Special Education

What It’s Like to Struggle With a Little-Known Math Disability

By Lydia McFarlane — June 15, 2023 | Corrected: June 16, 2023 9 min read
A group of high school students work together to solve the problems in their textbook during their precalculus class at UCLA on Jan. 21, 2020.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story misstated Kendal Cladek’s current educational status. She is a college student.

Dyscalculia is a learning disability that few people have heard of or understand, even though it affects roughly the same amount of school-age children—about 5 to 8 percent—as the well-known learning disability dyslexia.

While dyslexia affects the ability to read, students with dyscalculia experience difficulty in mathematics and number-based learning. These students can have trouble grasping meanings of numerical symbols or understanding spatial processing such as the rotation of an object in their mind.

Nationwide, only about 15 percent of students have been screened for the disability, yet many more seem to be struggling, especially now as schools work to close learning gaps widened by the pandemic. According to a nationally representative survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center in April 2023, about 40 percent of math teachers nationwide say that their students are performing below grade level in math.

While the term “dyscalculia” was coined in the 1940s, it did not become more widely known until the 1970s. Research on the disorder picked up in the 1990s with the widespread use of MRI technology, but it’s still not widely understood, according to advocates.

Five adults with dyscalculia spoke with Education Week about what it was like to struggle in K-12 schools with a disability that was largely unrecognized and how they had to learn to accept their disability and get the help they need.

Dyscalculia affects everyone differently

Dyscalculia broadly affects an individual’s understanding of mathematical concepts, but the severity of the disorder and the tasks and concepts that each person struggles with vary.

Kendal Cladek of Washington state, who graduated from high school in 2020 and was diagnosed with dyscalculia in 5th grade, noted that “dyscalculia can affect anyone regardless how someone looks or acts.”

Kendal Cladek, a 2020 high school graduate, was diagnosed with dyscalculia in 5th grade. While she initially struggled with the diagnosis, she has since realized that facing adversity at such as young age has made her a stronger and more successful person.

Svetlana Roseberry, a recent high school graduate from Greenville, S.C., was diagnosed with dyscalculia as a high school senior after struggling with math through her entire educational experience. Even outside of the classroom, dyscalculia affects her life today. She said everyday tasks, such as counting, reading clocks, and understanding directions have always been difficult for her.

“If I have to pay for dinner, I don’t really know how to tip people,” said Roseberry. “Graduating from high school to college, you should probably know that by now, but I don’t know how to do that.”

In the classroom, it is difficult for mathematical concepts to stick in her head, no matter how long she studies.

Nate Peters, who graduated from high school in 2012 in Galway, N.Y., had a similar experience. While he was diagnosed with a learning disability in high school, no one put the name “dyscalculia” to it. He was not diagnosed with dyscalculia until 2016. Although he was dedicated to studying and doing well, he could never remember the mathematical material he spent hours memorizing.

“I would kill entire evenings from 7 o’clock until 1 a.m. [studying] and come in the next day [to school], and it’s [the material] just not there,” Peters said.

While Nate Peters had an IEP and learning disability identified while in K-12, he was not diagnosed with dyscalculia until he was well-removed from high school.

Throughout school, Peters also struggled with standardized testing because of his learning disability.

“Those terrify any person without a learning disability,” Peters joked. “I already knew I was going to bomb any state testing that I had to take that in any way concerned itself with mathematics.”

Peters said he believes that standardized testing practices need to be changed for students with learning disabilities because of the way that he struggled while in K-12.

“Extra time doesn’t always cut it as far as providing accommodations,” Peters said. “You can’t just test someone from memory when it’s literally incapable of being stored in their long-term memory. Giving someone extra time to sit there and not recall something does not get to the heart of the issue.”

Anna-Maria Hadbah was diagnosed with dyscalculia in 2019, in her senior year of high school. Although she is now a STEM major, taking up biology at the University of Michigan, she has struggled with math her whole life.

Her experience with dyscalculia differs slightly from Roseberry’s and Peters’, showing how the diagnosis exists on a spectrum.

“My brain speeds up when I am looking at numbers,” Hadbah said. “I will definitely mix numbers up and letters. Algebraic equations will confuse me.”

Because of her difficulty with numbers, she takes a lot of extra time when working on school assignments to ensure she gets everything correct.

Anna-Maria Hadbah has struggled with math her entire life, so she was relieved to be diagnosed with dyscalculia during her senior year of high school. Now, she is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in biology despite her difficulty with mathematical concepts.

“I will double and triple check to make sure everything is fine before I turn in an assignment,” Hadbah said. “Definitely [I need] a lot of reassurance and a lot of time to remind myself, ‘OK, don’t rush into it because if you rush you’re going to mess things up.’”

Self-esteem issues and dyscalculia

Navigating growing up alongside academic demands is a difficult phase of life for anyone. While going through puberty and life changes, students also must learn how to socialize and find their friend groups. Throughout K-12, many students focus on fitting in, while also trying to figure out who they are. Having dyscalculia adds one more challenge to the demands of growing up, juggling academics, and making friends.

“The hardest part of having dyscalculia in my K-12 experience was dealing with a disability on top of the normal aspects of growing up,” Cladek said.

She struggled with accepting her reality as a student with a learning disability.

“Growing up with dyscalculia greatly affected my self-worth and not feeling like I am enough,” said Cladek, who is now a college student. “If I could only be able to fit in with the rest of the kids and not have this anxiety and frustration every time I look at a math problem on my worksheet, then I’ll be enough, was a common thought I had.”

Others related to Cladek’s experience of dealing with low self-esteem and struggling with self-acceptance. Roseberry remembers how embarrassed she felt because of her inability to do math at the same level as her peers.

“When it came to other people knowing math a lot easier than I did, I would think ‘I should probably know this, but I don’t,’ and it’s embarrassing,” Roseberry said.

Hannah Pikula, another former students diagnosed late in her K-12 career, has fond memories of schooling, especially high school. But she still remembers feeling different from other students before receiving her diagnosis.

“I think there’s a sense of otherness especially if you haven’t gotten a diagnosis,” Pikula said.

Hadbah spoke about being overly concerned with what her peers thought of her and of those thoughts being magnified by feeling so different from them.

“Feeling and thinking like I was slower than everybody else,” Hadbah shared when asked about the hardest part of navigating K-12 with dyscalculia. “Having the fear of ‘if I ask this question, everyone’s going to think I’m stupid.’”

Accommodations and dyscalculia

These adults, whether they received their dyscalculia diagnoses while in K-12 or not, all had Individualized Education programs, or IEPs, while in school. IEPs legally require the school district to accommodate the students’ learning disabilities, but these former students said that this was not always the case with some teachers.

“Despite the diagnosis, it was a battle to get my accommodations followed by every teacher because they didn’t understand how badly I needed them,” Cladek said.

While some of the adults told Education Week that their accommodations were respected, Cladek had the opposite experience. Because it was a new diagnosis that not many people understood, she struggled to get teachers and students to believe how badly she was struggling with math.

“I didn’t feel supported ... but by going to other outside professionals, I was able to have others step in and advocate for me and introduce the school district to support me in the best ways that work best for me,” Cladek said.

Svetlana Roseberry, a recent high school graduate, was diagnosed with dyscalculia her senior year of high school. Because she struggled throughout her K-12 education, she was happy to finally get to the root of the problem.

Roseberry also said that teachers thought if she put extra work and time into the material, she would catch up to her peers.

“My brain doesn’t understand how [the math] works,” Roseberry said. “[Teachers think] ‘everybody can do math.’”

The diagnosis helped

While receiving the diagnosis can be scary, it was actually helpful for these adults.

Once diagnosed, they were able to use resources that were available and understand why they struggled so much with math in school. They advised students struggling with math to get screened for dyscalculia as early as possible. Those who were diagnosed late in high school or after graduating from high school, in particular, said they wished they were diagnosed earlier.

Roseberry was diagnosed later in her high school career, but she felt relieved once she finally found out that she had dyscalculia.

“When I thought about it, I was happy that I got diagnosed with it,” said Roseberry, who is now a college student. “If you get diagnosed with it, try to get resources or the help that you need.”

Peters was not diagnosed until a few years after high school.

“Once you know what it is you can kind of get to the heart of the issue,” Peters said. “I really do think if they put some emphasis on actually diagnosing if someone has dyscalculia, I really do think that would benefit a lot of students.”

Pikula agreed.

Hannah Pikula was diagnosed with dyscalculia late in her K-12 career. After graduating from high school in 2009, she is happy to see more resources provided for students in K-12 with dyscalculia today.

“Being able to be more open to getting an IEP or looking into how you learn as an individual is a life skill,” Pikula said.

Some said the diagnosis can bring a sense of closure and relief after struggling for so long but not knowing why.

“I literally broke down in tears, because my entire life I was telling myself, ‘I’m stupid,’” Hadbah said.

Words of encouragement

As graduates of K-12 schooling, these adults offered words of encouragement and advice to students who may be going through similar experiences. They want other students to know they are capable of surviving school as well.

Because it was such a large obstacle to navigate, Cladek said having dyscalculia taught her how to overcome adversity and adapt to a difficult situation.

“The emotions you experience during cognitive development along with recognizing there are areas that require more effort and more time to fully grasp can make it more difficult to learn, but it will show you how to effectively deal with challenges and still have a good education experience,” Cladek said.

She said that navigating through the challenges brought by dyscalculia only make an individual stronger and more successful.

“The challenges you face only make you more successful if you don’t let it define you,” she said.

Pikula encouraged others to not be discouraged and know that no space is off limits to a person with dyscalculia.

“People that have this way of thinking see things very differently and uniquely and should be invited into more conversations that you would think they wouldn’t excel in,” said Pikula, who is now a social media manager. “People with dyscalculia can become engineers, they can become scientists.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2023 edition of Education Week as What It’s Like To Struggle With A Little-Known Math Disability

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