Lefties Often Left Out In Right-Handed World

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Did you know that Aug. 13 was International Left-handers Day? No? That's not surprising.

I only noticed because I'm a lefty. Right-handers, who make up about 87 percent of the population, probably couldn't care less.

It's nice that somebody went to the trouble to designate a special day for us left-handers because we don't get much respect. Consider everyday insults like "left-handed compliment" and "are you in your right mind?"

The dictionary definition of left-handed includes words like awkward, clumsy, ill-omened, illegitimate and sinister. Now, is this fair?

Then there are the political designations "right" and "left."

Does this imply that Liberals are sinister and Conservatives are the Dudley Do-Rights of the world? Do left-handers tend to be left-wingers? Obviously, lots of righties are lefties in this case. Adding to the confusion, both Bill Clinton and George Bush the Elder are lefties.

In bygone times, left-handed people were shunned, feared and persecuted. In the Middle Ages, left-handedness was a sign of witchcraft. Even in these more enlightened times, some religious sects believe left-handers are in league with the devil.

In Islamic countries, only about 1 percent of the population is left-handed, thanks to strong pressures that force children to be right-handed. The Chinese also frown on left-handedness. In fact, most cultures view it as undesirable at the very least. Many parents and teachers in Western societies still make strenuous efforts to teach children to use their right hands, which rarely succeed and have been suspected as causing stuttering in some cases. Lefties clearly feel that their handedness is a strong part of their identities.

Recent scientific research confirms that left-handedness is indeed cause for concern, however. Stanley Coren, a psychologist, concluded in his 1992 book, "The Left-hander Syndrome," that left-handers are likely to die younger and are 89 percent more likely to be injured in accidents.

Left-handers are an invisible minority who must define and organize themselves for their protection in society much as more visible minorities have done, Coren says. Tools and machines are mostly designed for right-handed use, which pose real dangers to the safety of left-handers as well as inconvenience.

On the up side, he shows that left-handers tend to be more creative than right-handers, and more intelligent in some areas. It's a given, of course, that lefties often have an advantage in sports.

Is handedness genetic? It's not clear, experts say. There's the legendary Kerr family in Scotland of which about 30 percent of members were lefties. In the biblical book of Judges, the tribe of Benjamin won a spectacular battle because of the advantage of their predominant left-handedness.

Still, how can you explain a family like one I knew with two right-handed parents and five left-handed children?

Coren found by studying art history and fossil evidence, that humans have always leaned to the right, meaning that right-handedness is a fixed genetic trait like having two eyes. However, left-handedness appears to have occurred at about the same ratio 50 centuries ago as it does today. He asks then, is left-handedness a mutation, a genetic variation or a failure in the genetic code for right-handedness?

Coren and others have suggested that left-handedness may be determined by an excess of testosterone in amniotic fluid or by a stressful birth. Maybe the ongoing human genome project will provide more answers.

In the meantime, lefties, take heart. There are stores and mail-order companies that stock all kinds of items especially for us. Check out the Internet for myriad Web sites created by and for lefties to raise your consciousness and make you smile.

And for parents of little lefties, I even ran across a book for children, "Buddy the Left-handed Worm," by Norman Robertson. There's an obvious problem here, but I guess a kid wouldn't be bothered by the fact that worms don't have hands.

Vivian Taylor can be contacted by e-mail at mailto:viv@cybertrails.com or by phone at 474-1386.

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