Meet Heather McGehearty: A Successful Adult with Dyscalculia

Heather McGehearty is a mother to four young children. Heather started organizing parent support groups in 2013 when her oldest was identified with dyslexia. In 2016, these efforts  led her to establish a nonprofit, StandUpLD, to inspire students, educate parents, and support their teachers. 

Heather is also an adult with dyscalculia. She knows first hand what it takes to learn to be a self-advocate. She took some time to talk with Amy Barto, LDA Today editor, to share her experiences with this lesser known learning disability. 

When you explain dyscalculia to people, what do you say? 

For me, it’s like dyslexia but for math. For me, it’s mathematical concepts, especially as you start to get abstract with mathematical concepts, particularly when you start getting into Algebra, that’s where I was really thrown for a loop. With math, it’s a constant progression and a constant changing what you’re learning, but for me, as a child it never was a building block. It was never a stair-step process of “oh, okay, this helps this make sense and now okay now that helps this make sense.” For me, it was just segmented, compartmentalized information that I had to memorize. 

I would get really good at memorizing long division or whatever it was; then it would get to the next thing. To me, it never all pieced together and really made sense to me. So for me, it was never ever a building block situation. 

It didn’t help that growing up I moved a lot. I switched schools a lot which made it hard to have consistency and, of course, every time you go to a new school, they’re working on a different approach to math or a different version of whatever compartmentalized department I’d just got through or was about to go back into. So for me, math never really clicked. It was always very compartmentalized. 

I remember one time I went to a private school that had some Montessori learning materials . . .  I think I was in 8th grade . . . and they said, ‘You know what? We should take you down to the lower school area. They have some Montessori manipulatives. You need to take a look at those. So, I was brought down – from 8th grade – to the lower school and showed these different manipulatives which I had never seen before, and my thinking was like “ding-ding-ding”! Had I been exposed to some of that as a child, it probably would’ve helped everything come together.

What was it like when you were diagnosed with dyscalculia? 

I was identified with a generalized learning disability. I was never diagnosed with dyscalculia as an actual thing. Once I got to college, they looked at my testing and “well, you really dip low in math” and it was clear that I always struggled in math and I always needed math tutoring, but it was never really identified that that is something I struggled with. 

I was always an amazing speller, always a really good reader, but I always struggled with reading comprehension and I would definitely say some auditory processing with the reading comprehension. So I definitely hit the marks in terms of  having some challenges with some test taking – some anxiety with test taking – but predominantly when you were to give me anything with math, I was like I had the anxiety about that because for me everything was compartmentalized and also just remembering the steps. 

I was a good speller. I could remember things to a certain extent, and the nice thing about spelling is it never changes. It’s like, “okay, this is the way you’re always going to spell. The word responsibility is never going to change.” There are just some things that are never going to change; we don’t compartmentalize in the English language that way, but when it comes to math, we do. For me, it was really challenging as we got into higher math and those sorts of things. 

In college, did you feel you had more options to find or study what you are good at? 

Yes. In college, I was very nervous to go because I was worried about the math piece and how I was going to get through it. I did go to University of the Ozarks and I did have to talk to the Dean of the school because at the time they were making a lot of concessions for those who had dyslexia, but they were not making them for those who had dyscalculia. 

At the time, my husband Eric and I were dating. He was a great advocate for himself and he kind of helped me through that process of advocating for myself and saying “we can compare this to dyslexia. You know, those who have dyslexia would get these things but you have dyscalculia and you’re being told you just need to work harder or you’re not going to get your degree. You have to get through these classes or else you won’t get your degree, but with me, with dyslexia, I’m not being told that. I’m being told I can have these certain classes subbed out”. So, we were able to make that case and that was the only reason I was able to get my degree. It really would have stood in the way and I’ve heard that that happens to a lot of people who have dyscalculia. 

“I think that a lot of roads have been paved along the way in recent years or over the last 20 years ….so that’s great! And I love to hear that because it’s really kind of a hidden disability that’s not really talked about.” 

In terms of what I studied, I got to study psychology and sociology and all the things I love. I’m very much a people person. I never wanted to be an accountant or a CPA, which is part of what I put in my letter to the Dean. Like “practical math; that’s what I should be learning. I’m not going to be a CPA.” So, that’s what they ended up giving me, but I ended up able to graduate in 4 years. I had a motto for every day: “I’m going to graduate in four years if it kills me or somebody else”. That was my motto for everyday to get through college because college was hard for me….because school was always hard for me. I think I had a lot of anxiety about school. I don’t think it helped that I moved a lot as a kid, bouncing around from school to school and having a low self-esteem, not being a really good advocate for myself early on.

How did you view math or some of your struggles when you were in high school? 

In high school I did have what was labeled as a learning disability, so I was able to go to what was called an Academic Learning Lab at the public school. I was able to go there to take tests and that sort of thing. I think there were some accommodations made on some of the math tests to make it maybe a shorter test or something like that, but I was definitely taking whatever that lowest level math class was and I was able to graduate (Thank God!) and get through it all. But, do I remember any of that? No. It was definitely not a stepping stone for me for college math. It was not preparing me for College Algebra. It was really a kind of “grin and bear it” type of situation. 

At that time in public school it was really, you would go out of the public school classroom and you would go to a different location, a smaller classroom setting to take the math test . . . but really in that situation it’s not like you need someone to read you the math questions. That’s not what it is. It’s just a matter of remembering which set of rules I was supposed to be applying to this math. It’s a lot of memorization. It’s one thing if you’re talking about one specific equation or type of problems, but when you start mixing them all together then it really never made sense to me, and that’s when I really struggle. 

When you think back on all of those experiences, what are the big “take-aways” or pieces of advice that you would give parents or kids as they’re going through that? 

One of the things I think I hear a lot of teachers say, and parents, is that they want their kids who have dyscalculia to memorize the math, you know, the multiplication tables, but, just like with someone who has dyslexia, we’re not expecting them to spell everything or be a proficient speller. They’re able to use spell check, so I would equate it to that. If you’re not able to memorize all the multiplication tables – if they’re just not clicking for you –  I don’t think you should beat yourself up because when you do get into the adult world, you are going to have a calculator. And in a lot of higher level math, you can use a calculator.  Which is great! It’s just a matter of knowing what you’re supposed to put in the calculator to get your answer. 

Also, being able to talk about it and advocate for yourself and to realize that you’re not alone in it, because I have met many adults who have struggled through dyscalculia and have made it to the other side and they’re doing great things – not in math! – but in other amazing endeavors. 

I’ve also met adults who were not able to get their degree because they weren’t able to talk about it. They weren’t able to advocate for themselves and so they were not able to get their degree just because of the math. That’s really heartbreaking, so I do think it’s something we have to talk about. We can’t have a double standard where we have all these accommodations in excess for those who have dyslexia but those who have dyscalculia, we’re just going to say “you have to buckle up and work harder.” We need to make concessions and find ways to make it a level playing field.  

Do you have any tips or strategies that you’ve added to your personal “toolkit” to work with or around math? 

Yes. For example, when I go places and I have to do a tip or something like that, rather than having to do any kind of quick math – there are all kinds of quick math you can do, but I don’t want to do quick math when I’m out with friends –  there are all kinds of tip calculators you can use on the apps on your phone. I mean there are so many apps you can use these days! You can be a real estate agent and have dyscalculia and do just fine because there’s so much software out there. There’s so many things you can do out there to get around it. 

What kinds of things do you feel helped you be successful? 

Being a mom of kids who struggle, I encourage parents to have their children tested to see if they have dyscalculia just so we can have a label of what it’s called and know what it is. Name the elephant in the room so we can get our kids help. 

For me growing up, I had lots of math tutors who were really wonderful and that was what helped me get through lots of math. In college, my husband, who I am now married to, but at the time was dating, helped me with my math and getting through that. (I did break many pencils at the time!) 

Also, just knowing that your value is worth way more than your test scores in one area, right? So, we’re all going to have areas in our life that we struggle with and we can’t hold ourselves to. That is what our value is in this world. We have to know that our gifts and strengths are well beyond that. 

I think that is something that comes over time, so finding gifts and strengths early on in childhood is important. Even as parents and teachers, helping kids find ways that they can shine and that they’re successful at so when they do have these stresses and challenges, it doesn’t just weigh them down and it’s not just the one thing they’re thinking about. 

You have embraced this philosophy and made this your life’s work. How have you done that? 

In 2016, we started a nonprofit called StandUp LD. StandUp LD is a nonprofit that is designed to help students stand up and speak out about their learning differences. It could be dyscalculia, it could be ADHD, it could be dyslexia, and everything in between. Just owning your learning difference, and not being ashamed of it, because as a child growing up, I was one of those kids in the back of the classroom who tried to blend in with the wallpaper….. .didn’t want anyone to call on her and was just trying to hide and had a lot of shame. So I come at it from that perspective. 

My husband was severely dyslexic as a child and, of course, he’s still dyslexic as an adult. For us, we have children who have dyslexia and dyscalculia and anxiety and all those things. We wanted to start a nonprofit to help kids really own their learning differences at a young age so that they can hopefully go on to live their best life.  

If you had 30 seconds to say whatever you wanted about dyscalculia or math, what would you say?

I would just say, if you are struggling in math to realize that you are not alone. There are a lot of people who do have a math struggle. I’ve always equated it to the equivalent to math-dyslexia, where you’re struggling with math. . . .it’s not making sense to you. 

Try to get testing. Try to get identified and find out if that’s what’s going on. And then try to surround yourself with people who can help you. 

There’s lots of great teachers out there and lots of great curriculums that exist now that did not exist when I was a kid, so if you can get early intervention, it can really, really help. 

Get some great tutors. 

Find those gifts and strengths that you have within yourself so [math] is not the only thing you’re focused on.  

And, don’t beat yourself up if you can’t remember your multiplication tables. It is not going to make or break you!

About Heather

Heather is the Founder & Board President of StandUpLD a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization serving LD families. The mission of StandUpLD is to inspire students, educate parents, and support their teachers. In addition to her nonprofit Heather is the mother to four young children, all dyslexic. Heather started organizing parent support groups in 2013 when her oldest was identified with dyslexia; these efforts later grew into the nonprofit StandUpLD in 2016. She is not new to advocacy or school struggles, as she herself has dyscalculia, and had to advocate for herself to receive accommodations in college math. Heather now holds a bachelor’s degree in social science from the University of the Ozarks. Heather is also married to Eric McGehearty, a successful adult dyslexic, who serves as the Spokesperson for StandUpLD.