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Are left-handers discriminated against?

Are left-handers discriminated against?

| Text: Björn Lindahl, photo: Tomas Bertelsen

13 August is Left Handers Day. The day celebrates the uniqueness and differences of left-handed people and was launched 46 years ago. Yet it has still not had a major impact, and it remains a bit of a mystery why left-handed people have never organised better.

Left Handers' DayThe UK seems to be the only country with a large organisation representing left-handed people. Left-Handers Club was formed in 1990 and now has 140 000 members from around the world.

The Nordic parliaments very rarely debate left-handedness. It has also not been on the trade unions’ agenda, despite the fact that left-handers risk facing more obstacles and lower pay compared to right-handed people.

“Left-handed people may be less productive in those occupations which use tools, machines, and systems that are designed for right-handers. Examples that have been noted include electric food slicers, keyboards, drill presses, band saws, and roadways,” write Kevin Denny and Vincent O’Sullivan from the Institute for the Study of Social Change in Dublin, Ireland in a study.

But there are also occupations where left-handed people seem to have an advantage.

“Some studies have found disproportionately more left-handers among university architecture students, university math students, artists and musicians,” they point out. 

One of the few issues that have been raised in a Nordic parliament is whether left-handed police get enough weapons training adapted to their needs. This was debated in the Norwegian Parliament in 1998

That same year, in the UK Parliament, Conservative MP Peter Luff challenged the Minister for Education Estelle Morris (Labour) to explain what the government was doing to prevent the discrimination of left-handed people, especially in schools. 

“This is a campaign which I hoped never to have to fight, but, like the great civil rights campaigners of the past, I have learnt the hard way how discrimination works,” said Peter Luff. 

“An arrogant or unlistening majority – in this case right-handers, rather than men or whites – refuses to understand the problem or even to accept that it exists. Only when the oppressed minority – in this case, left-handers – makes its presence felt do things happen. Today, I hope that the left-handers of the nation are making their presence felt.” 

As is often the case in the UK Parliament, both questions and answers were full of irony. After Luff mentioned a range of famous left-handers throughout history – from Leonardo da Vinci to Napoleon Bonaparte, Jimi Hendrix to Marilyn Monroe, Estelle Morris answered:

“The list of famous people given by the honourable Gentleman partly defeats his own argument, as he cannot for a minute say that those left-handed people have not aspired to the greatest heights or achieved at the highest levels, or have not taken their place among the good and great.”

As Peter Luff pointed out, most right-handers – and I count myself among that group – do not perceive any problem. But imagine for a moment that the world one day suddenly is inverted when you wake up. The morning paper must be read from right to left, if you want to cut out a story the scissors feel all funny. When you want to document it all and get your camera out, all the buttons are on the left rather than the right side.

Measuring jug

In the world of right-handers, things often go wrong when you use your left hand. In this case, why has the designer not put the scale on both sides? Photo: Björn Lindahl.

You realise that the world has become more complicated than it ought to be. In the kitchen, you want to measure out some flour for a dish and discover that the marks are all on the back of the measuring jug when you hold it in your right hand.  

Only a bit irritating or a real problem?

Left-handers risk discrimination in three areas:

  • During education
  • At work
  • As consumers

Many have heard stories of older generations’ left-handers, who were forced to learn writing with their right hand. Academics in the 1930s lumped left-handers into the same category as psychopaths, the immature, nervous people, the badly raised, hysterics, truants and the mentally challenged, according to an article written by Inger Tinglev for the Swedish Agency for Education.

Left-handed children in schoolYet this was not due to a lack of empathy for left-handers from teachers and schools. On the contrary – the thinking was that it would be better in the long term for children if they were not allowed to use their left hand.

“In general terms, in the long run, parents and teachers will gain the child’s gratitude if they do what is in their power to make the child right-handed from the start,” recommended one of the most respected child development experts at the time, Cyril Burt from England. 

The Nordic debate was somewhat milder and warned against any form of coercion.

“A healthy left-hander does much better than a nervous right-hander,” wrote Tore Vassdal in the second edition of “Left-handed children in school”, published in 1974.

Left-handers are often faced with just two alternatives – train up their right hand for the task that needs doing or find a way to handle the obstacles presenting themselves in a society meant for right-handers.

The idea that society should accept that the handwriting tilted the “wrong” way was not even a consideration.

Writing illustration

In the 1970s, schools went from trying to tempt or force children to use their right hand for writing, to concentrating on how left-handers should write in a way that made the result look as if it was written with their right hand. But why did the writing have to be italic in the first place? Illustration from Left-handed Children in School by Tore Vassdal.

So what happens at dental schools today? Can students choose to stand to the left of the patient, which is the natural thing to do for a left-hander who must work with your mouth?

What happens at a hospital when the surgeon is left-handed? Is the operating theatre set up to allow in light from the correct side so that the shadow from the hand does not make it harder to see what is happening? 

There are vocal minorities representing most issues, yet left-handers remain remarkably silent. Perhaps they are comforted by the thought that left-handers are considered to be more creative than right-handers, which after all is linked to which side of the brain is stimulated the most.  

But this does not stop all left-handers from being discriminated against as consumers. Why exactly are so few products made for left-handers? Finnish Fiskars were pioneers with their left-handed scissors and there are a few shops with products for left-handed people. But in the age of 3D printing, would it not be possible to "invert" more tools without significant cost? Perhaps there should simply be a law demanding an alternative for both? 

A problem is not considered real until it becomes visible, in the form of people joining a union or in the form of statistics. But there are no systematic gathering of data for how many people are left-handed – except for in the world of sport, where there is sometimes a disproportionate number of  left-handed top athlete, especially in tennis.  

The largest study so far of how many left-handers there are was carried out a few years ago by a group of researchers from universities in Greece, the UK and Germany. 

They collated many different studies, allowing them to assess 2.4 million people – most of European heritage. 

Using the strictest definition of left-handedness, the researchers concluded that 10.6 % of the population are left-handed. If you count those who are partially left-handed, that figure rises to 18.1 %. 

There is no commonly accepted explanation for why some people become left-handed, but a quarter of the reason is down to genes. The number of left-handed people in a population varies over time and between countries.

The number of left-handed people in the USA fell from 6 % among those born in 1887 to less than 4 % of the population at the beginning of the 19th century, before growing to around 12 % among those born in 1976, according to the National Geographic "Smell Survey". As explained in the Institute of Labor Economics study:

"Aimed at studying the correlation between brain lateralization and olfactory ability, this survey was conducted by sending out a questionnaire accompanied by a scratch-and-sniff card. More than 1.4 million responses were collected from readers born between 1887 and 1975."

The survey also contained questions about left-handedness. The graph below illustrates how many percent in each age group considered themselves to be left-handed. 

Source: Left-Handedness and Economic Development, Fabiano Mariani, IZA Institute of Labor Economics

Source: Left-Handedness and Economic Development, IZA.

In China, the number of left-handed children stands between 0.7 % and 3.5 % depending on which study you read. Other factors, for instance how socially accepted it is to be left-handed, also play a part. 6.5 % of Asian heritage children in the USA are left-handed.

Is the increase only because it has become more culturally acceptable to be left-handed, or has the number of left-handers really increased? A group of researchers from the German Institute of Labor Economics, led by Fabio Mariani, have launched the theory that left-handers lost out so badly in the labour market because machines were built for right-handers, that they found it harder to get married.

Yet as creative occupations become more and more important, left-handers get an advantage that makes them more attractive. It might sound implausible, but the conclusion in the report mentioned at the beginning of this article – at least for male left-handers – is:

“Left-handers are paid more, other things being equal; the premium is greater for manual workers and there is no evidence of occupational sorting by laterality. This suggests that the complaints of (male) left-handers of their tribulations in life, if correct, appear to be compensated for generously and the folklore of talented left-handers may have some substance.

For left-handed women, there is, strangely, a considerable economic drawback. Yet there are fewer differences here between manual workers and others, writes Kevin Denny and Vincent O’Sullivan.

In any case – congratulations all left-handers! 

What do you think? Are left-handers being discriminated against or not? Which occupations are mostly affected by being right or left-handed?

Continue the debate on our Facebook page.

Wave to the photographer!

It turned out that three out of eight editorial staff who attended the Nordic Labour Journal's meeting this summer are left-handed. That is a greater proportion than what the so far biggest survey of left-handers concluded. It said 10.6 % of the population (in Europe and the USA at least) are left-handed. From the left: Marie Preisler, Hallgrímur Indridasson, Fayme Alm, Björn Lindahl, Gunhild Wallin, Bengt Östling, Kerstin Ahlberg and Rólant Waag Dam. Read more about the NLJ editorial staff here:

Read about one of our left-handed colleagues' experiences below.

Left-handed journalist

Marie Preisler

To be left-handed has not really impacted much on my work as a journalist. Yet there are a few things: When I take notes by hand during interviews, I hold the pen in a slightly awkward way to stop my hand from wiping out what I have just jotted down. 25 years of using that position might explain some of the stiffness I experience in my left shoulder. I never thought about this until my editor asked me to write a few words about the experience of being left-handed. A kind of workplace injury…

My only real left-handed tool is a pair of Fiskars universal scissors with handles and blades made for left-handed users. My parents gave it to me because I liked papercutting. I still have those scissors.

I have never been discriminated against or felt being left-handed to be an obstacle. I was never forced to write with my right hand when I started school in the 1970s, but my classmates often pointed out how I was different and often asked whether I was kejthåndet (gawky-handed) – a term that was quite common. 

At home, they taught me to answer that “we left-handers are not gawky, and we're actually more creative than the rest of you”. Today it is very rare for anyone to comment on my left-handedness.

We left-handers also enjoy advantages, in my experience. I have started playing tennis, and do not worry about getting my backhand right like many of the other beginners on my team. 

Marie Preisler


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