus my performance in maths that had first led primary school teachers, and my concerned parents, to refer me to an Educational Psychologist when I was 10. I had been ‘diagnosed’ (a word I don’t like this as it implies something was wrong with me) with dyspraxia and dyscalculia. Recently, I found and re-read the assessment. I couldn’t help laughing when I read how I had sought to distract the educational psychologist with maths questions by talking about a book I was reading and something I’d seen on TV.
This was the time when the word ‘gay’ was still a byword for anything rubbish, bad or lame. English was most certainly a ‘gay’ subject and sometimes it felt its status was confirmed by the fact that I seemed to be good at it and terrible at maths. I used to lie to friends and classmates about the fact that I had to go to the ‘special educational needs’ centre for maths – ‘masking’ it with stories about how I actually had to go for special classes as I was so gifted at maths!
This kind of shame lasts a very long time. I was reminded of those feelings on that zoom call. I winced as I thought about that walk into the special needs centre I took every time I had Maths. I used to feel everyone was watching me as I made way into the centre. It felt like I was stepping across some threshold in which everyone outside was functional and ‘normal’ and I was marked as somehow deficient or lacking. I wondered what sort of mystical alchemy was in other peoples’ brains that meant they understood all these things like percentages and mean values. It all looked like people could interpret another language that I was excluded from.
Those thoughts and that shame returned in the adult education classes. Every Thursday, I went to those lessons and saw adults whose lives and achievements were on hold because they hadn’t yet managed to get that magical C grade. These were adults who spoke other languages, had raised children, or dipped into novels while they waited for their maths lessons.
The conditions were bad: at one maths class I attended, there were four computers to be shared around thirty students. The classes comprised of those who were clearly dyscalculic, those who were not educated in the UK but needed a Maths GCSE for work to those who had evidently led difficult lives up to this point but were trying to turn things around. I was able to switch to a class closer to my home where there were more computers, but the over-stretched teachers admitted they’d never taken any training on how to support people with dyscalculia. Surely most adults there had dyscalculia whether it had been detected or not? A few people on those courses told me how they’d studied subjects like English or Art or History at university, but maths had just always alluded them and so, while their friends progressed with careers, they felt doomed to take endless maths courses – like a particularly heinous ring of Dante’s Inferno.
I was lucky and a job opportunity outside of education emerged for me. I was able to drop those Maths classes and I still don’t have a Maths GCSE.
But I live with the constant fear that I’ll lose my job, face employment insecurity again and be back in one of those maths classrooms. We underestimate just how brave you must be to be different in some way or not fit societal expectations of achievement. And I still think of the bravery of some of those people in that class sitting their maths GCSEs multiple times. My respect is surpassed only by the anger I feel at the lack of resources: the broken computers, crowded classrooms, and overworked maths teachers with little to no training in dyscalculia support. Is this really a system that is ready to be extended to 18?
I think the only way I can effectively deal with these feelings: to reject the shame and deal with the anger is resist the urge to mask. This is why now, months from turning 36, I’ve turned into something of a dyscalculia activist in my spare time. Becoming involved with Dyscalculia Network has shown me that there are many more like me out there that are quietly suffering with everyday maths or struggling to find work due those pesky, wretched Maths GCSE grades so beloved of our lawmakers. My view is unequivocal: numeracy is a crucial part of our lives, but the GCSE system simply does not work for many. Government time and energy is better spent on a system focused on numeracy skills for life and an alternative to the GCSE.
I hope it’s only a matter of time before dyscalculia is a word firmly ingrained in our common consciousness. A matter of time before dyscalculia can be as widely known and researched as dyslexia, or even other forms of neurodivergence. I don’t feel we live in a society that is sensitive to those who struggle with numbers and maths. Rather than forcing them to feel shame with GCSE re-sits or to study till they’re 18, how about we create a system that supports them with the skills they’ll need to excel in life and empower them to use numeracy to thrive. How about we help those with dyscalculia feel that they don’t need to mask?
The Dyscalculia Network is a Community Interest Company founded in 2019 by two maths teachers and dyscalculia specialists, Cat Eadle and Rob Jennings. We are the only organisation in the UK dedicated to raising awareness of dyscalculia and maths difficulties, supporting employers, educators and parents with dyscalculic employees and children, and empowering and advocating for adults with dyscalculia and maths difficulties.
The Dyscalculia Network hosts the UK’s only exclusive dyscalculia specialist assessor and tutor list connecting adults and parents to the services they desperately need. We also provide training for employers, educators and parents through online and in-person CPD events and,through our social media, we amplify the voices and concerns of people with dyscalculia. We aim to make life easier for people with dyscalculia and to make them feel seen and heard.
Peter Cherry works as a Communications Officer for an NGO in Moldova. He volunteers for the Dyscalculia Network and is a member of both its ‘adults with dyscalculia’ advisory team and general advisory board. He also has worked as a teacher of English to speakers of other languages, a bookseller and as a lecturer at universities in Turkey and in the UK. He has written an academic book, Muslim Masculinities in Literature and Film, published by Bloomsbury based on his PhD which he completed at University of Edinburgh in 2017. His dream is to one day write a book about dyscalculia.
Peter tweets about dyscalculia and more besides at @peterjcherry