Dyscalculia Ambassador – Milly Moss 

The irony isn’t lost on me that I missed National Numeracy Day on 18 May, but Peter Cherry’s video about how dyscalculia affects him as an adult inspired me to tell a bit about my story.

I was diagnosed with severe dyslexia and profound dyscalculia when I was at university, having already been tested and assessed a few times throughout primary and secondary including testing my eyes and coordination.

Being a kid at school in the 90s, dyslexia was still relatively ‘rare’ and as far as I know, dyscalculia wasn’t even a term yet – there was just the notion that I was being lazy or difficult. I was made to stand on a chair until I could recite my three times tables (spoiler, it didn’t work) and after that I would excuse myself to the loo every time maths was about to start in the hope that missing just a few minutes of class would mean less humiliation.

Being ambidextrous and uncertain about which hand I preferred to write with, colour with or use craft scissors with didn’t help either. A primary teacher once threw a tennis ball at me, and when I blocked it with my right hand she said “There, I don’t want to ever see you writing with your left hand again”. It worked, but this started what felt like a long and pretty challenging relationship with education. On the whole, my teachers could tell I worked hard, there was just something… ‘wrong’… with how I learned, and it frustrated them immensely.

Peter’s experience rings true to me too, because despite later being in top sets for English, I was in ‘special’ classes for maths at primary, which really just meant four of us sat in a separate classroom writing funny stories while Mrs Symonds despaired at our futures.

When I hit secondary school, things started to pick up. I had to attend a school out of my catchment area because my local one wouldn’t accept me with the learning difficulties I had, whereas the one further out of my area was said to be good and had provision to help. When I started, my reading and writing age was around that of an 8-year-old but under their tutelage it was brought up to where it should have been and I continued to quickly thrive in English, Literature and other subjects.

But I can remember crying when I came out of my maths SAT test which placed me somewhere in the bottom 2% of learners in the country, I just didn’t understand how I could excel at some subjects and yet the questions on this exam paper were mostly meaningless to me. I can very clearly remember writing on one question, “You have not provided me with enough information to answer this question!” – it hadn’t occurred to me that the answer to the previous question set the context for this one, because the previous question hadn’t made sense to me either.

 

After two attempts to pass my GCSE in maths (and yes, probably some more sarcastic comments to the examiner), I only managed a D in GCSE and that was taken through some kind of special qualification board so to this day I’m not even sure if it counts…. 

So often I hear people say, ‘Oh yeah, I’m really bad at maths too’, but it’s not as simple as that and I very rarely explain to people just how hard I find the world, with its total reliance on numbers, codes, sequences and timetables. Numbers represent a whole bunch of different things that make up a language – one full of nuance – that I just can’t comprehend. I try to make sense of numbers through sound, and if I ever do remember numbers, times, dates or anything like that, it’s usually because I’m grasping at the sound of them – or the memory of them being said, rather than any meaning they may hold.

I’ve had some fun with my dyscalculia over the years:

  • I was around 14 when I finally learned to read a clock, and I still struggle today.

  • I turned up 2 hours early to meet my future wife on our first date because I got the time wrong (or was I just eager?).

  • I turned up two days early to get a train home from Wales because I got the date wrong.

  • During my undergrad days, when I worked in a pub that didn’t have a very techy till (it was West Wales, come on), I had to rely on drunk Kenny in the corner to yell out the change I had to give back to the customer. I didn’t last long. But thanks Kenny.

  • When cooking, I have to check the oven temperature, the overall cooking time, and individual component cooking times between 20-30 times. Everything must be timed exactly, otherwise it throws off all the other numbers. This practice was particularly enjoyable when I worked as a chef.

  • When travelling by train, I have to write down each individual part of my journey, the times between each stop, and because I often can’t understand the values or relations in values, I may need to write RUN if I have a very short stop and start at a station. So, e.g. 2:58 / 3:02 look to me like vastly different numbers, it may not occur to me that there’s only 4 minutes between the two.

  • We moved into number 1 on the road, and for the first year I sent all deliveries, takeaways and my hairdresser to number 2. This is because number 2 had a nice number plate adjoining our wall that I always visualised when I thought of home, but we had nothing to relate to on our wall, so number 2 stuck.

  • Passwords and pin numbers get changed on almost a daily basis due to my inability to remember them (or write them down).

  • Simply accessing my internet banking includes a complex routine of inputting number passcodes, letter passwords, physical contortions and verbal diatribes that can be incredibly stressful and I tend to set aside a day in the week to do it.

  • In terms of cash, I will never ever just rock up at a till with things in my hand and my purse, I will stand in an aisle, calculate the cost of my shopping and then count out my change before I even remotely get into eye shot of the cashier, and even then, I mostly prefer to pay with card.

  • I will help my horticultural society with their online newsletter any day of the week, but as soon as we have to start serving teas and coffee to the public, I dive behind the nearest rose bush to avoid having to handle change and cash – or avoid having to explain why I can’t handle change and cash.

  • Last week I tried to pay my builder £300 instead of £1,500, because in my head I had counted ‘5 lots of 3’ (£20s) instead of 3 lots of 500…or something. We’re still not sure, but he got the right amount via my wife in the end.

Those are just some of the daily difficulties and hilarities. But what I do have, as a result of sheer hard work and determination – and the presence of one amazing cheerleader in the shape of my dyslexia tutor at university – is a first class undergraduate degree in English Literature and an M.phil advanced research degree in film legislation and cultural linguistics and a career I can be proud of.

Now a fully-fledged adult, I work in marketing and communications, freelancing and juggling several clients to produce websites, digital and traditional media content, video editing, design and copywriting. And yes, that means dealing with invoices, tax returns and numbers.

Has dyslexia and dyscalculia held me back in my career? I may have chosen an interesting career path for someone with these struggles, but actually I think it makes me a better communicator, and a more sensitive one, with the ability to visualise and design things that communicates a clear message. It’s driven me to work for myself because I know how I like to work, how I like to think and learn and that doesn’t fit every employer’s mould. Dyscalculia and dyslexia affects me every single day, probably every single hour. It’s exhausting but also fascinating – my brain will see round things and problems that others may not, and that’s why I enjoy working in visual communication so much. 

I confess that my time in early education did dent my confidence considerably, I will always be wary of situations where I may need to discuss numbers, but generally I will always scrutinise a job description for any mention of maths or numeracy, and if I see it there, I’ll have an open and honest conversation with the recruiter. I’ve only ever had positive responses to this – and that’s thanks to the great people I’ve been lucky enough to work with.

 

And finally, I leave you with my wife’s favourite story from when we had just got together:

Sue: “Milly, how many bottles of wine did you buy?”

Milly: “Oh just one, and this other one”