Melissa R. Coleman, a medical assistant in Nicholasville, Kentucky, is severely learning disabled in mathematics. Learn about her struggle and her triumphs with dyscalculia.
Much of my education seems like a roller coaster ride in retrospect. I walked into my kindergarten classroom feeling like a child paying his ticket on his first big fair ride. My days were spent playing, reciting the alphabet, and counting to ten. By the time I started first grade, I felt like a fish out of water in a very structured classroom run by an ambitious teacher with high expectations for academics. My long struggle had begun.
My elementary school days were spent doing the best I could to understand and deliver what was asked of me in all subjects. After school my parents found themselves struggling to help me understand content. Like the plunging lows of a roller coaster, there were many nights I cried in frustration and fatigue because I could not solve math problems.
I can’t recall how many times I have “learned” to tell time. I remember many evenings with my parents trying to convince me that a dime is worth ten pennies though it is one single coin, and that four quarters is equal to a dollar bill. When I could count the money placed on the table before me it was mine to keep.
The thrilling peaks of my roller coaster were reached when I learned to read and I discovered my love of words and books. With extra help from my parents, I managed to make A’s and B’s in all my subjects until I started in the seventh grade.
When I brought home my first C in math on my middle school report card my mother found a high school student to tutor me after school. My mother also “grounded” me, convinced that I was merely making careless mistakes. I did well in my non-math subjects and was in the school’s gifted and talented program. Determined to do well, I was tutored throughout the following school year and struggled to maintain a B average in middle school math.
During freshman year of high school, the math work suddenly became more complex. My music teacher spoke to my mother about mistakes I made transposing notes and other seemingly careless errors on written assignments. Since I could readily give the correct answers verbally, my teacher was concerned that I might have dyslexia. This made my mother consider remarks my Algebra teacher made about my errors in copying problems from the textbook, reversing numbers and positive and negative signs, and skipping or reversing steps to solve equations. Still doubtful, I was soon to undergo lengthy academic testing.
When we received the psychologist’s report that I do in fact have dyscalculia my reaction was a blend of relief and anxiety. I was comforted in knowing that there was an explanation for my difficulties, but I was fearful of being labeled. Despite my strengths, I was aware of the social stigma all too often placed on those with learning disabilities. Nonetheless, I anticipated the next step: deciding where to go from there.
My mother met with my teachers, guidance counselor, the school principal, and the LD faculty. The psychologist’s report had suggested curriculum modifications, and my mother discussed these changes at the meeting. She also expressed for me the desire I had to remain in the course of study designed for college preparation, emphasizing my past academic performance and numerous extracurricular activities.
The LD staff gave us their full support. My Algebra teacher, a patient man in his first year of teaching, heartily agreed with the modification suggestions and was an advocate for my remaining in “regular” classrooms.
My chemistry teacher, on the other hand, made the comment that he didn’t understand why the school should go to so much trouble for a student with a disability; that I wouldn’t be capable of gaining admission to a college or university. I was upset by his attitude and frustrated that this teacher was the only chemistry teacher in the school. But at least I had access to the textbook and could read independently if I was enrolled in the course.
In the end I remained in all the classes, but received modified instruction that was kept confidential among those who were present at the conference and myself. In Algebra, the modifications consisted of a reduced number of homework problems and short breaks to allow the information to be stored in long term memory. My grade was determined in the same manner as the other students, based on the number of points possible for the amount of work I did. In class, I took the same tests as the other students. My teacher assured me that he would not give me one single point I did not earn. I’m proud to say that I earned consistent B’s in Algebra. This dedicated teacher also succeeded in teaching me to tell time and I’m sure I will never forget how again.
I was permitted to take Geometry during summer school so that I could have more individual attention and work with a computer. The sacrifice was summer vacation, but the reward was making straight A’s on my assignments.
I graduated from high school a year early, completing the requirements by taking English composition and English literature by correspondence. Not only was I accepted at each and every college I applied to, I was offered academic scholarships by all, including one of the best private colleges in the state.
As a college student, I encountered instructors that were hesitant or refused to make modifications for my learning disabilities. There have been countless times that I wanted to throw in the towel and give up, but by gaining knowledge about my disability and the instructional techniques that help me learn, I’m able to advocate for what I need.. I have focused on my strengths and developed my talents and interests for my overall good.
Today when I tell someone that I have a learning disability I receive mixed reactions. Some think I’m not as intelligent as I seem, others presume my disability is very mild. Both are wrong, for I have come to know that I am extremely smart and also that I have severe difficulties when facing math.
It’s my roller coaster, complete with dips, hills, peaks, and loop-da-loops. But I have learned how to grip tight when I feel like I’m going to fall out. I hope that researchers will continue to develop better methods for early detection and that educators will continue to provide early intervention.
I hope people with learning disabilities will continue to access to information about their special needs and that competent instructors will not give up on children with learning disabilities and their families. I hope society will remove the stigma that often prevents these children from reaching their potential and personal goals for their future. I hope that children and adults without learning disabilities are educated about disabilities so that they can offer valuable peer support.
In the end, I hope all those out there with learning disabilities acquire what is needed for them to hang on during their own roller coaster ups and downs. I will continue to double check calculations and look twice at numbers, and I doubt that math will ever come easily or fail to produce some amount of anxiety for me. But I will also continue to hang on.