Being left-handed may not attract the condemnation it once did, but sinistral children may need more support than teachers realise. David Newnham reports
They knew all about left-handed children at Fred Moore's school. How to spot them and how to treat them. As soon as his troublesome preference became apparent, his left arm was tied firmly behind his back.
Surprisingly, the experience did not give Fred a lifelong aversion to education. More than a century later, at the age of 107, he is still studying, and last year was honoured with the title of England's oldest learner. But he has never forgotten that early trauma - how it set him apart from his classmates and caused much childhood loneliness. While those days of ignorance are far behind us, few left-handers would, even now, describe life in a predominantly right-handed society as plain sailing.
Tasks that right-handed people perform automatically, such as filling an electric kettle or using a power drill, are at best awkward and at worst dangerous, because many everyday items are designed with right-handers in mind. And at no time are the problems more evident than during childhood - particularly those first years at school when skills such as reading and writing are being acquired.
When a national support group for left-handers canvassed its members recently, 71 per cent of respondents said they had experienced difficulties at school, while only 24 per cent said they had been given any help by teachers. Most of the problems involved writing, and comments ranged from:
"At school I smudged my work, but received no help to overcome the problem", to: "Not much awareness or understanding, even in the Seventies and Eighties. I was tested by a 'specialist' to determine the extent of my 'disability'."
While nobody said their left hand was tied behind their back, 39 per cent said they had been discouraged in some way from using it, despite the general acceptance that interfering with a child's left-right preference can lead to speech problems or even a mental breakdown.
The survey was organised by the Left-Handers' Club, a support group which has campaigned for greater understanding of the problems faced by left-handed children in the classroom. They say a bit of basic help can make a great difference.
Two years ago, the club produced a video guide and wall chart for teachers and parents explaining what it means by "basic help". The project had the support of the Teacher Training Agency and copies were sent to all training colleges in the country. Now the club is keen for schools to use these materials, so that experienced teachers can also upgrade their sills.
The video shows a left-handed child cutting paper as being typical of problems that can easily be remedied but can lead to loss of self-esteem if left unchecked. "Why can't I do it?" the child asks, blaming herself rather than the inappropriate scissors for her inability to do what her peers find so easy. But problems with paper-cutting pale into insignificance beside the pitfalls that await a left-handed child who is learning to write.
Lauren Milsom and her husband Keith are both left-handed, and together they run Anything Left-Handed, a company which sells everything from anti-clockwise corkscrews to clocks that run backwards. It was the Milsoms who set up the Left-Handers Club, partly because so many of their customers needed support and encouragement, but also because of their own experiences.
"I must have been six when I started to write," says Lauren Milsom. "I was very proud of it and thought it was the best thing I'd ever done. But I can remember the teacher tearing my work up in front of me. It was beautifully written, but I'd done it all backwards. I had produced mirror writing without even knowing what mirror writing was. I'll never forget that moment, and I often say to teachers, please don't ever do that to a child."
Many of the recent advances that have improved life for left-handed people of all ages are the direct result of pressure from the Left-Handers Club. "We have left-handed cheque-books now," says Lauren. "Yet when we first suggested these, the banks laughed at us."
Then there's the case of the amazing revolving kettle. "Electric kettles were never left or right-handed," says Lauren. "But when they started putting them on bases, they could only face one way. And as the water-level indicator would be on one side only, they were very difficult for left-handers to fill. In the end, we got in touch with the manufacturers and told them that people had been complaining to us. Now the kettle revolves and some have a water-level indicator on both sides."
Proof enough, some may say, that left-handers really do excel at lateral thinking.
To join the Left-Handers Club, visit its website: www.anythingleft-handed.co.ukclub.html. Anything Left-Handed Ltd is at 18 Avenue Road, Belmont, Surrey, SM2 6JD, call 020 8770 3722, or e-mail to email@example.com. The company also runs a helpline: 020 8715 1594. For advice on writing aids, contact writewell.co.uk, which supplies a writing mat (pound;2.50 plus Pamp;P), also available from Anything Left-handed at 5 Charles Street, Worcester WR1 2AQ. The mat is designed for left-handers on one side and right-handers on the reverse