A Disability That Does Not Count

Dyspraxia is hard to diagnose, more common than people realize, and affects every aspect of my life

Photo: Dina Belenko Photography/Moment/Getty Images

A couple of years ago, I was sitting outside a bar in Victoria, London, with a pretty Australian girl from Victoria, Australia.

Conversation was flowing when I noticed that my hands had turned blue, the dye from my new jeans having run on to them. I showed her what had happened, and, through fitfully antipodean laughter, she said: “Ronan, you are the most awkward man I have ever met.”

She was correct.

My attempt to buy ethically sourced (and runny-dye) jeans had backfired, sure, but the overall awkwardness was not atypical for me.

I am dyspraxic. I’m clumsy, I stumble over words as much as curbsides, bump into table edges as often as I do familiar faces at my local pub. Like many dyspraxics, I have trouble with handwriting, coordination, and sequencing, all typical symptoms of a condition which, in the U.K. at least (and I’d bet in the United States, too) is largely considered a joke.

Most people are clueless what it means when I say I’m dyspraxic, comparing my handwriting to “a doctor’s,” my inability to remember recently seen information to bone idleness, my mistakes to a lack of professionalism. Generally, they’re wrong — though my handwriting is that bad.

For most people, the left-hand side of the brain controls what the right-hand side of the body does. For dyspraxics, that criss-cross functions more like a tangled jump rope. Dyspraxia manifests itself in numerous ways: from near-illegible handwriting to severe difficulties with physical movement. Like any learning difficulty, it varies in severity.

I recently stumbled across one of my school reports from Year Two (Britain’s equivalent of the first grade). My teacher noted that I was intelligent, but often distracted and inattentive, with a propensity to answer questions completely different from the one I’d been asked. Am I any different now?

Elephant.

Around 5-6% of school-age children are thought to have dyspraxia, possibly as many as 10%. Because it’s a disorder with a range of symptoms, it can be difficult to estimate just how many are living with it. In places with looser criteria of symptoms, fewer children are diagnosed with it, their behaviors and difficulties incorrectly attributed to, at best, other conditions like ADHD, and, at worst, to bad behavior or just plain laziness. Oftentimes parents, without an awareness of the condition, may unwittingly draw similar conclusions.

My father died when I was four years old, and I was diagnosed with dyspraxia at the age of eight. For a long time, teachers and family friends assumed my difficulties were the result of parental loss, to the extent that my mum once concluded that, were I to break my leg, it would have been somehow blamed on my dad’s death.

Fortunately, my mother was a teacher and could see something was amiss. She had me assessed by an occupational therapist, who diagnosed me with dyspraxia and secured the requisite school support I needed to help improve my handwriting. It failed. I was given access to a computer. It succeeded.

Being the only dyspraxic child in class made me different, a situation exacerbated by high school. How? A coffee with two sugars, please.

It was a Catch-22. Having a laptop made me stand out, but not having it made me unable to write, or do my schoolwork.

Despite the downsides, the support I received during my school years was immense, not least from Mrs. Clancy, a teacher specializing in learning difficulties who went on to be awarded an MBE (an award under the U.K. honors system) for her services to education.

That same support I received in school, however, is not something that extends to the adult world, most notably in the workplace, despite legislation.

In part, this is due to dyspraxia’s more subtle symptoms. I work on computers, which largely nullifies the handwriting issue. However, sequencing and organization can still be problematic for me. If I’m sent multiple files or documents, I’m likely to get — yes — flustered; to misplace and/or mix them up.

Dyspraxia is a condition that turns life upside down, the neurological equivalent of a drawer of tangled up electrical cords. But for all its ass-backwardness, it’s no indicator of ineptitude or laziness.

I was once asked to edit a travel piece on Estonia. I did so, sent it back, and received a reply telling me I’d paid no attention to what the editor had said. Only, I had. It’s just that, when I finished, I’d renamed and resent the original document instead of my edited one. Fortunately, my editor found it funny… ish.

Faced with anything numerical or calendar related, I’m at sea. These mistakes can easily come across as the result of inattentiveness or a lack of professionalism, even when they’re not. Those assumptions are the hallmarks of employers not knowing what’s needed to assist a dyspraxic employee in doing their job to the best of their ability.

For a long time, I was wary of saying I was dyspraxic, having been told, incorrectly, that I was dysgraphic (which only affects handwriting) around a decade ago. I had also been led to believe that dyspraxia is something that can disappear over time, which isn’t the case.

Dyspraxia continues to affect my day-to-day professional life, most notably in how little the wider public, and therefore employers and colleagues, know about it. When I tell someone that I’m dyspraxic, the response is usually the same: “Is that the same as dyslexia?”

No, though they are conditions on the same spectrum, and it is possible to have both if the genetic lottery has really worked against you.

Dyspraxia also makes me physically uncomfortable in crowds and in close contact with other people. I am highly sensitive to noise (if Bose wants to sponsor me with noise-cancelling headphones, I am literally all ears), can be easily distracted from my work, and of course, struggle to write legibly. When asked if I can “write more slowly” in order to make my words clear, the answer, too, is: No.

Of course, I am happy to explain what I’ve written down, but I can’t undo the symptoms of a neurological learning and motor disorder. Dyspraxia is a condition that turns life upside down, the neurological equivalent of a drawer of tangled up electrical cords. But for all its ass-backwardness, it’s no indicator of ineptitude or laziness — do you honestly think I haven’t tried writing slowly at least once over the years?

I am lucky. I have a mother who was able — and had the time to — pick up on something awry with my coordination when I was young. Countless children don’t benefit from the same attentiveness and subsequent help. And, even if they do, they may still experience problems in the workplace without knowing how to respond.

Dyspraxia is a pain in the ass, but it shouldn’t stop people doing what they’re good at. With requisite — and relatively minor adjustments — any workplace can be adapted to accommodate dyspraxic employees so as to ensure they can do their job to the best of their ability.

Just don’t be surprised if they show up at work with blue hands. We are, after all, just trying.

Writer. Author of the novel Bad Bread, Good Blues: A study of anxiety, heartbreak and yeast-based foodstuffs.

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