Computer documentation for the left-handed? (long)

Subject: Computer documentation for the left-handed? (long)
From: Jim Venis <jimv%ccmailgw -at- IHS -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 10 Oct 1995 15:13:35 MST

Dear Colleagues:

An issue has come up in our software documentation group: how best to
address the needs, preferences, and sensitivities of left-handed
users. May I draw on your insights and experiences?

A Little Context:*

Most people know that signals to the left hand come from the right
side of the brain. In left-handed persons, the junction between brain
hemispheres (the corpus callosum) is larger than in the right-handed,
suggesting that more signal traffic passes between hemispheres. There
also may be more signal conflict and noise.

Studies have found that left-handers were 1.5 times more likely than
right-handers to report that they "always" or "frequently" experience
confusion in telling their left from their right sides. Left-handed
children wet their beds longer than right-handed children. Left-handed
persons suffer sleep disorders 2.5 times as often as the right-handed.
One-third of children forced to change hands develop socially
crippling speech impediments.

Left-handed individuals form 12 to 16% of the human population now,
though tools from the Stone Age suggest that left-handed users once
were a majority. Other animals almost never display the side-dominance
characteristic of humans.

The left-handed have more accidents than right-handed persons. Most
household appliances, tools, weapons, etc. are optimized for
right-dominant users, which probably contributes to the statistic that
left-handed persons die an average of nine years earlier than
right-handed persons.

* Sorry, I can't cite sources on this information. It came to

Some Assumptions:

@ We want to serve all users as best we can. One out of every
seven or eight of our computer software and documentation
users happens to be left-handed. As with any other minority
segment of our user population, we wish to erect no barriers to
the comprehension or use of our documents or software, nor to
offend any user, even unintentionally.

@ These particular minority users have an inherently more
difficult time with instructions or procedures that involve
discerning left from right, for example: "click the left
mouse button." To complicate this problem, the vast majority of
instructions and procedures presume right-handedness.

@ Although each left-handed user has a lifetime of dealing with
these problems, each also has a degree of sensitivity to the
left-handed experience that varies from solid awareness to
outright resentment.

@ At least until technology evolves past manual interface
devices, this problem will not go away.

Questions for Your Consideration:

1. As technical communicators, how can we provide unbiased
treatment for left-handed users of our products, or at least of
the product documentation?

2. As a practical matter, can we address left-handers' special
needs without unduly hampering the needs of the majority? How?

3. In computer documentation you've seen--printed manuals,
reference cards, online help, etc.--how have writers
addressed the needs, preferences, and sensitivities of
left-handed users? Would you please provide examples?

4. What approaches to this problem can you imagine? Can you
implement them now? If so, how? If not, why not?

Notes in Closing:

Please don't think this post is a joke--I really do want to know what
you think about this. My interest is both professional and personal,
and I intend to use the results, if any.

If you were wondering, I am cross-dominant, though my dexterities tend
toward the sinistral.

Answer in as much detail as you please. Don't feel limited by the
questions posed above. Anecdotes are welcome.

Let me suggest that you send responses directly to me <jimv -at- ihs -dot- com>,
rather than to the list. (This is to help keep the list volume under
control.) Those who want to know the results can contact me.

I will appreciate all responses, but those received before October 24,
1995 will be most useful. If you respond, please indicate your own side
dominance--I'm curious.

Thank you, gentlepersons!


James S. Venis <jimv -at- ihs -dot- com> | "From IHS -- The company
Technical Writer | the world trusts for its
Information Handling Services | technical and regulatory
Electronic Product Development | information needs."
IHS is on the Word Wide Web:
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