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Shooting for the Stars: Jo’s Experiences with Dyscalculia, Bookkeeping and Archery

Summary

Inspired by seeing a newspaper feature on ‘Neuro-Variety’, Jo Condon shares her experiences of growing up, masking and then coming to terms with her struggles with maths. She tells us how software and applications have helped her qualify as a Bookkeeper and in her hobby of archery.

I was born and started school in the 1970s when neurodiversity wasn’t really talked about, if at all.
I have never been able to do maths. I lose track when counting. I need visual aids (my fingers) to help count. I have difficulty in recognising patterns and placing things in order. I tend to reverse numbers.

Being made to feel ashamed: Dyscalculia in maths classes

My most vivid recollection of school is having to sit a maths test in primary school. I hadn’t got a clue and sat there for what seemed like an eternity until I spotted the answer book on the teacher’s desk. As young as I was, I knew it was wrong but when she stepped out of the classroom, I pretended to sharpen my pencil with the old-fashioned desk mounted pencil sharpener on her desk and copied down some of the answers. It didn’t enter my head that she was fully aware of the fact that I wasn’t capable of getting any of the questions right. At the next lesson she called me to the front of the classroom to hand back my workbook and asked me to explain how I’d worked out my answers. Obviously, I couldn’t, and the shame was unbearable; I can still feel my tears and burning cheeks. The words, “thick,” “stupid,” and “lazy” then followed me throughout the rest of my school years, and those feelings stayed with me.

I am now in my fifties and still can’t do maths; my mind goes blank. I cannot keep score or figure out distances. My husband has to help me with the timings of more complicated meals (think Christmas Dinner) and even though I was in floods of tears because of the tutting I heard coming from one of our guests as he left them to join me in the kitchen one Christmas Day, I chose not to say anything. I was too ashamed.

Despite all its horrors and the loss of my mum, the COVID pandemic, perversely, gave me something positive; the move to card/contactless payments. I have never been able to work out my change; working in a bar to get me through college was never going to happen.

Dyscalculia at work

I began my working life as a medical secretary in a local GP surgery and then moved into medical publishing. It was there that I overhead one of the managers discussing some of the interviews he had recently conducted. He was laughing about the fact that he had thrown some mental arithmetic questions into the mix and that he was pleased his preferred candidates had been able to answer him as, otherwise, they would have been shown the door. After all, why would you want to employ anyone who couldn’t perform basic arithmetic? I was so grateful that he had not been one of the people who interviewed me, and I spent the rest of my time with that company avoiding him whenever I could for fear of him finding out my secret.

Since then, I’ve had a lot of jobs in various industries and have always managed to keep my secret. In 2018 I became a Fellow of the Institute of Administrative Management; I was the second person in the history of my company to gain Chartership and I was so proud.

‘One of my greatest achievements’; dyscalculia and qualifying as a Bookkeeper

Unfortunately, however, shortly afterwards circumstances dictated that I had to take on the responsibility of bookkeeper and I was forced to do the one thing I hated. I didn’t want to resign, and my line manager kept saying that she believed in me, and I could do it, so I decided to go to night school. I figured that when I failed the exams, I would be dismissed, and the matter would be out of my hands. It was the hardest thing I have ever done and there were lots of tears along the way.

To cope, I had to go over and over and over every lesson we had been taught in the hope that something would stick in my memory. When it came to the numbers themselves, I learned to regard them as pieces of data that I could put into a piece of software. Excel and Sage became my friends and knowing that they would take care of the maths in the background somehow got me through and in 2019 I became an AAT Qualified Bookkeeper. The qualification is roughly equivalent to A Level study and to me it’s, without doubt, one of my greatest achievements.

Dyscalculia, archery and self-acceptance

A woman with a bow and arrow about to shoot towards the target. Jo has dyscalculia and has found a supportive community through archery.

Software was and still is my saviour and embracing it has allowed me to do something I never thought possible. In September 2023 I signed up to a beginners’ course in archery. There was, however, one hiccup; I hadn’t thought about needing to keep a record of my scores. As soon as I realised that it was a necessity the old feelings of shame and embarrassment hit me, but I didn’t want to give up something I enjoyed so much so, for the first time ever, I confessed to a group of strangers that I can’t add up. It was nerve wracking and I felt sick, but no-one batted an eyelid and immediately took over, recording and calculating my scores for me.

I’ve now found an app that keeps a tally of my scores so I can concentrate on my shooting without worrying and I’m continually improving. I’m still slow at entering the numbers and then transferring the information over to our paper scorecards but I’ve been nominated to become the club’s treasurer, despite everyone knowing I can’t add up, and because of their attitude and belief in me I’m happy to do it; I’ve already got the software lined up!

Whilst I haven’t been able to afford diagnostic assessments and, indeed, have often asked myself why I should spend huge sums of money on getting an “official” diagnosis at my age, curiosity eventually got the better of me and since the middle of last year I’ve completed a number of free online screening tests. I consistently score high for dyscalculia. So, it turns out that I’m not “thick, “stupid” or “lazy.” I’m just different and learning and accepting that seems to have changed my mindset. I don’t feel ashamed anymore.

‘You’re just different. Be proud: it’s what makes you, you’

The front cover of an industry magazine we have in our office caught my eye recently as it had a colourful illustration of a brain and led with the headline, “Neuro-Variety”. I picked it up and started reading. It was the first time I have seen dyscalculia mentioned in the press. I have no idea why but that sparked something and, knowing that Neurodiversity Week was coming up, I decided to write something about dyscalculia on my LinkedIn page. The Dyscalculia Network spotted my post and asked me if I would consider sharing my experiences. I cannot tell you how good that has made me feel and how grateful I am that there is an organisation out there who are actively spreading awareness about this issue and helping to change people’s perceptions.

Things are changing, and for the better. So, if you are living with dyscalculia or other forms of neurodiversity, please don’t beat yourself up. Try not to let anyone else do it for you either. It’s hard but there are things and people out there that can help you overcome some, if not all, of your challenges; you just need to find them. And don’t be ashamed. You’re just different. Be proud; it’s what makes you, you.

Read more Case Studies here – https://dyscalculianetwork.com/insights-events/case-studies/

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