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Born into a right-handed world, ‘lefties’ have faced persecution, struggles and triumphs

International Left Handers Day recognizes challenges, celebrates differences
Left-handed people have their day with International Left Handers Day on Aug. 13. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald illustration)

In a world dominated by right-handed people, International Left Handers Day, which is celebrated annually on Aug. 13, affords the roughly 10% of Americans who are left-handed a day of recognition.

Lefties are constantly making adjustments to their habits to use tools and systems designed for righties, whether it’s learning to complete tasks with their non-dominant hands, scouting out a place to sit to avoid bumping elbows with a righty, or anything in between.

“Lefties get used to inconveniences, and we just put them out of our minds,” said Tim Dunne, a Durango lefty. “It’s extra work (being lefty), but that’s just the way it is.”

International Left Handers Day started in 1976 to bring awareness to the advantages and disadvantages that come with being left-handed.

In recognition of the unofficial holiday, The Durango Herald published the first eight pages of its Sunday’s print edition in reverse order, from left to right, so readers can flip the pages from back to front, just the way lefties are naturally inclined to do.

In addition to reading a “backward” newspaper, righties are encouraged to perform daily tasks with their left hands and talk to their left-handed friends and families about how their handedness affects their lives to celebrate the holiday, according to www.lefthandersday.com.

“All the right-handed people should have to tie their right arm behind their back on (International) Left Handed Day,” said Mary Gumser, a lefty from Durango.

Because the vast majority of people are right-handed, they often overlook all the disadvantages posed to their left-handed compatriots. Often, left-handed plights are only realized when they interfere with the lives of others, Gumser said.

“People get annoyed when you’re elbowing them at dinner,” Gumser said. “Or when I wind up a cord or hose, I round it up ‘backward.’ I’ve had people be annoyed (asking), ‘Why did you round it up that way? That’s backward.’ But that’s just the way my hands go.”

An early start on adapting

Theories aside, it is widely understood that children begin to develop a preference for handedness between the ages of 2 and 4, said Jennifer Baufield, early childhood coordinator for Durango School District 9-R.

“Adapting to a right-hand world starts early on,” Mike Peterson, a Durango lefty wrote in an email to The Durango Herald. “Consequently, most lefties have ambidextrous skills of one sort or another.”

Peterson can operate a firearm accurately with both hands, but computer operations are right-hand dominate, and handwriting is strictly limited to his left hand.

Gumser attributes the high frequency of being ambidextrous in lefties to their parents, teachers and early coaches.

“A lot of the time, they don’t know how to ‘switch’ things, so they just teach the kids to do things right-handed,” Gumser said.

Today, there are simple fixes to some tools, like scissors, that allow lefties to use their dominant hands to perform tasks. However, the vast majority of equipment is still unaccommodating, forcing lefties to rely on the non-dominant hand for many tasks.

Lily Owen, a 12-year-old student at Escalante Middle School, said she always gravitated toward using her left hand to pick things up, but she was not definitively told she was a lefty until she was in kindergarten.

When it came time to learn how to write, her teachers were able to work with her and train her left hand, but when it came to more complex tasks, the narrative changed.

“Earlier this year, I started orchestra,” Owen said. “They don’t really make left-handed violins, so I had to learn how to play it right-handed.”

Owen said her teacher spent a lot of time working one-on-one with her until she was finally able to play with her non-dominant hand.

Even though some parts of being a lefty are difficult, Owen said she likes being different.

“It makes me feel special,” she said.

Frustrations with being lefty

While lefties have learned to adapt to living in a right-handed world, there are still many tasks in their daily lives that are hindered by their left-handedness.

One of the most commonly expressed grievances is writing on notebooks and whiteboards.

“When I write, I tend to smear the ink on my hand and then it gets all over the side of my hand,” Owen said. “It’s very annoying.”

We asked, you answered

The Durango Herald asked our left-handed Facebook readers to share their biggest frustrations about being a lefty in a right-handed world. Here are some of their responses:

“I’m a lefty and my birthday is on national left handers day! I always show up early to a dinner party so I can choose my chair wisely, learning to use right-handed tools, smearing ink or worse dry erase markers or chalk on a board” - Brandon Mcneill

“Writing on a chalkboard or white board is a nightmare! Manual can openers are NOT left handed, I always unscrew them. And a P38 can opener! I would starve to death!! Scissors that are marked ‘Left Handed’ that are right handed with different handles are all wrong! The blades have to be switched” - Val Greer Hobson

“Scissors. I hate all scissors.” - Shayla Walker

“Eh ... it’s a lot of things really. But I’ve learned to adapt, just like everyone who has to learn to do things differently than most people. I look at being left-handed as an advantage. Left-handed people use more of their brain than right-handed people. We are artistic and or good at sports, musical talent, etc. I wouldn’t change it for anything. Happy Left Hand Day!!” - Nevada Fields

Other tools like can openers, machine shop lathes and sports equipment are also points of contention for many lefties.

Fold-down school desks are another point of contention for lefties, including Richard G. Ballantine, chairman of the board of directors for The Durango Herald.

“For the first day of class at Needham Elementary, I always knew where I would sit,” he said. “The left-handed desks were always at the far end of the row so we wouldn’t bump up against right-handers.”

Finding left-handed sports equipment is difficult, said Dunne, who has always struggled buying left-handed gold clubs.

“It’s a running joke,” he said. “I always ask places, ‘What have you got for lefties?’ and the answer is always, ‘Not much.’”

Discrimination against lefties

While the majority of grievances expressed by lefties today are rooted in inconveniences, the history of discrimination against lefties is much deeper.

In the past, it was not uncommon for children displaying a left hand preference to be punished and ridiculed by their teachers who embodied century-long stigmas against left handedness.

In the Catholic religion, the left hand was perceived as the devil’s hand, while the right was associated with God. It was this belief that prompted Catholic teachers to discipline their left-handed pupils.

Dunne, who attended Catholic school through college, was subjected to left-handed discrimination.

In 1995, he was walking home from kindergarten with his left wrist wrapped in twine. The other end of the twine was tied to his belt loop.

“My mother asked why I had the twine tied to my wrist and belt loop and I told her my teacher told me the left hand was the ‘devil’s hand’ and that I could not use it to write,” Dunne wrote.

Discrimination against lefties can also be traced back culturally.

Many ancient cultures designated the right hand as the “clean” hand to be used for eating and greeting others and the left as the “dirty” hand, to be used for maintaining personal hygiene, especially regarding urination and defecation.

While these designations have been abandoned in many regions and cultures, the stigma of an inferior left hand remains.

The stigma bled its way into modern language which often associates the word “left” with inferior attributes.

The English word “sinister” is derived from a Latin word meaning “on the left side,” the French adjective “gauche” (an insult) is the French word for “left,” and “awkward” comes from a Middle English word meaning “turned the wrong way” or “left-handed.”

Conversely, “adroit” and “dexterity” have roots in words meaning “right” or “on the right side.”

Perks of being a lefty

While the road for lefties has not been easy, Gumser believes that things are on the upturn, and she is proud to be left-handed.

“Negativity through religions and different cultures has changed a lot, and (being lefty) is more accepted,” she said. “I see it as a blessing; it gives us a gift for having to adapt to the right-hand world.”


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