Disability, Difference and Left-handedness in China and America


“Professor, you write with your left hand!” In my professor’s office, seeing her working with her left hand, I can’t help screaming.

Since my first day in America, I have seen a great number of left-handed people: three out of my six professors are left-handed, and the left-handed amongst my classmates are more than I can count.

It is so common to see people writing with their left hands that people here regard it as normal and face it peacefully. Or, perhaps, being left-handed IS normal – but in my country lots of people will joke about it and many, including myself, will treat it as a kind of disability.

Is left-handedness really a disability as I used to think about when I was at home? Or is it just a common difference as is thought by people here?

Cultural Attitudes Towards “Difference”

To be honest, I used to have a strong bias against left-handedness and I used to think that the left-handed people were disabled and abnormal, just like many people around me did. Because almost all people where I grew up wrote with their right hands, I thought the right hand was the only right hand used for writing, and more than that, thought all the left-handed people might be crazy lunatics.

Where I lived in China (Google Map - Map data copyright 2011 Geocentre Consulting, Tele Atlas, Europa Technologies)
Where I lived in China (Google Map - Map data copyright 2011 Geocentre Consulting, Tele Atlas, Europa Technologies)

It may not be fair to say this bias about the left-handed is popular in the whole country, since I only know how people think in my hometown, which is in the middle of China. It is a relatively isolated part compared with the eastern coast, so our local ideas may also be comparatively isolated and traditional.

But I do think Chinese culture has a different attitude towards individuality than American culture does. Chinese culture tends to encourage people to be the majority rather than the minority. For example, we have some famous old sayings about how the tall trees will be cut down and the singing birds will get shot down, indicating that differences will trigger dangers and individuals should try to integrate into the group.

This attitude means that people tend to be humble and peaceful, and there are fewer crimes than in America. It is good for keeping our social harmony.

It can also inhibit individuality. From childhood, people get the message that they should be “normal” and they should write with their right hand rather than their left hand. Thus left-handedness in China tends to be decreased and the social bias about this minority group springs up.

That is not to say that Americans are accepting of all sorts of differences either. There are a lot of Americans who believe homosexuality is wrong, for example. We can see the attitude varies amongst individuals, no matter the person is a Chinese or an American. But, undoubtedly, difference is comparatively not as welcomed in the Chinese culture as in the American culture, and some “strange” behaviors like left-handedness may be socially treated as a kind of “disability.”

What is Disability? What is Difference?

If it is true that the people around me in the place where I lived in China had played a decisive role in my previous bias against the left-handedness, the people here in my university in America have had significant influence in changing my attitude towards left-handed people.

My professors do their daily writing with their left hands. Unbelievable. They are not lunatics, but professors! My classmates do everything in their daily life with their left hands. Unbelievable. They are not lunatics, but incredibly talented people, as I’ve seen during in-class discussions, after-class group projects and many other activities!

I began to admire the left-handed and I even wanted to imitate them in using my left hand, in the fantasy that their talents may come from this left-handedness and I can gain similar talents from this “misbehavior.”

It turns out to that my “fantasy” is a reality, and according to some researches, the left-handed ARE talented: to use the left-hand can help people develop a creative thinking style, and four out of the past five American presidents have been lefties. Some researchers even conclude that the left-handers will lead a new age of genius.

Coming to this change in opinion has made me think about the way I treat all “disabilities.” I remember reading Helen Keller’s auto-biography and noticed that she referred to her blindness and deafness as a “difference” rather than a “disability.”

Nowadays anyone with any kind of disability can live a normal life and do anything any other person can do. Then shouldn’t we also treat them just like any other people? Without doubt, this question is worthy of serious consideration, whether you’re in China or America.

Finding the Middle Stage

“Professor, you write with your left hand!” That day after my scream, my professor and I had a short discussion about her left-handedness. She told me that she was used to using her left hand since her childhood and I told her that in America I had seen much more left-handers in several days than that in all my 19 years in my home country.

She thought about this for a while, and then replied that maybe it was related to the difference between the two countries. According to her, in my homeland children may be told more about what they SHOULD do, and they are expected to get instructions from society. In America, most of the time people may just accept children as they are without trying to change them.

Then we came to an agreement that maybe there should be a middle stage between these two modes: on the one hand, society can help people understand how to behave; on the other, they can also keep their unique features, which shouldn’t be regarded as their disabilities but as their differences.


  1. There are a lot of left handed people who become great successes. Some even excel as athletes. Prominent left-handed golfers like Eric Axley and Mike Weir made it to the PGA with quality golf gear to see them through.

  2. 不用太在忽是左或右

  3. My grandfather was left-handed. I didn’t know this until I grew up. My guess is that like many others, he had to learn to write with his right hand.

    Another famous person who’s left-handed is President Obama!

  4. You should consider that times change…I am eighty years old and left handed.
    When I started school (here in the United States) in 1938 I was strongly discouraged from writing with my left hand. My paper angle was changed to encourage writing right handed…an angle that caused me to drag my hand over the wet ink and smear the page (and my hand) making my papers messy (no ball point pens then). I tried; but
    I was unable to change hands. I played ball with my left hand, painted (pictures and then houses) with my left hand. I notice that I also approach problem solving differently but successfully.
    Fortunately, times, teaching methods, and attitudes toward human differences have changed and improved over the years. Left handedness is no longer criticized and rarely noticed. And there are other differences that are now celebrated that were, at one time criticized.
    America..it is a place where being different is not a matter of defiance, but of curiosity and interest, of learning and acceptance. Enjoy your stay here…bring us knowledge of the places you came from, of the hopes you have, and of your observations and suggestions.

    1. I’m 34, and when my best friend and I were in kindergarten and grade school in the 80s (a private Christian school in Texas), our teachers forced her to use her right hand even though she was naturally left-handed. They succeeded, and she now writes with her right hand instead of her left, something that was never really natural to her. It’s like she’s always been a round peg who was permanently forced into a square hole.

      1. I neglected to mention that the point of my above post was that even though it happened to you in the 1930s, it has continued to happen until much more recent times here (and probably still does, although maybe it’s less prevalent now).

  5. I am Chinese too, I only went to school in Shanghai for 1 year before coming to the US. I remember the girl who sat next to me in 1st grade likes to write with her left hand, the teacher would force her to change to writing with her right hand by putting her left hand behind her back, and told me to report her if I saw her writing with her left hand. She would get very frustrated and even cry. At the time, I thought the teachers were completely correct, and it was my duty to “help” her become “normal”. After I came to the US, I had a similar cultral shock, so many kids in school write with their left hand and the teacher doesn’t say anything! I learned that handedness is just a natural born thing, there is no right or wrong to use either hand. Who decided right handedness was “normal”? Why must children be forced to conform? Later I even learned that my own father was born a lefty, growing up in China he was forced to learn to write with his right hand in school, but everything else (using tools, playing golf, etc.) he still does with his dominant left hand, because he was not forced to conform.

  6. In india people who write with left hand are considered cool..Everyone tries to be friend with them.. Because they are different from rest of us.. It makes the person stand out from the rest.. He is unique.. I had a freind who wrote with left hand. I always envied him and wished if i was able to write with left hand and always tried to write with my left hand but failed.. Its like a god gift.. (p.s) Their hand writing are always super neat and beautiful..

  7. Hi Dandan.

    In Brazil, we think like americans about left-handedness. There is no prejudice.

    Right-handers and left-hander even hear music differently. In tests, people who are lefties can remember better the first note in a series of musical notes. And left-handers also hear music better if the high notes are coming from the left and low ones from the right, the way orchestras are set up.

    Famous lefties:
    Leonardo da Vinci
    Albert Einstein
    Pablo Picasso
    Alexander the Great
    Queen Victoria.

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