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Why Using a Calculator Does Not Help My Math Disability

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When I say I have a math learning disability, most people don’t believe me. I have heard responses such as, “But you’re so smart!” I have had other people say, “Doesn’t everyone struggle with that?” The worst piece of advice I have ever gotten was, “Why don’t you just use a calculator?”

Calculator usage on tests and homework assignments is an approved accommodation. For simple math calculations such as addition, subtraction and multiplication it is helpful to some extent. However, for me, it is of little use beyond basic math skills. The problem is not the calculator; my brain has trouble processing the steps needed to complete more complex math concepts. I can put the numbers in, but I cannot put the formulas in the calculator.

This has not been for lack of education. I had excellent teachers who tried to teach me, to no avail. I can remember doing flashcards but still cannot tell you basic math facts off the top of my head. I have written the steps down for problems but still couldn’t get the right answers.  My parents spent many tearful homework sessions with me trying to understand math.

My math disability did not get easier in college. I struggled with math classes, even with tutoring and a calculator. My dad has always said, “You’re smart, they just haven’t found a way to teach you math.”  I have found other ways to be successful in school and other areas of my everyday life. I had to learn these skills through many failed attempts, different strategies, repetition and patience. Math has never been something I could understand.

I also had people tell me that I should get a job as a cashier. I would patiently explain I have a math disability. The responses have been, “You don’t need to think. The register does the thinking for you.” The cash register may give the information, but I would be helpless if the registers were down. I would also be unable to tell you how much money would be in the drawer after my shift. My processing speed is slow and I am unable to multi-task. I could not handle a line of customers, run a register and bag groceries.

I do know retail is possible for people with disabilities. What I don’t like is when someone sees one person with a disability performing that job, and they think everyone with disabilities can do it. Each person with a disability has things they are good at and things they struggle with. People with disabilities have individual interests and goals. Transition services such as employment, education and living arrangements need to be customized to the person.

My brain works differently because of my learning disability. I have to learn things in an alternative way and it may take me longer to grasp certain concepts. I also need more repetition to learn things. Despite interventions, some skills such as math will always be a struggle for me. I am glad I have a supportive family and friends who have encouraged me to do new things. Each person in my life provides support in different ways. My parents were my biggest advocates and caregivers. The school provided education and strategies for my disability. My friends provided acceptance, encouragement and new experiences. My husband is understanding and encourages me to do other things such as art and traveling to new places.

Accommodations such as calculator usage on a test may be a useful tool, but it won’t fix my disability. I have accepted my disability and have found ways to compensate.

Getty image by wichayada suwanachun.

Originally published: February 6, 2020
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