Lefthandedness, with its sinister history, can teach us a lot about disability acceptance and accommodations.
My child is nearly seven and super into crafting. It’s time to replace the safety scissors she’s had since she was a toddler, trust her with some nice sharp ones, and hope we don’t see a repeat of The Incident when she was three, when she cut a five pound note into tiny bits. (I still have the pieces, living in vain hope of a lucky day with a roll of sticky tape.)
However, getting scissors for her can be slightly harder. Amongst the array of scissors at the shop last week, they didn’t have any that suited my bizarre, divergent child: she is [gasp!] left handed, and they only had ‘normal’ scissors.
None of you are really gasping. Lefthandedness – once thought to be an actual sign of evil – is seen to be at best a mildly interesting fact about someone, like their stamp collection.
Nowadays, for example:
- Asking for left-handed scissors, or a left-handed mouse, isn’t considered to be an unreasonable accommodation.
- We don’t force lefties to write essays and kick balls with their right hand. Doing so is quite rightly considered abusive.
- No-one is scared to ‘label’ themselves or their child as left-handed, or hides the fact they are left-handed until they know they can safely out themselves.
So why isn’t this true for most disabilities?
When society disables
No-one, including me, would consider left handedness to be a disability, as such. However, it is an area where society can so easily disable people through withholding the right tools.
My kid will grow up in a world where she can just easily ask for the right tool. But imagine if she couldn’t?
Imagine her being forced at school into writing with her right hand, and learning to use right handed scissors. Imagine society telling her at every turn that she was less, and she needed to learn to be just like everyone else, or she’d be in trouble.
She’d be exhausted. She’d take up more effort to produce messier work and less creative art.
Perhaps, she’d eventually become very good at using right handed scissors and people would tell her: “See – you just needed to Be Better.” She would spend all her energy to get on in a world telling her she was not really acceptable. This might contribute to mental health issues. She would have been disabled.
Let her write with her dominant hand, and pass her the left-handed scissors, and suddenly she’s not. She can breathe, and get on with all of the rest of life. This is patently obvious to everyone.
Everyone has their left handed scissors
When we can see the ridiculousness of this, why do we still do this to other states of being – particularly autism and other neurodivergences? Why do we shy away from ‘labelling’ our children to help signpost their needs? Why do we force autistic people to mask, effectively forcing them to use their right hand when they are left handed? When they do mask, and mask well, why do we claim that as proof that they just needed to try hard, not taking into account the immense extra effort? When there’s a disconnect between someone’s normal functioning and society’s expectations, why do we blame the human, not the society?
Of course it’s not that simple
I’m not so naïve as to claim that every disability has an accommodation that is as straightforward as left-handed scissors. There’s also the fact that the scissors will also work for all lefties, and there aren’t such simple, one-size-fits-all adjustments for many other disabilities. I can’t overstate the importance of asking an individual what their personal ‘left-handed scissors’ are.
But when they tell you, give it to them. No judgements, no hoops, no making them feel like you are doing them a huge favour.
Just pass the scissors.
Finding the scissors: over to the experts
A huge part of designing content for autistic and other neurodivergent people is about avoiding cognitive overwhelm – things like autoplaying videos or needless screeds of text. Keeping to the task at hand.
However, I’m not autistic, so I’m going to amplify the voices of those who are. Check out the following folk. I can’t vouch for the accessibility of any of these sites, so let me know if you have any issues fully accessing them.
Courses and collectives
- Understanding Autism, a free short course run by the University of Kent (FutureLearn)
- Neuroclastic – autistic people writing on autism
- The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism (Facebook)
- Erin Ekins – Author of Queerly Autistic (Twitter)
- Sonny Hallett – Non-binary autistic trainer and mental health advocate (Medium)
- Ann Memmot – Autistic trainer, consultant, and speaker (Blogspot)
- Oolong – Non-binary autistic teacher based in Scotland (Twitter)
- Riah Person – Black autistic advocate (Twitter)
- Pete Wharmby – Autistic writer and teacher based in England (Twitter)
Erin Ekins also hasa great Twitter thread of autistic voices to follow
Thanks to Sonny Hallett for a lot of these links. Please comment if you know of anyone you think I should have included – particularly autistic content designers.
You can also check out the #ActuallyAutistic hashtag on Twitter. Please don’t use it yourself unless you are autistic.
Please beware of organisations like ‘Autism Speaks’, who claim to speak for autistic people but are not autistic run and often advocate ABA therapy – the autistic equivalent of forcing right handed scissors.