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How Dyscalculia Affected My Education and Career

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I always struggled with math. It was something that just seemed to be a roadblock for me. My parents never understood why I didn’t get math. My Dad is a genius at math and can do complex mathematical equations in his head. My mum is an elementary school teacher and took it personally that I never memorize my multiplication tables. They saw how I was intelligent and gifted in many other things but didn’t understand how I could just not get math. I was constantly being accused that I was just being lazy, that if I tried harder and practiced I would get it.

In high school, I was able to pass my math classes with the help of a lot of tutoring and completing homework assignments. But when it came to the tests, I failed most of them. When I started college I had to take a placement test. Because I have trouble with math, especially without using a calculator, I was placed in the lowest math class. I had to take math classes for three years before I was able to reach college algebra and I swear to this day that the teacher took pity on me and gave me just enough points on my final to pass the class with a C.

When I graduated from college with my BA in English, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. I eventually decided that I was going to try and get into teaching. I wanted to teach English in a high school setting. To do this, I had to take the California standard test which they call the “CBEST.” The CBEST test determines your ability in math, English, and writing. I got a very high score on my English and writing, however, I missed passing my math portion by a couple of points. The math portion had to be done without a calculator and I always seemed to make simple mistakes on the exam. The numbers seemed to always switch on me and it would take me forever to do a problem due to counting on my hands or trying to do multiplication or fractions. I felt so insecure, like everyone was judging me.

I tried taking the CBEST two more times in the course of about 10 years. As I watched my peers move into their careers and life, I continued to fail. I wasn’t even able to apply for grad school and a teaching credential program without passing the CBEST, even though I was going for a single-subject English credential. During that time, I worked in a high school as a paraeducator, never quite making enough money to move out of my parents’ house. I felt “stupid” and stuck in my education and career.

It wasn’t until I was getting diagnosed with autism as an adult that I found out about dyscalculia. Dyscalculia is a specific learning disability in math. It’s associated with significant difficulty understanding numbers and working with mathematical concepts. It’s kind of like math dyslexia. Dyscalculia often co-occurs with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and dyspraxia. Some of the symptoms include difficulty with:

  • reading analog clocks
  • memorizing math facts
  • planning and being on time
  • counting backward
  • reversing or transposing numbers
  • spelling issues
  • directions or knowing left from right
  • remembering names and dates
  • calculating tips at restaurants
  • fractions and place values

When I saw this list, I had never felt more seen. I had trouble with all these things and always felt like I was “stupid” because of it. I never thought it was because of a learning disability.

My story isn’t the only one like this. Dyscalculia can often be a big barrier and hold people back when pursuing higher education. It can affect being able to pursue career paths that aren’t focused on math just because of certain testing requirements. It is not realistic to not have a calculator when doing math. Even in retail jobs, when using “simple math” such as making change, you often have a computer to tell you what change to give back. If the computer does not tell you, often calculators are available to help.

Yes, math is important in our society. However, having a learning disability in math shouldn’t hold you back when pursuing a career, especially if math is not the focus or will not be used in the position. There should also be accommodations for these tests, such as the ability to use a calculator, and being provided certain math formulas and extra time.

This past year, due to the teacher shortage, I was able to get my CBEST waived due to the college classes I had taken. I am finally able to start furthering my education and get into the career I’ve been wanting for many years. While I’m extremely thankful that a math test will no longer determine my future, I’m also upset because of all the years I lost trying to pass a math test that wasn’t designed for people like me.

Do you have dyscalculia? How has it affected your access to higher education or a career?

Getty image by Alina Vovk.

Originally published: August 26, 2022
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