Being a left-hander in a right-handed world

Dr. P. Ravi Shankar
IMU Centre for Education
International Medical University
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

During the good old days, especially among Asians, writing with your left hand was a big ‘taboo’. The teachers of yore were strong believers in corporal punishment and using the wrong hand to hold the chalk, pencil or pen was sure to get you a hard rap on the knuckles with a metal ruler. Writing was one of the sacred arts, and the left hand was reserved for cleaning up after using the restroom in cultures using water or sand for this purpose. The use for a lower body function made the left hand unwelcome and unsuitable for intellectual and religious pursuits in many cultures. Because of this, many children were forced to change their writing hand, and we are unclear about the possible impact of this on their mental and intellectual development. Research suggests that handedness may be determined during fetal life. However, infants may continue to switch hands for different tasks, and parents may not know their child’s dominant hand till he or she is about three years old. 

My parents were not very happy that I was using my ‘dirty’ hand for writing, and they did coax me to change. However, they were not successful, and I continue to write with my left hand. Writing with the left hand is difficult; to get proper contact with the paper, an ‘abnormal’ pen-holding position is often adopted to reduce the risk of smudging the ink before it dries. It was difficult to write fast enough to take notes both at college and during medical school. 

 My parents did insist on my using the right hand for eating. I am glad that they did. Eating with the left hand is frowned upon in India and South Asia, and I am sure I would have been marked out for ridicule at restaurants and during gatherings and public festivals. 

Being a left-hander is a challenge. Nothing is straightforward, not even the most routine of tasks. For each task I must work out how to do it and which hand to use. Special instruments like scissors, screw drivers and others for left-handers have been designed, but these are not easily available. I remember struggling with doing acid-base titration experiments in the Chemistry lab during high school. Getting the correct sequences of hands to do the tasks was challenging. I also struggled with dissections – both animal and human. 

My classmates were mostly unsympathetic. Some said that I was clumsy and uncoordinated; but of course, in a world made for the right hander you are likely to be clumsy. Being in another person’s shoes is the best way to understand what that person is going through and prevent others from making fun of a struggling individual. I had read about a special suit that reduces your sight and hearing and is designed using heavy arms and legs with inflexible joints to simulate the physical challenges an elderly person must go through. This helps the wearer empathize better with the elderly. Maybe wearing a mitt on the right hand can make right-handers experience the challenges a leftie has to go through every day.  

Even in the realm of sports, handedness complicates matters.  Left-handers are said to have advantages in sports, although figuring out which hand to use for a particular activity usually takes some time, a struggle that may be interpreted by right-handers as clumsiness. And sometimes the handedness is inconsistent; I used to be a left-handed bowler and batsman while playing cricket, but in basketball I used to shoot with my right hand. Many left-handers are ambidextrous and must work out which hand may work best in a particular situation.  This inconsistency extends beyond sports.  In today’s world, typing on a computer keyboard has become our main mode of expression. although, interestingly, as a left-hander, I am primarily a right-handed typist.

The word “left” can carry negative connotations in the English language. Left is associated with misfortune, evil and bad deeds in several languages; in fact, the Latin word for “left” is sinister, as in, well, “sinister” (the Latin word for “right” is dexter, as in “dexterity”). Right is associated with being correct, with power and authority. Languages written from left to right are challenging for left-handers because the writing hand may smudge the written words before they dry. But attitudes toward left-handers have improved over the decades. Left-handers are more accepted, and many past United States presidents, including Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George HW Bush, and Barack Obama, were left-handed. Today about 10% of the population is left-handed in most societies, and International Left- handers Day is celebrated on August 13th .

During the 1990s, medical school in Kerala, India was a traditional and conservative place. I had to work out which hand/s to use for medical procedures. I usually had to decide based on with which hand I can more easily carry out a procedure after trying out different combinations. With which hand should I inject, or advance the intravenous cannula and the lumbar puncture needle, or hold the scalpel and the forceps? Medical school is not a very welcoming place to left-handers, in part due to traditional approaches to teaching. For example, physical examination should always be done from the right side of the patient. Approaching a patient from the left side may be enough to fail you during an assessment. As a result, I got used to using my right hand for most procedures and always approached patients from the right side. The might of the medical school and of medical traditions is with the right- handers. We did not have many left-handers in our undergraduate class. I am happy that these days I see many more students who are left-handed.        

Most instruments and appliances continue to be designed predominantly for right- handers and as right-handers form the vast majority of the population, this does make sense. However, the interests of the left- hander should also be protected. I was reminded of a chair with a writing surface in one of the college classrooms. The writing surface projected from the right arm of the chair. This made it very difficult for a left-handed person to write. Clearly the designer wasn’t thinking of left-handers at all! But fortunately, the voice of the left- hander is being given more consideration in today’s world.

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