Being an Adult/Musician with a Learning Disability – by Josie Duncan

My name is Josie and I am a twenty-three year old folk singer with dyscalculia. Being a full-time musician is a total privilege because I get to sing for a living – I really love it. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do and the past few years have been some of my favourite yet! As well as performing, a musician has to be able to manage their own finances and schedules in extreme detail. Most of my fellow musician pals find this to be the most taxing component of life as a musician, which is to be expected when it comes amid a run of satisfying, enjoyable and often hugely exciting jobs. However, to someone with dyscalculia, the mundanities and odd jobs associated with administration can quickly become overwhelming and very difficult to manage.

Dyscalculia, also known as number dyslexia, has a negative impact on numeracy, rather than literacy. ‘Number Dyslexia,’ however, is an over-simplified term. As well as affecting maths skills, Dyscalculia affects your sense of directionability to read maps and interferes with your sense of time. The combination of these things often causes us to find simple things more overwhelming than they ought to be.

Dyscalculia has been researched far less than Dyslexia or ADHD, so it is likely that only the most severe cases (like me!) are diagnosed. I am a full-time musician who cannot read music. I am a woman in her twenties that cannot read a clock. Turning shame into humour makes things lighter and much funnier, though it is easier said than done. I am aware of how easy reading a clock is to most people but to me it is an indecipherable circle full of lines, numbers and moving components.

Getting places on time is very important as a musician. Despite all of the negative associations with our generation, I am so thankful to be a millennial. Having my mobile phone work as my 12 hour digital clock, my map and my calendar is a huge help. Twenty years ago I don’t think I’d have been able to do what I do.

Dyscalculia is hard to explain because I don’t know how it is to not have it, but I’ll give it a go. When I am writing down a number (for example, trying to log in to online banking) my inner monologue spits out all of the numbers in the wrong order as I try to copy down the correct one. Have you ever tried to write down a number and had somebody try to put you off by saying random numbers out loud? My own brain essentially does this to me. The only way I memorised phone numbers as a child was along to the number tone. Turning a series of numbers into a song is very beneficial as it then becomes words, rather than numbers.

Learning disabilities are often associated with children, which is strange as they are rarely something that we grow out of. This is coming from someone in their twenties who has the ability to get lost in a corridor, cannot read a bus timetable or even recall her own pin number. There seems to be a cloud of shame that hangs over adults with learning disabilities and I find this frustrating. I have so many funny stories of situations that I have found myself in because of my terrible sense of direction or time due to my learning disability.  

I want to raise awareness of ‘Dyscalculia’ because knowing you have the issue can help you take positive action when faced with a difficult situation. Adults suffering from Dyscalculia are more likely to find themselves in financial trouble as it can be harder to gauge the value of sums of money. My personal solution to this is simple: if in any doubt, consult somebody with a number brain! These people are everywhere, however consulting someone means admitting that you’re somewhat on the maths struggle bus. If you are, welcome aboard!

Receiving a diagnosis at the age of 19 was somewhat of a relief to me. It made me feel able to tell people what I needed help with when I was studying and also allowed me to laugh at it. I had been struggling with musical theory (particularly thinking of chords as numbers rather than the specific chord name) in my first year of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. I knew that it wasn’t a case of ‘not trying hard enough’, but that’s how itseems to tutors and if you’re told that often enough, you may start to believe it.

In my test for dyscalculia, I ended up in fits of laughter at my display of mathematical ineptitude. I was laughing so much that the lovely lady examining me ended up in tears of laughter too. I could hear myself saying ‘four add five is…’ and I knew that the answer was obvious, but I didn’t know what it was. Leaving her office, I walked in the oppositedirection to the way I had arrived, presenting her with an opportunity to confirm the diagnosis, and point me in the right direction.

Here are some signs that you may have one of the most under diagnosed learning disabilities:

• You are TERRIBLE at maths
• Clocks can be difficult to decipher
• Following a map is challenging
• Time management takes a lot of effort
• You are creative
• Budgeting doesn’t come easily
• You find it hard to remember dates
• You always seem to have to change your password for online logins
• You don’t often remember peoples name upon meeting them only once
• You’re not sure how much a house or a car would typically cost
Know your strengths! Within my bands, I enjoy social media roles because they are based on visual communication. No maths involved. I was surprised to learn that this is something many of my pals struggle with, and it taught me that we all have our strengths. I also do the song research in the  bands I am currently a part of. This involves speaking to lots of people, digging through books and then usually consulting more people. I then pass on the information to my bandmates or duo mate and we are able to chat about it on stage.

My creative endeavours and love of researching have led to some wonderful opportunities, such as my show at Celtic Connections this year about songs of coal mining. I’ve been interviewing people from coal mining backgrounds and talking to lots of generous people who have shared songs with me. It has been a complete privilege to gain an insight into a world that I was never a part of, but was a vital part of Scotland’s social and industrial landscape.

I love coming up with ideas, writing songs and anything on the creative side. It may sound like I’m bragging but having a learning disability can make you deeply aware of your shortcomings. Particularly in a job with such a high rate of poor mental health, it is extremely important to focus on strengths rather than shortcomings. Not taking on any extra ‘number roles’, such as managing band bank accounts, allows me the brain space to manage my own.

If you have Dyscalculia and feel isolated by your struggles, you are not alone. I once tipped the full value of a tasty dinner, not because I’m lovely, but because I got 100 and 10 mixed up in my calculator. Despite the problems I haveonly some of which are outlined here, I get on really well most of the time and manage to pursue a career that I love. We live in a world where technology very much has our back, even though we may forget our logins from time to time (write them down!).

So I’ll leave with a big hug to all owners of numberless brains. Having a learning disability makes you no less of an adult. In fact, in a way it is even more badass that you manage to get so much done. It’s good to laugh at yourself and it’s also okay to feel frustrated. Every mistake is a funny story and although it’s a cliché, everybody has their own strengths.