I don’t know how old I was when I learned that my dad has dyslexia. It’s one of those things I’ve always kind of known. I’ve also always kind of known that he never got the support he needed to excel at school. For me it’s maths. Like my dad’s situation with dyslexia, when I was in primary and secondary school dyscalculia wasn’t a thing people paid attention to. My mum remains firmly convinced that I woke up one day, said “I don’t like maths” and decided to suck at it for the rest of my life. Because that’s a thing people with invisible disabilities do, you know, they decide that they have a problem. Please note the heavy use of sarcasm in that sentence because we do not, in fact, decide to have a problem and then it magically appears and if only we just decide not to have a problem then it will go away like it’s never been.
Do you know how embarrassing it is to have to ask people what, I don’t know, 5+8 is when you’re an adult? It is really, really, really embarrassing and uncomfortable. Generally, when I’m in that kind of a situation, I end up giggling, red as a tomato, and determinedly not looking at anyone. That does not mean that I’m playing people for a fool. It means that I’d really really really like to melt into the nearest surface before someone call tell me that I’m stupid in any possible variation. Since there’s usually some variant of “How can you not know that?! That’s so easy!” (It’s worsened by the fact that if you let me work it out slowly, and preferably with a piece of paper, I can do the sum. I just can’t do it at the drop of a hat the way everyone else can. I’m slow because it’s something I find hard.
I passed maths in secondary school. Goodness knows how, but I did. I’m not stupid. I do know how to count and do sums. It just takes me longer, in part because I always do the sums at least twice to make sure I didn’t mess anything up.
For me, that’s where things are the most recognisable, but dyscalculia is actually broader than ‘dyslexia with numbers’. “Turn left after 200 metres” is a great instruction if you a) know which way is left, b) how far along 200 metres is. Is that, like, the first turn I see or the second? No, maybe it’s the third! Wait, should I have gone to the other side? I have no idea. When I’m going places with friends or family the following is not an uncommon occurrence: “Go left. NO, THE OTHER LEFT” with an occasionally vocalised and nearly always implied “YOU IDIOT” at the end. (My friends and family love me and mostly know me, but I did kind of just almost knocked them onto the middle of the road or onto the pavement and put their safety at risk.) I was a twelve-year-old kid who still couldn’t read an analogue clock accurately. (I still can’t. Not easily.) I’m the kind of person who can read sheet music and have no idea how it’s supposed to sound and who can never get the rhythm of something down properly. To my knowledge, I’ve never seen anyone with dyscalculia in fiction outside of pieces I’ve written myself. That doesn’t surprise me. That’s exactly why people are having discussions on disability in fiction, after all. Because the representation is either bad or not there at all.
Hazel, from my flash fiction vignette Sharing Chocolate, discovers that the reason she keeps failing maths is because she has dyscalculia. It is, in some ways, one of the most autobiographical pieces I’ve written. I’ve been Hazel, and I’ve been Beth for kids with dyslexia. I’ve seen Hazel in my students. Hazel’s situation is complicated by the fact that dyscalculia isn’t the only factor at play in her low grades. She’s also a kid who’s spent a lot of time failing despite her best efforts so her issues with sums in general are worsened by that. There is an element of “I think I can’t therefore I will fail” at work purely because all her experiences have told her so. That doesn’t mean her disability doesn’t exist, though. Part of what’s autobiographical about Hazel is the feeling when she has a name for what is going on with her. That sense that whatever is going on with her ability to do schoolwork sums is real and not imaginary. Words have power. Naming something has power. Hazel is the first dyscalculic character I have ever seen in published fiction. I couldn’t not make that vignette about the power of names when dyscalculia was so unknown when I was growing up and still, as near as I can tell, pretty unknown in general. I’ve seen schools offer students who have dyscalculia more time to make any exams or tests, but that’s it.
I didn’t get any help. (I’m not bitter and I’m grateful to the maths teachers who did their best to help me. I learned. I passed. I can manage.) But the way I tackled maths class? The only way I knew how to make sense of it left me feeling like a liar, a fraud and a cheat. But it was the only way I knew how, so I took it and I did my best. Hazel’s joy at having a name, at having a chance to finally find the means to deal with her issues and make them better, at existing… That moment is such an incredibly powerful moment. How could I not write about that feeling? How could I not write about those problems which are, by far, the most well-known and discussed of dyscalculia?
At the moment, I have one another character with dyscalculia, though there it isn’t named. That character is Eiryn, the protagonist from A Promise Broken. I didn’t make a conscious choice. It’s just that one day, long before I’d even heard of the term, I wrote a scene with a little four-year-old girl struggling with numbers because they make no sense whatsoever.
Eiryn actually struggles far more than I do and, from what I’ve been able to tell, more than a lot of other people as well. It’s also contrasted with her apparent ability to read musical notation. I say apparent because though it’s present only subtly, the text of A Promise Broken shows us a girl who learns music predominantly by ear. Eiryn does have a book to make notes in and she does use it, but most of what she knows she’s gathered by ear. It’s a scene I’ve marked up for more polishing to try and make her issues with it more obvious to the reader.
Sometimes, that leaves me worried about how people will react to the way her dyscalculia has (and hasn’t) shown up in the story. Will people think that I’ve focused too much on Eiryn’s issues with numbers in general? (Have I?) Will people decry my assertion that Eiryn has dyscalculia because she’s a good musician? Will people feel like I should have taken it out as irrelevant? That I should have made it a stronger focus and drawn more in-story attention to it?
Maybe some will. Undoubtedly some will. But I think, at any age, I would read Eiryn’s dyscalculia and say “Yes, this. So much this”. I doubt child!me would have cared about anything more than seeing something she struggled with acknowledged in a story, treated as something real. As something she could take to people and say “THIS IS ME”. I think child!me would have appreciated the fact that the people who care about Eiryn try to help her without telling her that she’s stupid for struggling, or deliberately making stuff up. I think child!me would have appreciated that the story incorporated something she could try to learn with.
A Promise Broken isn’t about Eiryn’s struggles with dyscalculia, though. It’s just there. When I started rewriting the story one last time for the serial, I was afraid that I’d have to cut the scene where Orryn and Eiryn discuss numbers because it was too irrelevant to the plot. I’ve managed to keep it because it’s relevant to the progression of time and Eiryn’s personality. Ultimately, it’s a scene that shows us a glimpse of what dyscalculia is — the most well-known glimpse, admittedly — and how it may affect a person. It’s just there, affecting Eiryn’s life because it’s there.
I hope people will be inspired to learn more about dyscalculia and other (invisible) disabilities because they’ve read about Eiryn. I hope it inspires people to add to the diversity in our books and other media forms. Most of all, I hope it will touch some readers the way it would have touched me, had I had a character like Eiryn available to me when I was a child.
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