Left in the lurch was commissioned and published by The Guardian. It shows how left-handers have to adapt to working environments designed for right-handers.


Left in the lurch (written by  Diane Paul)


Left-handed office workers are forced to struggle with equipment that makes their lives difficult - and sometimes even dangerous. Diane Paul reports

"Sinistral", which means located on the left side of the body, or left-handed, is archaically connected to the word "sinister". In Roman times left- handedness was believed to be unlucky and, remarkably, connections with devilishness persisted until fairly recently.

Thankfully, the 10% of the population who were once considered to hold pencils, cutlery and other implements "the wrong way round" are no longer likely to get their knuckles rapped in schools or have their left-hands tied behind their backs by way of punishment. But modern living is still frustratingly geared to the dextral majority.

Professor Stanley Cohen, a Canadian psychologist, claims that left-handers are 89% more accident prone than right-handed people and 25% more likely to have an accident in the workplace. This is hardly surprising in a world where sinistral office-workers have to make do with office equipment that not only make their lives difficult, but sometimes dangerous, too.

Nikki Behar is secretary to two heads of department at Manchester College of Arts and Technology. She is a typical example of an inventive and determined left-hander. "Over the years, I have had to adapt to what is there," she says. "I have been doing it for so long, I have reworked the ergonomics of the office so that they fit in with my left-handedness."

Most office desks have drawers on the right, but Nikki made sure hers were on the left. "In my previous office, they were on my right and I had to open them with my right hand or turn my chair, or cross my left hand over my stomach. Now I can open them in two seconds flat."

If telephones are positioned on the "wrong" side, it can be difficult to talk and write at the same time. Heather Bebbington, secretary to one of the senior vice-presidents at Zeneca Pharmaceuticals in Cheshire, has had phone cables lengthened to reach equipment on her left. She has also adjusted her computer equipment. "I now have my computer mouse set up for left-hand use because it was giving me wrist problems before. But it is slightly irritating if I work at someone else's desk and have to change it round."

Although 57% of typing is done with the left hand, when left-handers use the numerics pad on the keyboard, they must cross the left hand over to the right in an awkward manoeuvre. But keyboards that have numerics pads on the left make life a lot easier. Bruce Whiting, managing director of The Keyboard Company in Stroud, says his company sells around 1,000 left-handed keyboards each year. Few companies, however, are aware of their existence.

The UK Passport Office in Peterborough, which has a large number of left-handed staff, is one of the few enlightened organisations in the country that stocks up on left-handed supplies. Administrative officer Melanie Croft finds that special rulers are the biggest boon to her working life because the numbers run from right to left. "Every time I use a normal ruler, I cover the numbers with my hand as I hold it and then have to arch my hand round to see them. I also smudge my work."

Right-handers tend not to think about the design of little objects such as pencil sharpeners, which can cause not only frustration but physical pain for others: left-handed pencil sharpeners turn anti-clockwise and scissors have reverse-engineered blades. "I find it almost impossible to cut with right-handed scissors because of the pain," says Croft. Sinistral workers using right-handed scissors have to force the blades apart to cut and the top blade obscures their cutting line.

Even normally innocuous items such as pen trays, which are positioned on the right on most desks, can be a nuisance. Heather Bebbington always changes these over. When she uses a ring binder, the rings are obstructed and press into her hands, so she turns the binder upside-down to put papers in. Left-handed secretaries also tend to file documents with headings on the right rather than left, which can confuse colleagues.

Another daily problem is writing with ink pens and ballpens, which are liable to smudge. "You drag your hands across what you have written and end up be getting them filthy. I use rolling writers because they have a larger ball and quick-drying ink," says Bebbington.

So be sympathetic to your sinistral peers and request special stocks for the stationery cupboard. "Left- handers are very easy to spot," says Melanie Croft, "as all their bits and pieces are on the left." 

 Diane G Paul is author of the Left-Hander's Handbook (Robinswood Press, £9.95). Left-handed office supplies are available from The Left-handed Company 0161 445 0159 (mail order)

This article was first published on guardian.co.uk on Monday May 17 1999. It was last updated at 01:12 on May 17 1999.