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What's Wrong with This Desk?   by  M.K. Holder, Ph.D.
  introduction  |  medical concerns  |  exam handicap  |  what's the big deal?  |  institutionalized discrimination
      for administrators, buyers  |  for students, teachers, parents  |  references  |  related considerations  |  resources

Would it surprise you to learn that the timed test scores of some students may be raised or lowered depending on the type of desk in which they sit? Or that some students are often unfairly accused of cheating when they write at a certain kind of desk? Would it concern you if your child or pupil had to sit at a desk that could cause chronic back, neck, and shoulder pain? Ten to thirty percent of all students are routinely subjected to these, and other, desk-related problems. Why? Simply because a few policy-makers and furniture buyers take infrastructure bias for granted. Side-biased tablet arm school desks represent an obstacle to learning from pre-school through university. Yet this is a problem that may be easily solved by better informed parents, students, teachers, administrators, classroom designers, and furniture buyers.
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      Medical Concerns
A right-biased tablet arm desk does not offer left-handed students the same arm support that right-handed students enjoy. Depending upon the width of the half desk, and the way the student holds the pencil, left-handers are susceptible to back, neck, and shoulder pain. A left-hander who writes with an inverted or "hooked" (bent wrist) style at a narrow desk must twist around in a contorted posture that is awkward and uncomfortable. Consider the following student experiences:

"After years of using right-handed desks, I started to develop muscle spasms around the shoulder blade area. In college, my back was always in constant pain until I started to take notes on my lap.... This allowed my left arm to rest preventing the strain caused from having no arm rest. Five years after college, I still have some problems..."

"As a college student having to use... right-handed desks, I can attest to the serious back pain they caused me from contorting my body to sit and write. This happened after only two months of using these desks."

"During high school and college, I often found myself twisted around the right-handed desks attempting to find a comfortable position to write in.... this has contributed to the serious lower back pain that I have experienced since I was 16 years old."

"I have chronic back, shoulder, and neck problems... related to the "twisted" position I (a left-hander) am forced to sit in in order to have a hard surface to write on."
  (REFS: Holder, 1998)

      Handicap on Timed Tests
Because many left-handed students have to twist their bodies around, facing to the right, in order to write on a right-biased desk, students may be unfairly accused of cheating. But more importantly, the inefficient and awkward writing position that some left-handers must adopt in this kind of desk can cause slower handwriting, placing many left-handed students at a real disadvantage on important timed examinations. Thus, for tests that have a time-limit to complete, left-handers should not sit at right-biased desks, but at a full desk or table.

Teachers, make sure your left-handed students are not seated at right-biased desks during timed tests. Students, insist on un-biased seating for important timed tests (print this to show your teachers). And be aware that for all tests administered by ETS (SAT, GRE, TOEFL, etc.), if a student arrives at the test-site and finds the accomodations for left-handers unacceptable, the student has less than a week to file a complaint. (REF: Educational Testing Service, 2003).
"I am a lefty, and... a very good student. However, on timed tests I have always been running against the clock and been less able to produce an amount of written material in comparison to my right-handed schoolmates.... we are handicapped on very tightly timed tests..."

"Nothing racks the nerves of an otherwise well prepared student on the day of an exam than to have to twist one's whole body around to be able to write on the right-handed arm chairs.... forced use of such chairs was a severe detriment to my college grades."

"I have often been accused of cheating on tests due to the way I have to sit at right-handed desks."

"....lefties are disadvantaged in some IQ tests and school or college tests... specifically the ones which use multiple choice booklets. You have to twist your arms around each other to line up the questions (on the left) with the answers (on the right). You definitely lose time doing this -- and in most of these tests time is important."
 (REFS: Holder, 1998)

      What's the Big Deal?
The bottom line is this : Anything that interferes with a student's ability to learn and perform warrants serious attention. In my experience, this desk could literally make the difference between a passing and a failing grade (when I have placed students who lacked comfortable seating, or were relegated to sit in desks only available at the back of a large classroom, at full, well-located desks, their scores improved one letter grade).

For many left-handers, trying to work on a right-biased desk is difficult, uncomfortable, frustrating, and distracting - not very conducive to learning. And when a left-handed is faced with a room full of right-biased desks the school system's message is loud and clear : we only care about the others, you don' t count.
"For me, the fact that school desks always had the arm rest on the right hand side suggested that there was something intrinsically better about right-handed kids. This was reinforced by teachers who never understood or tried to help lefties with handwriting, sports, etc. I hope that those days have gone."  (REFS: Holder, 1998)

      Institutionalized Discrimination
Historically, school systems and universities have either (a) failed to understand the serious problems associated with biased classroom desks or (b) assumed that purchasing a certain percentage (5%-20%) left-biased desks was adequate. But we know that all students work better at full desks, with ample room to comfortably write, and use their book or laptop computer. Full desks can be individual desks or tables that two or more students share. Side-biased half-desks represent sub-optimal, sub-standard seating for students. The strategy of purchasing a certain percentage of right-biased seats and a certain percentage of left-biased seats only ensures that at any point in time, a certain number of students (both left and right-handed) must endure biomechanically incorrect seating that distracts from their ability to concentrate and perform their best.

The Problem with a 10% or 20% Left-Biased Desk Strategy

Bulk purchasing percentages match poorly with statistical probably of students finding desks in classrooms that match their handedness. For example, one left-handed graduate student told me that she went from kindergarten through university, and two years into graduate school, without ever having sat in a left-biased desk. One class may contain no left-handers, the next class may contain over 30%. A percentage desk purchase strategy only guarantees that during every class period, individual students in individual classrooms suffer.

Buyers may also fail to appreciate what happens after desks are placed in classrooms. If left-biased desks are to be found, they are most often poorly located, along one side or in the back of the room, effectively denying left-handers the right to sit where they choose.
"There are a FEW left-handed desks, BUT they are normally at the end of the rows in the lecture halls. I like to sit in the middle of the room, so that I can see everything.... there has to be a better way to organize the desks so that left-handers have a choice of where they want to sit, not where they have to sit."

"In high school I always had to hunt for a left-handed desk (which usually was in the back of the room).... [without a left-handed desk] it was very hard for me to take good notes."

"It is very hard for students who write with their left hand to work at desks designed for right-handed writers. We end up trying to curve our bodies to fit the right hand design. Even in high school and college, there may be only one or two left-handed desks out of forty desks."

"... my school experience would have been much, much more comfortable and conducive to learning if I had had access to a left-handed desk in my classes. This is especially true for taking long tests. I estimate that I had access to a left-handed desk approximately 1% of the time I was in school (K through 4 years of college)."
 (REFS: Holder, 1998)
Although many schools and universities embrace anti-discrimination policies, unwitting administrators and purchase agents continue to institutionalize discrimination by buying side-biased desks. Unbiased, fair desks can be manufactured just as cheaply as biased desks. And unbiased seating does not necessarily require more floor space than biased seating. There is no reason for side-biased seating to exist.

      For Administrators, Designers, & Buyers
Fair, unbiased seating is comparable in size, quality, and price -- there is no justification for buying new side-biased desks. When we buy biased tablet-arm desks, we institutional discrimination (against both left- and right-handed students). The good news is that, while there are many intractable problems in the world, desk discrimination is not one of them.

Classroom desk discrimination is one problem that may be easily solved -- at your school, today, by you. Propose and approve a non-discrimination clause for classroom design and desk purchase criteria that stipulates that no new side-biased tablet-arm desks shall be purchased. (And be aware that if your school already has a general non-discrimination policy, the purchase of side-biased desks violates the spirit, if not the letter, of such policy.) Administrators, classroom committee members, classroom designers, furniture buyers -- improve the quality of education at your institution. (HRI would appreciate hearing of your leadership in this area.)

      For Students, Teachers, & Parents
Tired of awkward, uncomfortable biased tablet-arm desks that make it difficult for students to concentrate and perform their best? Think there is nothing you can do about it? Think again. The decision to purchase these desks is made by a single person or a small group of people who want the best for their students and their school. Clearly, they do not appreciate the serious problems associated with side-biased tablet-arm desks, or they would not buy them. Make it your job to inform them. All you have to do is (a) find out who makes desk-buying decisions at your school and (b) print this article and send it to them. For K-12 schools, ask your principle or school superintendent who makes desk-buying policy and decisions. Universities and colleges often have a furniture expert either in the purchasing department or architects' office, who works closely with classroom committees who make these decisions. Send policy makers this article, along with your polite request that school policy be implemented which stipulates that no new side-biased tablet-arm desks will be purchased. (And tell us about your success.)

Of course, until old desks are replaced, we all must continue to use creative coping strategies. Teachers, make sure that left-handers are seated at full desks during timed tests. If no such desk is available, find one and bring it to class for this purpose. Administrators, help teachers and students by providing unbiased desks that can be moved from classroom to classroom, as needed. Parent-Teacher Associations can also help by informing parents, students, teachers, and administrators about problems related to side-biased desks, suggesting policy implementation, and possibly even helping raise money to purchase new desks.

Coping Strategies
Students, here are some coping strategies that fellow students have employed out of desperation :
   For right-biased tablet arm desks, if there is an empty desk to your left, pull it close and use that desk surface.
   For auditorium seating with right-sided tablet arms, claim an empty seat on your left and use that tablet as your writing surface.
"It's really frustrating to sit in a college classroom where in order to keep up with the notes or take a test it's necessary to use 2 desks, one turned around so that it makes a complete writing surface on which your left hand can rest. What's more frustrating is sitting in a full classroom where this option is no longer available and trying to keep up with all of the right-handed students; it's very uncomfortable and sometimes impossible."

"I experienced back pain when using right-handed desks until I bought a clipboard. I would sit the clipboard on my lap to take notes, and used the desk to hold my open book. This served to alleviate my pain, and gave the added bonus of doubling my workspace!"

"I brought a legal sized clip board to class, turned it upside down and clamped it to the desk. This extended the writing surface farther to the left and made it easier to take notes. ... where there is no desk, I use a clip board with a writing pad."
 (REFS: Holder, 1998)
Armed with accurate information we can work together to eliminate the problems of sub-optimal classroom seating and school desk discrimination for future generations. Otherwise, as Kofi Anyidoho (2002) has put it,
"With so much waiting to be undone
with so much left so long undone
to keep calling our situation a dilemma
is just a bad excuse for inaction."

      References Cited
Anyidoho, Kofi. (2002). Excerpt from "Memory & Vision". PraiseSong for TheLand. (Legon, Ghana: Sub-Saharan Publishers), p. 25.

Holder, M.K. (1998). gauche! Left-Handers in Society, URL: www.indiana.edu/~primate/lspeak2.html#desks
   (Quotations are from comments submitted to this web site, 1996-2003).

Educational Testing Service. (2003). See :
   SAT test-site complaints, www.collegeboard.com/sat/html/students/take00b.html
   GRE test-site complaints, www.gre.org/com.html#complaints

Holder, M.K. (2003). What's Wrong with This Desk? Handedness Research Institute papers. URL: handedness.org/action/fairdesks.html

  m o r e . . .

 R E L A T E D   C O N S I D E R A T I O N S

    Teaching Left-Handers to Write
Many left-handed children are only permitted to write with the left hand, not actually taught how to write. Without proper instruction, a child may develop a needlessly uncomfortable, inefficient, slow, or messy way of writing. Find out why writing left-handed is not just the opposite from writing right-handed, and what you can do to help a child master left-handed writing.
   Learn more at : LEFT WRITE

    Forcing Left-Handed Children to Switch
Well-meaning parents and teachers worldwide often force left-handed children to switch to being right-handed. Find out why it is a bad idea to force a child use his or her less skilled hand.
   Learn more at : DON'T SWITCH  (coming soon)

 M O R E   A B O U T   H A N D E D N E S S

    Learn More About Handedness
Handedness is not as simple or as straightforward as it first appears. Learn more about hand preferences from the Handedness Research Institute white papers. For instance, do you know why some left-handers are unfairly accused of cheating? Did you know that most left-handers have the same left hemispheric brain specialization for language as right-handers? Find out more by exploring HRI's web site. Here are a few places you can start (coming soon, please visit again) :

         Teachers' Guide to Handedness
         Parents' Guide to Handedness
         What's Here for You

    Left-Handers in Society
Ever wonder what school is like for your left-handed child? Or how your workplace looks different to left-handed co-workers or employees? What tricks have students learned to cope with the ubiquitous bias against them? Learn how millions of people worldwide cope with being left-handed in a right-biased world : Visit Left-Handers in Society, a website collaboratively-built by left-handers. (Of course, you could also ask left-handed relatives, friends, and co-workers about their experiences.)

 R E S O U R C E S

    Print Your Own Posters
HRI makes it easy to spread the word by providing free posters you can print and post in classrooms, or give to parents, teachers, adminstrators, and students. The "What's Wrong with This Desk?" and "Half Desks Hurt Students" posters are suitable for both International A4 and US Letter paper sizes :

Wrong Desk Poster       Half Desks Hurt
   What's Wrong with This Desk? poster
   Half Desks Hurt Students poster
   More Free Posters from HRI

    Handwriting Letter Guides
Different school systems and different countries use different styles of letter guides to help children learn to write. Find several standard styles (including Zaner-Bloser and DeNealian, print and cursive) at : Handwriting Letter Guides  (coming soon)

    Letter Guide Chart

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