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Dyscalculia is Hard to Spell: The Art of Advocacy

According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, 1 in 5 children in the U.S. have learning and attention issues. Learning and attention issues are difficulties that affect various aspects of our brain’s functioning, such as reading, writing, math, organization, focus, listening comprehension, social skills, and motor skills. It’s important to note that these issues are not related to low intelligence, poor vision or hearing, or lack of access to quality instruction. Help us share stories of those supporting and living with hidden disabilities. 

Meet Brandon.


“Dyscalculia is very difficult to spell and that, in itself, is a metaphor for the actual disability,” Brandon started as he was explaining dyscalculia in his own words. In the fall of 2023, Brandon Hess’s youngest son embarked on his freshman year of college equipped with a priceless skill – the ability to advocate for himself and his unique learning differences.


Brandon’s son was diagnosed early in his life with dysgraphia, dyscalculia, anxiety, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), after Brandon and his wife started noticing a speech delay when he was a toddler. As a life-long educator Brandon knew the importance of early assessment, intervention, and the art of advocating for the supports of those with hidden disabilities.


Advocating for those with hidden disabilities is not only about raising awareness, but it’s also about pushing for equal opportunities and accommodations in all aspects of life. It’s about creating a safe space for individuals to thrive without being stigmatized or judged.

Our Interview with Brandon Hess

Brandon Hess

In your own words, can you explain what dyscalculia is and describe how your son experiences math. 

Dyscalculia is very difficult to spell and that, in itself, is a metaphor for the actual disability, the actual diagnosis. It’s a hard concept to learn and understand from all perspectives; teacher, parent, and student. I think for a lot of educators, teachers in particular, it feels like you have this class of so many students and your goal is to teach them how to do the problem. You take A, B, C, and D, and you get the answer, but somewhere in the middle you have a student that is going to miss the answer because they don’t get the process. This is a math processing issue unique to individuals with dyscalculia, and can be problematic when peers, teachers, administrators, and parents don’t understand, because sometimes that misunderstanding can lead to people thinking it is an intellectual challenge, and that isn’t at all true. The way they need to receive information is different; the way they get from A to B to C and so on to get to the answer is different.

How did you first realize that your son had dyscalculia and what steps did you take to get him diagnosed?


We first noticed that our son had very early speech delays when he was younger and leaned more toward using sign language than words. That was our first sign. He would point to a cabinet and grunt for cookies when we would expect him to have developmentally been speaking more.


As he got older another sign was that his handwriting was atrocious. This is one instance where you see the multiple learning differences coming together, because this also had a lot to do with his dysgraphia. When he approached letters, he was drawing them, not writing them. For example, if I was to draw a tree and you were to draw a tree, they would be very different trees. If I wrote a two and my son wrote a two, they were very different because I was writing a two and he was drawing a two. I remember he went to a handwriting camp one summer and he hated it. Writing numbers was painstaking for him and that transferred into writing his name and letters too.

We opted to get a private assessment for our son, because we had seen these early signs, had the means to do so, and wanted to get ahead of it. Once we had that diagnosis, we were able to understand what support he needed including setting up his Individual Education Plan (IEP).

Brandon Hess

 Can you speak to the importance of early identification and intervention for students with dyscalculia or other math specific learning disabilities?  

I know as a former principal that we
wouldn’t normally recommend testing until first or second grade because there are so many developmental and maturational factors that can change between four and five years old — it is huge. For those that are seeing those early signs like we did, there are options to get them assessed before that first or second grade standard testing window. For our son, there were so many layers including speech and physical therapy that early diagnosis really helped us get ahead of it and work through multiple support options. It also prepared us as we went through the traditional educational testing process and IEP planning. 

What strategies or accommodations have you found helpful in supporting your son’s math learning with dyscalculia?  


This is a big one multiplication table charts. He couldn’t memorize his multiplication tables, so we used a multiplication chart, and he would have it in his math binder. Students without dyscalculia or dysgraphia had to memorize their multiplications just like they had to memorize their states and capitals. He didn’t, because he couldn’t it was jumbled it made no sense to him at all. You could ask, “What’s seven times five?” and he would respond, “I don’t know,” because the way he worked through a problem included working backwards from the answer to understand the process. As he got older, he wasn’t being tested on the actual multiplication, he was being tested on the steps in the process which he knew. He just got it wrong every time because when he had to multiply, he didn’t know the answer. So, when you give him the chart, he was able to find the answer and then plug it into the process – which he knew. 


Once identified, how was your experience with advocating for your son’s needs and accommodations in his school and learning environment?  


When looking at advocacy it really is separating it into two different areas. When they are younger, and the parent is the advocate and when they are older, and they need to learn to self-advocate.  


My wife and I are both educators, so we started to notice early on that there were some delays and as those delays progressed, we opted for private assessment. It can be hard for a parent to see those signs if you don’t know about them, but there are more resources now online and working with your primary care practitioner that can better help parents understand what to look for.  


As we moved through elementary and middle school, when faced with situations where a teacher may not understand the full extent of his learning disabilities, we would go in and ask questions. Our son is very literal, he will follow directions, so if the directions say to list the steps of erosion, he will literally list the steps of erosion. Which may conflict with the teacher’s expectation that he write a paragraph on each step in erosion. So, sometimes that advocacy for him was also showing the teacher that how instructions are written, and the goal of the assignment is important. Sometimes it can be easily pushed aside as just a letter grade or points, but that’s not at all what it is, it’s about presenting information to him in a way that he can understand and can build upon. 


When he got older it was teaching him how to self-advocate and we would role play scenarios for him like what to do when he needed certain supports. He also became a great email writer! Routine was also important for him. Now that he is in college, he knows what he likes, has his routine, and contacts his supports when he needs them. 


Can you share any success stories or proud moments that your son has had despite his dyscalculia, and how you’ve celebrated those achievements as a family?


There were so many successes along the way, and they all tie back to making sure he had access to the resources to be able to achieve what he needed and wanted to achieve. In elementary and secondary school, it was access to the multiplication chart, tutors, and electronic devices that made it possible for him to complete activities. His handwriting was illegible, but when he was able to use a device to type, it really opened up a whole world of communication to him, and now he has a lot of online friends.  


As he moved into college a lot of that work shifted to social and emotional learning, we focused on working on scenarios around meeting and interacting with people. He is also more drawn to the creative side of things and is pursuing that in and outside of school. He also really enjoys Dungeons and Dragons and is the Dungeon Master for his group. 


These accommodations, laying out the processes, and having intentional conversations have set him up for success and given him the tools and confidence to advocate for himself now that he is away at college. 


What advice would you give to other parents who may have a child experiencing a hidden disability?  


We know that early identification and intervention can really help set students up for success. I would suggest that if they are seeing early signs to get an assessment done, get an IEP for the child so they can have access to some of those early educational and developmental opportunities.  


If you are working with the school, continue to ask questions, ask for that testing – it usually starts in second or third grade. Ask for that data and progress monitoring so that you know how your student is doing and what supports may be offered in your area.  


What do you hope to see in terms of awareness and support for students with dyscalculia in the education system?  


Right now, I think I am seeing that there is a hesitance to test, to identify because either parents are worried about having their child labeled as a special needs student or teachers and schools are already overburdened and this would be one more thing on their plate. A lot of these disabilities aren’t even covered in licensing professional development for teachers, I believe the only one for teachers currently for recertification in Virginia is a short course on dyslexia.  


My hope is to see more opportunities for teacher professional development that focuses on these hidden disabilities, some instruction around supports that can build inclusive classrooms for all students, and more acceptance that students with learning disabilities can thrive with those supports and accommodations. 

Brandon Hess’s journey in education began in an English classroom, transitioned into leadership roles, and eventually led him to influence education on a global scale. His progression from an assistant principal to an associate principal fostered a desire to make a broader impact. As a Senior Education Consultant, Market Development Manager, and Education Specialist, he supported struggling schools nationwide. Leveraging his experience and insightful approach, Brandon co-developed a platform for educational institutions, ensuring its successful integration across charter, private, and public schools. Keep connected with Brandon on Twitter. 


Learn more about dyscalculia on our website

About TouchMath

TouchMath is an evidence-based, multisensory approach to mathematics that can help students when other Math learning solutions fail. If a student suffers from dyscalculia, they can still succeed in mathematics, and we have the resources to support you so you can better support them. 



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