Learning to Sign Left Handed

For all you lefties out there – this is no big deal for you, but for a right hand dominant signer who has lost a lot of the use of right left upper arm and shoulder – this is a huge deal.

For non-signers, you may not understand either, but when American Sign Language (ASL)  does not take place around the waist.  It takes place around the face, head, shoulders, and upper body most of the time.  When you can’t move your arm without pain that varies from OW! to Aieeeee!!!! it’s a problem.  Actually, it is a huge and almost insurmountable problem.

I am beginning to realize that I’m going to have to start signing using my left hand.  It is a cross dominance issue.  I’m right eyed and right footed, but learned to be left footed when working with dogs, so it can be done – only I don’t use my foot to communicate with.

Finger spelling is going to be a trip.  Signers have strong hands from all the use their hands get – and my strong hand is my right one, not my left one.  (sighing) I remember practicing and practicing with my right hand and having a sore hand.  Now I wish I’d worked on both at the same time, but we always hear to use our dominant hand.  Only my dominant hand is hard to get up to the target space used for most sign, and many motion based signs are flatly just painful.

It is not that I can’t sign left-handed.  It is that it is going to be like starting all over again in so many ways.  I’m bummed.  It could be worse – I could have entirely lost my arm or lost 100% of the function in it.

For those of you I sign with, have patience with me… I’m going to have to crawl before I can learn to walk.  My right arm isn’t coming back online any time soon…


      1. I have PT exercises to do – and I need a PT who will take my insurance (I may need to come back to Woburn for that). I do what exercises I can.

        The PTs say, “If it hurts, don’t do it!” Since everything hurts (even when I am not using the arm) I’d never move again – so I now have a “at X point I stop moving” (usually right before I start hyperventilating).

        Tell me about your exercises – I am doing bent over rows, several “attempts” to get my hand behind my back, walking fingers up the wall, putting the hand on the wall by my head (shriek!) and then moving forward to twist the shoulder (pant/gasp) – got more?

  1. I gave up sign for that reason. Fell through a window and severed my right hand. I’m not deaf, so I had a choice on communication, but had to change careers. I hope you have better luck than me.

    1. You lost your right hand? Holy cow! I’m so sorry to hear that. I do hope that the doctors were able to reattach it or something. My arm and hand are still on my body, although they don’t work very well. As to learning to use my left hand for ASL – it is apparently going to be a necessity. I’m not deaf yet, but my hearing is going so I have to figure this out.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting and I hope you are doing better each and every day.

  2. I’m a bit confused – you say at the beginning that “for a right hand dominant signer who has lost a lot of the use of her left upper arm and shoulder – this is a huge deal.” Later on, you say you need to start signing using your left hand. Was that first part a typo?

    In any case, just give it time. I’m a native, non-speaking signer, right-hand dominant. When I broke my right collarbone right next to the shoulder joint two years ago, I had to stop using that arm – heck, I had to stop using everything on that side entirely – because it hurt SO much. It was two months before I could start moving that arm, even a little, and three before I got cleared to resume normal daily activities. It took the full two months before I became somewhat comfortable using only my left side for signing. The hardest part was fingerspelling. I don’t think I ever got past the finger-mumbling stage.

    You’ll get there.

    1. Hi Myra,

      Oh, my! Thanks so much for pointing out my typo! I’m right handed and my right arm/shoulder was badly injured. I fixed the typo. So thanks again!

      I’m finger-mumbling. I can’t make a W with my left hand – it’s hard with my right, but with my left its impossible. And for the two handed signs – forget it! I can sign with my right hand, but not in the right area of the body.

      I broke the humerus rather than the collarbone, but I had the “advantage” of being bolted and screwed back together (if it is an advantage).

      How long did it take you to get your right arm back?

      1. Three months to simply move it around. By that point, the fracture was fully healed but the muscle was damaged by spending three months “forward,” in the wrong position.

        I had the best PT ever, returned to Crossfit as soon as I could (I push-pressed 100 pounds two days after being cleared three months post-injury; the left end of the barbell went up more than a foot higher than the right end), was absolutely faithful about doing all the exercises he gave me, and regained basic joint motion in what he said was an unusually quick amount of time. However, it was:

        -Four months before I could crack an egg on the edge of a bowl without smashing it. Ditto for writing legibly with that hand.
        -Six months before I could reach behind me on that side with my hand actually behind my back.
        -Eight months before I could extend my arm fully overhead without too much pain
        -A year before I could sling a backpack onto just that shoulder and not feel the pain
        -A year before I could put away plates and containers on kitchen shelves above my head without nearly dropping them on my face
        -A year and a half before my shoulder stopped buckling at random times when handling heavy weights overhead (presses and overhead squats)
        -Almost two years before I could stop giving that shoulder extra attention when doing my morning flexibility routine

        It’s been 26 months now, and I still cannot reach over with that arm, hook my wet sports bra underneath my left side, and pull it off over my head after working out as I regularly did pre-injury. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to move my shoulder in that specific trajectory again with enough strength to do that.

        I still can’t sleep on that side with my weight on the shoulder for more than 30 seconds unless my elbow and shoulder is hanging off the edge of the bed so my body weight doesn’t press down on it. The pain isn’t bad but I “feel” the shoulder there and I’m a light sleeper so it just bothers me.

        I was 36 when I broke that collarbone and in great shape due to all the running, Crossfitting, in-line skating, and other activities I’d been doing, so the length of the recovery took me aback.

        One note: I worked with two different PTs and I noticed an enormous difference between the two. One simply gave me range of motion exercises to do. I did them dutifully and they did not help at all. The other – he was amazing. My work with him consisted more of him feeling all around the joint and having me move it as much as possible in different directions. He told me exactly what was wrong with the shoulder – it was too far “forward” because I’d been cradling it protectively during the recovery period. He then kind of re-trained my muscle memory through massage, having me push against his hand as he re-directed the arc of my arm, stuff like that. One of my interpreters had a sister who ran a PT center in New York, and the terp told me the PT I had was the best she’d ever seen. The skill level of your PT will make a huge difference. If he or she is just measuring your range of motion externally, without really getting hands-on, and giving you range of motion exercises you could find through Google, you might benefit from working with a more skilled PT.

        I mentioned above that it was almost two years before I stopped giving my shoulder extra attention in the mornings. For a long time, I had to keep pushing my shoulder “back” from its “forward” position while doing my morning flexibility and stretching routine with a form of self-massage. That was something I learned from the PT, and that’s probably what has made the most difference over the past two-plus years. Whenever there was a pang or twinge, I knew why it happened and how to fix it.

        My fracture was a nasty one, though, and couldn’t be repaired through surgery because of its proximity to the joint. I was initially told that there was a possibility it’d never fuse and heal. Fortunately, it did. If you’re able to start working on range of motion earlier than 2-3 months due to the fracture being bolted and screwed, that’ll help you enormously. Three months of having the muscles and ligaments in the wrong place really does a number on a ball-and-socket joint.

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