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Left-handed life in Germany — problems persist

August 13, 2020

International Left Handers' Day is celebrated on August 13. Between 10 and 15% of people globally are left-handed, and they face special challenges in their day-to-day lives — even in Germany.

A left-handed person writes in a book
Image: picture-alliance/PhotoAlto/O. Dimier

"I still remember when I was six or seven years old and putting out my left hand for an adult to shake — and being told that I had done something wrong," says Till Veerbeck. "They said that hand was dirty. I thought it was so weird that my strong hand — the hand I preferred to use — should be called 'dirty.'"

28-year-old Veerbeck grew up long after the idea of "retraining" left-handed people to use their right hands had been phased out in Germany. Since then retraining has been branded as an unacceptable far-reaching intrusion into a person's mental development.

But Verbeek has still faced challenges, both as a child and an adult, in a world built for right-handed people.

'Left-handed people don't have the same opportunities'

August 13 is the International Day of Left-Handers, first marked in 1992 to draw attention to the estimated 10-15% of the world's population who are naturally left-handed and the struggles they experience.

Bias against left-handed people begins in childhood.

"A stumbling block for left-handed children in primary school is that there is not the right kind of equipment for them — for example scissors," says Johanna Barbara Sattler, founder of the German advisory service Left-Handers' Consulting and Information.

Johanna Barbara Sattler uses a blackboard with her left hand
Johanna Barbara Sattler was among those who was "retrained" to use her right hand as a childImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Sabrowsky

"Those children don't have the same opportunities to learn to write, build, draw and so on, because the tools at school simply aren't right for them," she added.

Sattler, a psychotherapist who has written several books on the topic of bias against left-handed people, set up the advisory service in the 1980s after she'd received an overwhelming number of requests for help from doctors, teachers and parents.

Read more: International left-handers unite! Here are five cool things about being a leftie

Smudging your writing

A left-hander herself, Sattler grew up in Germany in the the 1950s, and so she was "retrained" to write using her right hand. She remembers being told that in the Bible the right hand was designated the "hand of God."

Writing with your left hand usually presents a problem when the writing goes from left to right. Children are forced to either move their hands awkwardly above or below the flow of writing to avoid smudging ink.

"I remember my schoolwork always looked messy with smudged ink across the page," says Veerbeck.

But psychotherapist Sattler says the problem is not just aesthetic: Left-handers waste a lot of energy on forcing themselves to use the non-dominant side of their brain, meaning work produced with their right hand might fall short.

Real-world dangers

Problems for left-handed people are not confined to school life.

"It's the small things that are still annoying for me every day," Veerbeck explains. "Ironing is a big one. Door handles are another one. And there are so many electronic devices that are built for right-handed people."

Veerbeck says that he has learned to adapt: He usually uses a computer mouse with his right hand, for example. 

But the problem is more than just annoying — it can also be dangerous.

"So many types of machinery are built with right-handed people in mind," Sattler points out. "For example, emergency buttons are almost always on the right side of a device. Left-handed people would automatically respond with their left hand."

A man attempts to open a tin
Little things, like using tin openers, are the most annoying for Till Veerbeck as a left-handerImage: DW/E. Douglas

Having to find a way to use equipment that was not designed for them slows left-handed people down in their every-day working life and often makes them seem clumsy. Smaller companies, Sattler says, cannot afford to buy a second set of equipment for left-handed people, so they may be more reluctant to hire them.

This can have dramatic consequences: The website of International Left-Handers' Day estimates that left-handed people have a slightly shorter life expectancy, partly due to increased risk of deadly accidents in daily life.

Read more: The greatest left-handed musicians and how to become one

Left-handers around the world

Sattler points out, that in many countries around the world left-handers face bias: Traditionally in Muslim and South Asian countries, she says, the left hand is considered "unclean," used mainly for personal hygiene — so eating with the same hand is frowned upon. 

But in most countries being left-handed is accepted and provisions exist to ensure equality. And it's not all bad news for "lefties" — studies have claimed that left-handers are likely to earn more than right-handers and are better drivers.

​​​​​Read more: Retraining lefties to leave the 'right' way behind

Former US President Barack Obama uses his left hand to sign a bill
Former US President Barack Obama is one of many famous left-handersImage: Getty Images

Left-handers have been able to flourish in all walks of life. Four out of the last six US Presidents were left-handers, including Barack Obama — as is current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Beatles frontman Paul McCartney is among their ranks too, as is tennis player and former Wimbledon champion Rafael Nadal — commentators say his left-handedness may even have given him an advantage.

However, myths also exist around the creative and intelligent left-hander. Two of Germany's most famous historical figures are widely reported as being left-handed — composer Ludwig van Beethoven and writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe — despite there being no evidence for this.

The message is clear, says Sattler: Left-handers are every bit as intelligent, creative and integral to society as right-handers, but still sometimes struggle to navigate a world built for right-handers.

Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH Elliot Douglas
Elliot Douglas Elliot Douglas is a video, audio and online journalist based in Berlin.
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