Last month I was chatting with my partners family before sitting down to a rather impressive Sunday lunch (Dave’s mums cooking is quite literally an art form perfected!). Nana was commenting on my artwork and how she too is a natural born illustrator, she said it was one of the things that she is good at along with maths. I have always known Nana is naturally gifted with drawing, ever since I saw her “doodle” a perfect face in less than five minutes. Yet her strong mathematical ability surprised me. Not as any reflection of her personally, just because I always believed that creatives are typically baffled by numbers. This is certainly the case for me. I am a dyscalculic which essentially means I am dyslexic with numbers rather than words. Dyscalculia can affect a person in numerous ways (pun intended, sorry not sorry). From struggling to work out the correct change when making and receiving payments, to mixing up numbers, and struggling to estimate time and measurements. Like many dyscalculics I do not know my times tables as I have trouble remembering basic math facts, I can’t do simple equations without counting on my fingers, and I find calculators difficult as I type in the numbers in the wrong order and confuse my equation signs. The best way I can describe it is this:
Imagine what it would feel like if all the road signs you need to use to navigate a journey, were written in a language you didn’t understand. What if then, the passenger in the car is staring at you as if you’re an idiot for not knowing which direction to take despite it being written in front of you.
That’s what it feels like when I am faced with numbers. My mind goes blank, I can’t work out what to do with them to get the answer I need and so I become embarrassed and anxious.
During our conversation I mentioned that I couldn’t work with numbers at even a very basic daily level and I was met by a lot of surprise given my academic background which includes data analysis and MSc level statistics. I didn’t realise that my innate inability to understand numbers was not always obvious to the people around me. Then again, up until very recently, I have been hiding this learning disability by actively avoiding numbers. I’ve turned down jobs because I would have to manually work out customers change. I’ve lost nights of sleep from anxiety when starting new jobs incase someone notices I can’t work with numbers. I even became so panicked by my maths GCSE’s that I had a panic attack and stopped attending the maths tests. Even now I don’t count my change at supermarkets so I simply don’t know if I’ve been given the right money. I pay for as much as I can using my card (the same pin number is easier than counting change). Dave checks the measurements of my artwork for me as I get confused when reading inches and cm’s on the same measuring tape. It’s not just the daily issues I avoid either. I lied on my entry interview for university and have lied in all jobs I have applied for, because I don’t have a C grade maths GCSE…but I don’t think I should have to.
Yes it takes me longer to work out my figures, and no I didn’t enjoy statistics at uni, but I did get through it. I graduated at the top of my class in both my degrees, and I still scraped a 2:1 in my Masters despite my statistics dramatically letting me down. I think the comment I got on my thesis in my methods section (where I explain the maths behind the data analysis) was “not sure what you did there?“. I clearly understood how the stats should work but still got the wrong answer, I then later repeated the same equation and found the correct answer but did not amend my first conclusion…because I didn’t notice that the numbers were different. Yet I’ve travelled on my own across the world, navigating multiple flights and bus routes and departure time tables; and I now run my own business. I also do all the maths that everyone else has to do like pay my rent in full and on time, budget for my food shopping, petrol, and other expenses. It is possible for me to function in society with dyscalculia, yet I still shy away from admitting that I can’t understand basic maths.
As an artist, I wanted to highlight dyscalculia because it’s often completely unheard of and let’s face it, it’s not the first thing that springs to mind when pursuing a career in the visual arts. Yet numbers are really important in art, particularly as an independent artist. I must price, measure, and sell my own work, calculate commission fees, material costs, and postage; as well as keep precise records of all my accounts. The latter of which includes working out expenses, income, and how much money I need to put aside for my tax returns and National Insurance contributions each year. I deal with cash at events, and I pay a variety of percentage fees when I sell works across different online platforms. Paypal, etsy, ebay, and my website for example, all take different commission rates when I make a sale. For me, these are all daily struggles that have me second guessing myself, and poor Dave often has to check and double check all my figures for me as even using a calculator can give me the wrong answer. I even find myself emailing him a copy of emails before I send them to clients to check that I have not underpriced my work in the quotes I am giving them. I’ve lost a lot of money by underestimating the time it will take to create a piece of artwork for someone, or got my numbers mixed up and charged someone £2.00 in postage rather than £20. Thankfully it’s never been my clients that have had to pay for my mistakes, but I wish I didn’t have to either.
The other reason I wanted to blog about dyscalculia is because it’s not very well known. Everyone knows what dyslexia is, and it’s accepted as a learning disability. Dyscalculia on the other hand is not as well known and so is less understood by the average person despite it being a learning disability. It wasn’t until I left school that I found out about it- all throughout my childhood and adolescent life I thought I was stupid. I would frequently get laughed at for not being able to work out very basic equations, which enhanced my embarrassment and anxiety. It’s peoples disbelief in my poor maths skills that made me spend my entire life trying to hide it. It wasn’t until I was in my mid twenties that I voiced my issue with numbers publically, purely out of frustration. When I was working in a shop I became so distressed by the pressure of working out someones change that I blurted out “I’m dyslexic with numbers!” whilst I was red in the face with anxiety and just wanted to cry. I quickly found that as soon as you liken it to something people understand (or at least recognise), they back off and give you the space you need to work it out correctly. That’s all it takes, a little more time and a little less scrutiny. I’m not dumb, I’m challenged in a way most people don’t understand but I’ll get there in the end…I prove this to myself every day.
I always assumed that creative minds were wired differently to academic minds-that if you could draw then chances are you couldn’t work out maths and vice versa. Nana has proved me wrong with this, and so I think it’s about time I accepted that my dyscalculia is in fact a learning disability and not some floaty “natural order of things” that I should laugh off or hide. Although my issue with numbers continues to cause me anxiety, I now refuse to be ashamed of it and I work very hard to pursue every avenue of my creative dream despite the difficulties numbers throw my way. I hope that my account here has shed some light on what living with dyscalculia is like, and how maths plays an important role for artists. More than anything I hope that anyone who recognises these traits in themselves can breath a sigh of relief- dyscalculia is a thing, and it’s not that much of a big deal. Just take your time, double check your answers, and don’t be afraid or embarrassed to ask for help. Through being an independent artist, I’m learning to be proud of my daily maths achievements and stop feeling so embarrassed and ashamed and scared that someone might notice. So what I can’t do maths quickly (or sometimes at all)? Since what has that ever stopped me?
If you identify with my maths struggle and would like to know more about dyscalculia you can do a free online assessment here.