Thu 1 Jun 2017

Beating the numbers

Hannah Hughson is on the cusp of completing her Level 4 Certificate in Business (Administration and Technology) at WITT – against the odds.

Graduates have the skills and knowledge to negotiate their way through administrative systems, and many managers would testify to the fact that without that help the office would fall over.

For Hannah, graduating will cap a three-year journey which saw her identify and confront a condition which has been a constant hindrance.

She flunked maths through school and despite multiple efforts at extramural study, the problem remained and the reason was elusive. It was only after she enrolled at WITT and came under the wing of tutor Gary Sharpe that her struggle was given a name.

The name is dyscalculia – think dyslexia with numbers.

Dyslexia has been documented and publicised for generations. The New Zealand Dyslexia Foundation lists among those with the condition Sir Richard Branson, Tom Cruise,  Jamie Oliver and New Zealand motivational speaker Billy Graham.

There is no such fanfare for the numbers equivalent, yet Gary Sharpe says it probably impacts in varying degrees on 6% of the population. It is a condition he has learned a great deal about, thanks to his work with Hannah.

“We constantly hear stories of people who have the condition being told through their school life that they “could do better” when they have probably tried as hard, or harder, than any other student,” he says.

“I think of it as the brain being wired differently and the insulation being left off one of the wires.’’

Hannah’s parents identified a problem and tried a range of extramural learning options to get her up to speed, without success.  The daughter of accountant Mark Hughson sees shopping, telling time and banking as numerical minefields.

Gary Sharpe said work with Hannah reached a watershed when he realised he was falling into the trap her teachers had – he was trying to explain mathematics, numbers and symbols as he saw them.

“I realised we had to do it Hannah’s way, let her use her systems, then reverse it back, basically.

Among the more innovative answers was the dismantling of a calculator to transpose the addition and multiplication signs, because Hannah simply saw them the wrong way round.

After three years, the 27-year-old’s brain has learned to correctly identify those symbols, but the problem with mathematics remains and she continues to use her own systems to adapt.

“The course she is doing requires a lot of numeracy – but because she knows about her condition, she is actually deadly accurate with numbers,” Gary Sharpe said.

He is continuing to learn about the condition – a $5000 WITT scholarship awarded recently will be used to study strategies for learners.

And last weekend he was in Hamilton to receive an award announced on International Literacy Day last September – an Adult Literacy and Numeracy Leadership Award from the National Centre of Literacy and Numeracy for Adults.

“I had never heard the word dyscalculia until I met Gary – I thought he had made it up,’’ Hannah recalled.

Tasked with doing a presentation, Hannah did hers on dyscalculia. The numbers were difficult, using Powerpoint was not. Hannah has a strong skill set when it comes to working on computers and her memory recall is extraordinary.

She still tends to lean on others to help with some reading because lines of text jumble in her eyes – but given a word to spell in her head, she will invariably be correct.

Years of struggling to understand numbers and reading have impacted on Hannah’s confidence. Her time with Gary and Keitha Sharpe, who works in disability support at WITT, has underlined the fact that she has some remarkable skills.

The challenge after December will be to find a place to use them.

“I would love a job in administration,’’ she says.