Lefty dentists and inclusive design

Left-handed dentists remind us how the environments we learn and work within can have a profound impact upon our lives

Photo of a dentist working with his patient. The dentist is pointing to dental x-rays with his right hand. The patient is seated within a dental station.
Next time you’re at the dentist, take a look at the work station and consider whether it would be used as easily by a left-handed person. Photo by Caroline LM, Unsplash.

My dentist and I bonded over a shared characteristic recently, when we discovered we’re both left-handed*. This topic came up when he mentioned how he had everything set up to assist him as a southpaw. He said that everything had been set up for right-handed people when he attended dental school, and when he graduated and was able to set things up to his liking, he noticed he was already a better dentist. His whole training environment had been set up for people unlike himself. Even those dreaded tools, apparently, are designed to be used by right-handed dentists and they rotate differently for left-handed dentists. My dentist said you can reverse the direction of the drills but that they don’t usually operate as well. So he learned to use them with his right hand.

Alerted to this issue, I found multiple articles and detailed studies addressing the subject online. It’s a significant issue reflecting a failure of inclusive design. The only good news is that dental stations and tools are increasingly being designed to be ambidextrous, so they can be used by left-handed or right-handed dentists. The design of these products is changing to meet the needs of a broader market.

Being left-handed isn’t the greatest trial the universe can dole out upon a human being, obviously, but as a left hander you do get used to navigating certain obstacles without thinking about them. The pen you have to sign things with at the bank is often positioned for right-handed people. The machines for swiping your subway card here in New York are exclusively positioned for right-handed people. (An issue only slightly remedied by the new tap-to-pay OMNY systems.) And scissors? Ask left-handed people about scissors. When you’re left-handed, you realize how insensible it is for scissors to be designed exclusively for right-handed people. In fact, when I was living in Pusan, Korea in the mid-90s, I found that ambidextrous scissors were available everywhere, so I bought two pairs and still use them to this day.

If you’re on social media, you may have seen the following graph getting shared a lot recently for very specific reasons related to inclusivity.

Looking at this graph of the rate of left-handedness over time, you’ll see that the number of left-handed Americans increased significantly from the early 1900s to 1960. Where then did all these left-handed people suddenly come from? The truth, of course, is the we left-handed folk have always been among you. But earlier in the century, children were literally punished for being left-handed in schools.

As this article explains, children in Australia were once forced to write right-handed. One woman recalled, ‘My mother was changed from left to right in the 1940s in either Victoria or here (in Perth), with her right hand tied behind her back.” Even by the 1960s another woman says, her teacher punished her: “She would crack me over the knuckles of my left hand with the edge of a ruler (with a metal insert), so hard that they often bruised or were sometimes cut and bled a little, to force me to use my right hand to write.” And one man said his teacher called him “spawn of Satan” when he tried using a crayon with his left hand.

It seems outlandish now to consider being left-handed as wrong or even evil, but, as you probably know, terms like “sinister” and “gauche” even have roots in the idea that being left-handed is inferior and even, bizarrely, evil.

Elsewhere in the world, too, children suffered similar fates. A friend recounted to me how her father was retrained in Germany: “He’s a natural leftie but took a number of beatings at school and home until he figured out how to write with his right hand. He did his school homework hidden in closets for a while until his mother found him.” Her father studied engineering and went on to help develop precision instruments. Nonetheless, she says, “He still writes with his right hand but does all precision work with his left.”

Thankfully, being left-handed doesn’t generally hold the same connotations of inferiority it once did. So why has the above graph being going viral these past few months? Well, it’s in reaction to the idea that transgender people have suddenly been materializing in our society, due to either being transgender becoming trendy or, worse, because (some critics posit) children being “groomed” by adults to be trans. Of course, the simpler answer—the empirically-based answer — is simply that transgender people are rising in numbers suddenly because they’re no longer being stigmatized to the degree that they once were. More people realize that like left-handedness, being transgender isn’t something they need to apologize for. Instead, our transgender friends and family can be themselves, confident to exist within the incredible array of ways we’re coming to understand that we can be human.

Of course, however, we’re seeing a lot of backlash to this acceptance. That’s why the graph matters. It demonstrates how with greater acceptance, we’ll come to see more transgender people in our society. And this same profound dynamic of acceptance and increased visibility has applied historically to gay, lesbian and bisexual people, too.

As we come to understand the diversity of our shared human experience then, we’re increasingly exposed to opportunities to develop more inclusive design practices. This applies across the whole spectrum of design, including the design of physical products and digital experiences. Imagine the relief of being left-handed and getting trained in an environment, which suits both left and right-handed people. Imagine being gay or bisexual or transgender or gender fluid and finding that the form you’re completing addresses your very specific needs for completing each field. That some thought and consideration have been spent in gathering each data point. Imagine being an indigenous or black person and finding that the language used within a brand’s experience proves to be inclusive. That it avoids deploying stereotypes and words with unfortunate or demeaning connotations.

Given our current environment, of course, some will roll their eyes and complain that companies addressing these issues are just too “woke.” But that’s a silly, insensitive, and short-sighted form of criticism. First, there are the obvious ethical and moral reasons to practice inclusive design, sure. But, second, why wouldn’t any brand want to cast the widest, most inclusive net possible both in marketing itself and in creating user-friendly—human-friendly—experiences? There are both noble and practical reasons to practice inclusive design. And no good reasons not to.

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