Lord love a lefty

How should we accommodate those with different needs?


By Dylan Partner, Collegian Contributor

There’s an unnoticed ailment that over one out of ten Americans suffers. Day by day, these people must navigate a world that isn’t designed for them, and in some cases actively works against them. Sometimes, nominal gestures are made in support of their cause, but often they struggle to do things that others would find inconsequential. How do I know this? I’m one of them.

I’m left-handed.

Okay, perhaps that was too dramatic. Describing left handedness as an ailment is questionable, at the very least, and it isn’t like we have a particularly difficult struggle. After all, there are countless groups of people who suffer from greater social disadvantages, whether from outright hostility, implicit discrimination or just plain ignorance. Nevertheless, the left-to-right writing of the English language, desks with armrests on the right side and inoperable scissors serve to remind us that the world is designed for righties. I suppose the fact that lefties have been vastly overrepresented in the Oval Office serves as a consolation prize.

This isn’t to dismiss the hardships that left-handers faced historically and still face in much of the world. Left-handedness has famously been associated with all things sinister and devilish, which lead to a stigma so harsh that the rate of left-handedness in America has only just arrived at its natural rate, with less than four percent of people born around the turn of the 20th century being lefties. This is in comparison to more than ten percent today given lefties were forced to use their right hand by parents, teachers and friends for much of history.

My reflections on my left handedness have made me think more broadly about how society should accommodate those with different needs, whether they are dietary, physical, mental, spiritual or anything else. Is there a universal principle we can use to figure out the degree to which the majority should make accommodations for the minority?

I like to operate with a vaguely utilitarian philosophy when I think about public policy. That is, whatever brings the greatest good is the right path forward. Alternatively, in the harsher language of cost-benefit analysis, the correct choice is that which has the highest value after cost is subtracted from benefit. Policy should not be designed by the bounds of moral principles.

One simple, utilitarian accommodation for left-handers is already present in several of the classrooms that I study in. It may very well have gone unnoticed by the right-handers in the classroom, but it was a grateful sight for me. About one out of every ten desks are flipped so that the armrest is positioned on the left side. This accommodation passes the cost-benefit analysis because it requires little additional effort on the part of administrators and causes little grief to righties, but it improves the quality of life for lefties, making it far easier and more comfortable for us to take notes.

On the other hand, we must consider what a bad accommodation would look like. If we made desks that had two armrests instead of one, they would be more convenient for lefties. They would, however, become much more difficult to operate overall. If the improvements towards the minority are smaller than the negative consequences the majority will face, then it is a substandard accommodation, and we should look for ways to help the minority’s needs in a utility-increasing manner.

Life will never be as easy for lefties as it is for righties. We’ll always have more ink smudges on the side of our hands and more exasperated screams from being unable to operate a pair of scissors that our righty friends can use with ease. But if we operate by the principles of cost-benefit analysis, we can make a world that is more accommodating for those with minority needs without washing out the preferences of the majority.

Dylan Partner can be reached at [email protected]and followed on Twitter at dylan_partner.