A recent post on a left-hander Facebook page showed a photo of the cover of the 1992 book by Stanley Coren titled The Left-Hander Syndrome. The post’s author wrote that the book contained evidence for societal discrimination against left-handers. The book does claim that left-handers are disadvantaged because society has not recognised them as a special needs group.
As the term ‘syndrome’ implies, the book argues that left-handedness is a marker for a complex of risk factors. These risk factors increase the chances that left-handers will be victims of accidents, illness, and even early death. The book introduces the term alinormal syndrome to describe left-handedness. Left-handers are normal in a way that is different from the normality of right-handers. Because left-handers are alinormal, their survival fitness is compromised leaving them vulnerable to a number of dire events not experienced by right-handers.
The three major claims made in the book have been refuted by a large volume of scientific research conducted over the 24 years since its publication. Left-handers are not more accident-prone than right-handers and they have the same life expectancy as right-handers. The evidence that left-handers are more susceptible to certain illnesses when compared to right-handers is so contradictory that no firm conclusions can be made one way or the other.
The scientific rejection of left-handedness as an alinormal syndrome is separable from the idea that society discriminates against left-handers. Many posts appearing on left-hander social media sites in recent months emphasise the right-handed bias in the environment that makes life awkward for left-handers. Some examples featured on social media include the right-sided bias in classroom desks where there is support for right-handed writing but not for writing with the left hand. Spiral notebooks and ring binders are left-sided, a position that interferes with left-hand writing. Left-handers also complain about the rightward bias in common tools like can openers, knives, corkscrews, and scissors.
These right-sided biases are examples of covert discrimination. Discrimination is defined as ‘acting on the basis of prejudice’. If the prejudice is that most people are right-handed, then the most expedient – but not necessarily malicious – course is to design implements and furniture for the right-handed majority.
I have collected data from hundreds of left-handers and their reaction to living in a right-sided world which comes in two forms. One group of left-handers is annoyed by the rightward bias and complains that right-handers have set out to make life more difficult for them. The second and larger group adapt to the rightward biases encountered in everyday life. In one study, I asked 200 left-handers to rate the degree of difficulty when using common implements such as scissors, knives and can openers. They used a rating scale that ranged from ‘very easy’ to ‘very difficult’ to rate these items. The average score of the left-handers was in the ‘easy’ range and did not differ substantially from the average score of 200 right-handers rating the ease-of-use of the same items.
There are two ways that left-handers can cope with a right-sided world. Left-handers are a well-organised group and items designed specifically for left-handers are now readily available.
These left-handed tools can turn a right-handed world into a left-handed one, at least partially, and ease the pain of right-sided covert discrimination. Alternatively, left-handers can take the adaptation route which has a number of advantages. For example, I took golf lessons from a left-handed golf pro who taught himself to play with both a right- and left-handed stance. He told me that this not only expanded his pool of potential students but it helped his own golf game when the ball position offered an advantage for a right-handed rather than a left-handed approach. I once interviewed a left-handed welder who also claimed a distinct advantage to using his equipment with both the right and left hand especially when doing his job under cramped conditions.
Dentists also claim an advantage to right- and left-handed use of dental instruments while working in the narrow confines of the human mouth. One profession that may fall outside the range of adaptation is the medical specialty of surgery. Surgical instruments are designed for right-hand use. The surgical instrument market is small so there is little incentive to offer left-handed versions of these tools. Left-handed medical students are encouraged either to avoid this specialisation or to train themselves in the right-handed use of these devices.
Dr Clare Porac is professor of psychology at Penn State Erie. She has published and presented over 200 papers on the topics of human lateral preference and handedness.
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