Sinister Talents

Often Treated as Misfits, Left-Handed People May In Fact Turn Out to be Specially Gifted

Colin Leigh Peters | September 2007

The Romans would bind the left hand of trainee legionnaires to their sides, until they learned to fight using their right. In the middle ages, left-handedness was seen as a sign of satanic possession.

And well into the twentieth century, Roman Catholic nuns would slap left-handers with rulers, until they’d mastered writing with the other hand.

With all these injustices, you’d think that left-handed children might have given up – except that one was Julius Caesar, another Charlemagne, and another Joan of Arc. And then there were Leonardo da Vinci and Napoleon, Kafka, Cole Porter, Charlie Chaplin and Edward R. Murrow.

Nonetheless, recent studies have shown that left-handed children still face an up-hill struggle in schools. This is according to a five year observational study led by Dr. Peter Böhm and the Head Teachers of four Vienna City schools and presented in Vienna in June.

While physical pressures to change left-handers into ‘righties’ seems to be a thing of the past, social pressures, in particular the fear of being different, encourage some naturally left-handed children to convert to using their right. And while left-handed children who remain so may not be stigmatised in the way that their predecessors were, they nevertheless face a considerable struggle with the day to day things that right-handers take for granted.

This manifests itself most overtly in a lack of self confidence, researchers say, with children left unwilling or unable to demonstrate their abilities.

Among the findings, statistics seem to show that, at birth, the percentages of left and right-handed children are about even, around 50% for each – shown by which hand or thumb a baby sucks on. When they’re a bit older, it’s the hand they use to stroke their teddy bears, and while some 20% seem to convert to right-handedness without any outside influence at around this age, there is still a discrepancy between the approximately 30% left over, and the 8 – 15 % who make it to adult life as left-handers. The research suggests that many are subtly forced into left-handedness at a young age due to social pressures.

"Children are still encouraged to pick up their pencils using their right hand," explained Böhm. The desire to fit in, plus the subsequent loss of self worth if one doesn’t, may be enough to influence young children to go against their nature.

Indeed, observations by the team seemed to suggest that between 35 and 40% of the young children in the study showed left sided tendencies.

To combat this, the team runs a programme known as ‘Tiger Training,’ in which pre-school children are assessed and, if they are left-handed, encouraged to continue so. Indeed, the very mascot of the Tiger Training is a left-handed, or left-pawed Tiger, a boost that gives the lefties a firmer platform from which to proceed.

However, confidence is not the only tool that left-handers need. We live in a right-handed world, the team pointed out, which can make things very difficult for them. Books, desks and scissors tend to be designed for right-handers, and the problems this can create aren’t always obvious to the right-hander. For example, left-handers obscure what they’re writing while they write, or in multiple choice tests, they often find themselves blocking out the options while checking the boxes. Even pencil sharpeners grind the wrong way.

These small problems in the classroom can be fixed for equally small sums of money, approximately 120 Euros per class, the team said. However, the problem isn’t taken seriously enough and the money often just isn’t there.

In the end, most left-handed people do fine. Figures show that there is no difference in ultimate classroom performance between left and right-handers. Maybe it’s because they are used to having to try just a little harder. Or maybe they’re just smarter than the rest of us.

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