You don’t need to look far to find a wildly successful person with Dyslexia; Tom Cruise, Robin Williams, Richard Branson, Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Muhammad Ali, Steven Spielberg — take your pick. If you are a young dyslexic person today there’s a broad spectrum of role models to choose from, from actors to inventors, entrepreneurs to sports stars. Each provide a shining example of how you can overcome adversity, use your failings to your advantage and follow a pathway to success. Nothing is ever easy, but it helps when someone has trodden the path before you.
Now name a few famous faces with dyscalculia?
As a quick intro, dyscalculia is a learning difficulty that affects mathematical ability. Where dyslexia covers a multitude of symptoms predominantly in the reading and writing spectrum, dyscalculia is much more specific and, as far as I can tell, largely unrelated.
My name is Paul, and I can’t count.
In every other way I’m a quick learner. I have good reading and writing ability (I’m not dyslexic at all), I’m artistic and very creative. I love science and technology, write computer code and am a great problem solver. I don’t easily let things hold me back. But very early on in my life a contrast emerged. While I found almost all other areas of learning quite easy, I had profound number blindness.
Lots of people struggle with numbers, but in most cases they just need to revisit the basics. Unfortunately for me, the basics are the problem. I have a total inability to mentally calculate — unable to answer any mathematical question without using my fingers. Ask me to remember a string of four numbers and I will repeat them back in a completely random order, if at all. I have a very limited ability to remember dates and I struggle to tell the time.
At school, back in the late 1980s and 1990s, support initiatives were just beginning to take hold for dyslexic students. A few of my friends were diagnosed and while it didn’t provide any immunity from bullying, it did help them improve their reading and writing. My problems were labelled as laziness or a lack of interest. Maths was the only class I consistently failed in, which obviously meant I couldn’t be bothered to try. I had an attitude problem. I was constantly frustrated.
In the absence of any support I leaned to hide the problem. I became an expert in avoiding situations where mental arithmetic was required, often acting the fool when asked a direct question. Cheating tests came pretty easily, and the calculator became my best friend. Over time I became confident at declaring my failings. “I can’t count, but I’m brilliant at everything else” became my mantra.
Say something enough, and you internalise it. That confidence stayed with me through University and into my business career. Today I’m very open with people about my limitations and expect those around me to know the numbers that I cannot retain. I carry a sheet of key business data everywhere I go, always on hand in a meeting or on a phone call. I have leant to use the advanced features of a calculator and spreadsheet and now, most significantly, my iPhone has all but replaced the defunct area of my brain.
My day to day professional life is actually the easiest things to handle. I suspect other people with dyscalculia have similar strategies for getting by in their job or career. Similar coping strategies dictate my personal life, but are often harder to pull off. Not unlike the Queen, I rarely carry cash (I am a walking target for short-changing) and therefore avoid retailers that wont accept cards or that have minimum spends. As much as I’d love to support the independents, Starbucks is my refuge. Ask me to read an analogue clock twice and you’ll get a crazy different answer both times, so I use my phones digital clock to keep time and rarely wear a watch.
Then there are those dreadful moments
While failing to recall your phone number is an easy problem to deflect, stuttering over your house number is harder to laugh away. Then there’s the person who asks how old your children are, whose looks become disapproving or even suspicious when you fumble for an answer. Don’t even try asking how long I’ve been married.
Personal situations like this are painful. I try to be upfront about the issue or defect questions where I can, but more often than not the excuses don’t really wash. Launching into a discussion about learning difficulties just isn’t appropriate in many situations, and even when it is, it often goes down as an excuse for stupidity or laziness. Many people I’ve met socially simply think I’m an absent father and a bastard of a husband.
In recent years there have been some spots on daytime TV programmes about dyscalculia, but it remains largely under the radar, even in schools. I can’t think of a single person in the public eye that has dyscalculia, or who openly discusses having a “problem with numbers”. An estimated 4 to 6% of the population have some degree of the disorder, so odds are that there are some successful people out there that we can look to for inspiration. Unlike dyslexia, which is now commonly understood and often worn as a badge of honour, “number blindness” is still perceived as a weakness not to be discussed. Either that or people just don’t know they have it, and so it stays off the Wikipedia page.
I may not be famous or much of a role model, but I’m putting my voice out there to be counted. Despite what other people may tell you, someone with dyscalculia most certainly can start and run a successful business. My name is Paul Fisher, I’m founder and CEO of Buyometric, and I most certainly can’t count.