Top image: Magda Ehlers/Pexels
My first memory of struggling with math dates back to kindergarten. While my friends played outside during recess, I counted blocks and revised the number line with my teachers indoors.
When I moved up to Primary school, the disparity between my grades for math and my other subjects became glaringly apparent. My mother tried everything––group and individual tuition classes, Andrew Er assessment books, practice papers from every school and any teaching resource she could get her hands on.
When fractions were introduced in Primary 3, I had every teaching tool imaginable: coloured rods, blocks, toy pizzas, magnetic pies, the list goes on. But I continued to consistently score much lower in math, and my grades got worse every year. Despite all the teachers I encountered, none recognised the telltale signs of dyscalculia.
We lived in complete ignorance.
In Primary 6, I experienced my first panic attack during a math exam. I sat there completely frozen, my heart beating out of my chest. I read and reread the question before me, but nothing seemed to make sense. I left that exam with most questions blank and a “sorry” scrawled hastily on the last page.
For a long time, I couldn’t understand why my efforts failed to translate into results. At twelve years old, I lacked the emotional maturity to properly process the guilt and disappointment I felt. So I doubled down on practising math. Hard work, I thought, would get me out of this.
In preparation for PSLE, I spent all my time on math at the expense of my other subjects. At one point, I had three different tutors helping me.
Once, after one of my tutors gently told me to prepare for the very real possibility that I might fail, I hid in the stairwell of her HDB flat and cried.
For children with learning or behavioural disabilities, an early diagnosis can make a world of difference. Defining the disability not only allows for a more targeted approach to management and intervention; it also validates their emotional struggle.
Children with learning disabilities are already vulnerable to feelings of anxiety and depression, but when disabilities remain undiagnosed, these feelings become even more abstract and confusing. How can a child overcome an obstacle when its shape is so blurry and undefined?
Dyscalculia is a learning disability that affects an individual’s ability to “process numerical information, learn arithmetic facts and perform accurate calculation.”
In other words, I have no “number sense”.
Whatever internal instincts you might use to calculate the change in your wallet, estimate the length of a door or guess the number of cookies left in the jar—I don’t have that.
Even now, as a twenty-four-year-old, dyscalculia affects my daily life. I have trouble estimating time, which makes me chronically early or late. Sometimes I can’t tell which of two numbers is bigger, especially when decimal points are involved. Following a map or GPS is hard because I can’t gauge distance. The 20% off sale sign means nothing to me until I use the calculator app on my phone. And since it takes me a good minute to read an analogue clock, wristwatches are just fancy bracelets.
But like many other disabled people, this is the only reality I’ve ever known. So I developed coping mechanisms: counting my coins out loud to pay for my kopi (20cents plus 50 cents is 70cents plus another 30 cents is 1 dollar), using myself as a reference for height (if I am 1.65m, the door must be at least 2m), using my fingers to keep track of the number of hours I’ve worked (1pm to 2pm, 2pm to 3pm, 3pm to 4pm is 3hrs).
I usually explain dyscalculia as “math dyslexia” because dyslexia, a learning disability that affects reading and spelling, is more widely known in Singapore. Perhaps because of this larger awareness, people with dyslexia have more access to intervention programmes, diagnostic assessments and school support.
The Dyslexia Association of Singapore (DAS) currently has fourteen centres islandwide. There are also smaller learning centres like Singapore Dyslexia Intervention Services and Dyslexia Inc, all of which offer a range of literacy classes to children with dyslexia.
Parents with dyslexic children can also find support groups on Facebook, and DAS even has an outreach branch that provides awareness talks for schools.
In contrast, no learning centre dedicated to dyscalculia exists, and there are no support groups available. The awareness of dyscalculia remains low, even among teachers trained in special needs support.
Given that early diagnosis and intervention is critical in managing learning disabilities, this disparity in awareness and support has significant, enduring consequences for people with dyscalculia. As someone who was not diagnosed until the age of fourteen, I have felt the full extent of these consequences.
This world is made for reading
To better understand the level of awareness of dyscalculia in schools today, I spoke with Kay (not her real name), a primary school teacher with training in special needs support. She shared that the NIE training programme she participated in in 2016 focuses mainly on managing autism, ADHD, and dyslexia.
Other learning disabilities like dyscalculia or dysgraphia were only briefly mentioned in the general reading. Many teachers have to rely on self-sourcing research to better understand their symptoms.
This imbalance in awareness and support afforded to dyscalculics is mirrored worldwide. In the US, the relative poverty of dyscalculia research is reflected in the National Institute of Health’s $2.3 million funding for dyscalculia versus the $107.2 million spent on dyslexia research.
In a report published by John Beddington during his time as the UK government chief scientific adviser, he reinforces how “dyscalculia is currently the poor relation of dyslexia, with a much lower public profile. But the consequences of dyscalculia are at least as severe as those for dyslexia.”
It’s hard to pinpoint the root cause of this imbalance, although some researchers have speculated that the urgency for literacy triumphs that of numeracy––apparently, it’s more important for someone to understand a sign that reads “danger” than it is for them to calculate their change accurately.
The relief of diagnosis
The year I was diagnosed, my math grade had pulled down my overall score so much I failed to meet the requirements to move on to Secondary 3. As a result, I was asked to leave school and transfer elsewhere. My mother and I went from school to school, begging different principals to give me a chance.
Everything changed when the therapist I saw to manage my anxiety suggested an assessment for dyscalculia. Before her suggestion, neither my mother, teachers, nor I had even heard of this condition. My therapist, a licensed psychologist, administered two tests: the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children and the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test.
The tests reflected a “significant discrepancy between [my] IQ scores and performance on math tasks”, which led to the conclusion that my profile is “consistent with someone who has quite severe dyscalculia.”
The official diagnosis validated years of struggle. I wasn’t “too stupid to do math”––I had a legitimate disability. Identifying and acknowledging my condition completely shifted my perspective.
Upon receiving my report, my school also graciously arranged for math to have a lower weightage on my overall score, which helped me meet the requirements to move on to Secondary 3. (I acknowledge that this is an option not afforded to everyone. Because I was in an independent IP school, this arrangement was made possible after many discussions and other requisites like meeting a particular grade for my science subjects.)
Slowly, I was able to manage better the feelings of frustration, disappointment and guilt that had built up over the years. My self-esteem steadily grew, and the bouts of anxiety I was experiencing became more infrequent over time. By freeing up the time I spent on math, I was also able to nurture my strength and love for the Humanities.
Hard work is literally not enough
As a person with dyscalculia, the hardest and most bitter truth I’ve had to swallow is that sometimes, hard work and perseverance is simply not enough.
When I moved on to Secondary School, the disparity between my performance in math and other subjects grew even wider. While I flourished in subjects like literature, I found it even harder to grasp abstract mathematical concepts and perform complicated calculations without visual aids like models.
To make matters worse, the topics often built on each other, so the more I lagged, the more impossible it felt to catch up.
As I grew older, I also became more cognizant of how people responded to my weakness in math. Once, when I had to step out of class because I had another panic attack during a math exam, a classmate of mine said I was “faking it.”
Teachers openly expressed disdain for my poor performance and actively hindered my participation in other academic programmes because they felt I needed to spend more time improving my math.
When a tutor told me off for “cluttering” the page with workings, I explained that I had to physically write down numbers to process them. He responded by growing even more irritated, dismissing my explanation and declaring, “If you don’t work harder and become better at math, you will never be successful.”
Serious lack of intervention programmes
I felt the full weight of those comments and used them to fuel my belief and determination that I could compensate for my lack of natural talent with hard work and perseverance.
Now, with the gift of hindsight and maturity, I’ve realised that I was wrong––no level of diligence could have helped me completely overcome my disability. We simply cannot apply “hard work” as a blunt instrument to eradicate the effects of innate disabilities. Much like how a blind person can never learn to see, someone with learning disabilities cannot change how their brain processes information.
I say this not to disparage or belittle myself but to reinforce the need for structural and societal change. Currently, no special curriculums or exemptions are available to students diagnosed with dyscalculia.
Meghann, a teacher at Dyslexia Inc who coaches a few dyscalculic students, shared that her students still have to attend regular math classes along with their peers even when they lag far behind.
For parents with dyscalculic children, “there’s pretty much nothing they can do except send them for special classes where they teach math more slowly.”
Additionally, dyscalculic students are only offered extra time during exams on a school by school basis, unlike dyslexia, where an exemption for Mother Tongue is possible through an appeal with MOE. Since diagnosis is not widespread, there is also no standardised intervention programme locally or internationally.
At the time of publishing, MOE hasn’t responded to questions regarding current support schemes in place specifically for dyscalculics.
For developing literacy, educators typically use the Orton-Gillingham method for intervention which was developed specifically for dyslexics. However, due to the absence of intervention programmes designed for dyscalculics, the Orton-Gillingham method had to be adapted for numeracy intervention. It has achieved varying levels of success, but without sufficient data and funding for research, it’s hard to tell if another approach would be more effective.
The lack of awareness surrounding dyscalculia results in many knock-on effects––underdiagnosis, insufficient data, the lack of targeted intervention programmes and a scant budget for research. These factors reinforce each other in harmful and vicious cycles where young students suffer most intensely.
Without an infrastructure of support (financial, emotional and otherwise) in place, children with dyscalculia and other less known learning disabilities are often held to stringent or traditional definitions of success that invariably stifle and suffocate their potential.
Ableism and society
My experience as someone with dyscalculia comes from a position of privilege. My middle-class family could bear the cost of my extra tuition classes, therapy sessions and professional diagnosis. Because there are no financial support schemes available for parents with children who have learning disabilities, this is a burden we cannot assume everyone can take on.
Importantly, my parents were supportive throughout and never pressured me to score well. Unfortunately, not all children with learning disabilities have such understanding parents.
But an official diagnosis brings about a separate, additional problem: perceived deceit and dishonesty. The complete lack of awareness and understanding of dyscalculia results in people (teachers, peers, acquaintances) insinuating or directly claiming that I am lying about my disability and had paid a professional to write an expensive letter which let me “get out of” doing math.
These allegations continue to follow me well into adulthood, even after I’ve graduated university and joined the workforce. Frankly, they still bother me. I’d much rather someone think I was stupid than brand me as a liar.
I also can’t help but feel indignant––what do you know about what I’ve been through? But this fear of being seen as dishonest is still deeply ingrained in me, which is why I don’t particularly appreciate talking about my disability (and why writing this article lies far, far outside my comfort zone).
This “if I haven’t heard of it, it doesn’t exist” approach to disabled people, especially those of us with invisible disabilities, is but one symptom of the deeply rooted ableism in Singaporean society.
The instinct to dismiss and invalidate the existence of lesser-known disabilities reinforces the frequent infantilisation of disabled people. It also successfully feeds into the idea that a non-disabled person’s limited knowledge is more valid than our lived experience. This adds to the pressure disabled people frequently experience to “perform” our disabilities just to be respected.
In order to move the national conversation about learning disabilities (and all disabilities) forward, we need to step away from scepticism as a starting point. Instead, our engagement with the disabled community needs to stem from a place of fundamental respect and belief in disability rights and empowerment.
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