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24 September 2014
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Can't count, don't count - Inside Out London explores number blindness

BBC ONE London, Monday 2 February, 7.30pm

As many as five to six per cent of the population– or 400,000 people in London - could be suffering from number blindness, or dyscalculia as it is known.

Most people have heard of dyslexia - a learning difficulty associated with reading - but few people are aware of dyscalculia, a condition which is only just beginning to receive attention.

These are the findings of a specialist team of psychologists at University College London led by Professor Brian Butterworth and revealed on BBC London's Inside Out programme (Monday 2 February, 7.30pm, BBC ONE London).

Dyscalculia is a simple failure to make sense of numbers - an inability to distinguish and process numbers. The difference between figures and numbers is indistinguishable to those who have dyscalculia.

Nine-year-old India Thain copes very well with her dyscalculia and is receiving a lot of specialist help in a private school in Hammersmith.

Her teacher, Dorien Yeo, says: "..the whole label of being stupid is one that tends to stick with dyscalculics."

Children who have dyscalculia are rarely identified in mainstream schools. Instead they are labelled as bad at maths or stupid when, in fact, what they have is really no more than number blindness.

Yet there is no special government provision for identifying or treating number blindness.

Professor Butterworth says: "It was exactly the same with dyslexia 20 years ago and the government made special provision for dyslexics but as yet there is no recognition or help for the treatment of those who are dyscalculics."

Paul Moorcraft has been a noted war correspondent and writer for over 30 years. Yet he has struggled with numbers since he was a child. He only realised that he had dyscalculia when he went to see Professor Butterworth.

Paul says: "It's still a problem. I get confused between £10 and £20 notes. I had a problem with numbers at school because my arithmetic ability was zero. A joke was made out of it because I was good at other subjects.

"Over time I developed strategies for dealing with it and fortunately I have a photographic memory, so I have a limited range of numbers that I remember and with things like telephone numbers I get people to repeat the numbers to me and remember them that way."

Number blindness is a problem for those who have it and Professor Butterworth believes that identifying the affliction early on in childhood can lead to more effective treatment.

His team have developed a simple computer programme – a test that lasts 20 minutes – to determine whether people are affected by dyscalculia.

It aims to spot the children who are having difficulty recognising the numbers on the screen. If a student fails the test, it is a strong indicator of dyscalculia.

Inside Out went to Hackney Community College to try out the test on 31 students aged between 14 and 21 and of all abilities. A few find it a bit difficult, including one of the teachers, but most passed with flying colours.

Two students failed – around the average that Professor Butterworth anticipated.

This correlates with what the Head of Maths at Hackney College already knows. He says that around one in twenty students needs help with numbers, about five per cent.

Professor Butterworth estimates that five to six per cent of the population could suffer from number blindness.

Number blindness may well be a bigger problem than anyone first thought and it will require specialist help and money to overcome.

Paul Moorcroft says: "Just because you can't count, doesn't mean you don't count. People who have this problem are not thick. They have an inability with numbers but they can achieve a great deal in other areas."

Inside Out, BBC ONE London, Monday 2 February, 7.30pm

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