Embracing diversity requires even-handedness

Only seven to ten percent of the adult population is left handed, but I grew up in a family where being right-handed (like me) stood out –  my father, mother and sister were left-handed. I married a right-hander and, sure enough, our first child was left-handed. I had heard the awful stories of children being forced to give up their left-handedness, often leading to lasting emotional trauma. 

 There are places where left-handedness is considered a virtue, like in boxing, tennis and baseball. Sportscasters can go on for hours regarding the merits of left-handed pitchers vs. left-handed batters. But even in sports, left-handedness can be a liability. The only left-handed golfer I know who has made it to the top of the game is Phil Mickelson.  While my mother learned to golf from the right side, my father did not.  When he approached the tee, his playing partners scattered.  Just watching that club approach the ball from the “wrong” side made them nervous.

Many tools and devices are designed to be comfortably used with the right hand. For example, scissors are arranged so that the cutting line can be seen by a right-handed user, but is obscured for a left-handed user.  So-called ambidextrous scissors do not help, since the cutting blades are still set right-handed.

The left-handed learning style

When Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain took the stage for the presidential debates, attentive viewers may have noticed both candidates scribbling notes with their left hands. Political junkies will remember that such a curiosity has occurred before: In 1992, all three contenders — George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot — were southpaws.

In the race for the White House, lefties seem to have the upper hand. Six of the 12 chief executives since the end of World War II have been left-handed: Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, the elder Bush, Clinton and Obama. That’s a disproportionate number, considering that only one in 10 people in the general population is left-handed.  

For nearly all right-handers, language abilities reside exclusively on one side of the brain — usually the left, which controls the right hand. But one in seven lefties process language on both sides of the brain, possibly because using their left hands during childhood stimulated the development of the right half.  The benefits of being a lefty aren’t only verbal. Many artists and great political thinkers were lefties — Pablo Picasso and Benjamin Franklin, for example.

Here are some more interesting facts about left-handed people from UCLA neurobehavioral geneticist Daniel Geschwind:  

  • There is a slightly higher percentage of left-handers than in the general population among MIT professors, musicians and architects.
  • People with autism and schizophrenia are more likely to be left-handed.
  • Left-handers are about twice as likely as right-handers to have left-handed children.
  • Left-handers typically score higher on IQ tests and for nonstandard methods of problem solving.

 My life with lefties made me concerned to read of some recent research coming out of England. Lauren Milsom, author of the book Your Left-handed Child, argues that “right-bias” still holds back as many as one-in-10 children in the UK.   She claims that “Pupils may be underachieving in subjects such as English, science, computing, cookery and design technology because of a lack of specialist equipment and “ignorance” of left-handedness among teachers.”It seems that educators may have acknowledged, but not necessarily adapted to, the idea of different learning styles among our children—including left-handedness.  Will we strive to accommodate these children in ways similar to those who write with their right-hand, or continue to put them at a disadvantage?  Celebrate diversity and make that playing field level!