Admittedly, it’s difficult to give my advice on staring at disabled people because it’s hard not to mix up my own negative personal experiences regarding staring with general advice which can apply to everyone. A part of me wants to say: ‘Don’t stare, it makes whoever you are staring at feel awful,’ but I know it’s not that simple. Our eyes are one of the tools we use to explore the world around us. Of course, it’s not our only tool, but it’s one of the main ones those who have the ability to see rely on.
Therefore, it’s an automatic human reaction to examine that which we’re not familiar with using this essential tool. I’m sure almost everyone can relate to being stared at for one reason or another: whether it’s because you’ve visited a country on holiday where you stood out a little more, because of your unique fashion sense, because of your natural afro hair or because of an embarrassing tumble in public. Whatever the reason, this post is going to give advice on staring and tips for those who are usually stared at.
Before I start with the advice, I would like to point something out: The difference between staring and looking. There is absolutely nothing wrong with looking at people, looking is what we all do every minute of every day unless we have our eyes closed. If I constantly tried to avoid looking at all of the people around me, I don’t know what I would do with my eyes. Staring is something else – staring is focusing your eyes onto someone for a long period of time. The difference between looking and staring is the difference between seeing a person or watching a piece of visual entertainment, the difference between being curious about someone or examining them like they’re a specimen. There’s nothing wrong with looking, but we should all consider our actions when it comes to staring.
Without further ado, here are my six tips to do with staring at those who look different:
#1: We’re All Human
When it comes to staring in general, this is an important thing to remember. There’s a quote I really like from one of my favourite authors, Gregory Maguire, that says: “The world pauses for royalty and deformity alike, and sometimes one can’t tell the difference.” (By the way, I don’t condone the use of the phrase ‘deformity’. This quote is rather old and therefore outdated) Personally, I’ve never believed in the sensationalism of people, especially celebrities. No matter how perfect they may appear in the media or how talented they are, I think it’s important to remember that they’re still human beings like the rest of us.
It makes me angry when I see interviewers asking inappropriate questions to celebrities about their personal lives and sexual activity because they’re questions that would seem horrible if asked to random people on the street. But because they’re celebrities, people feel as if they don’t need to treat them with the same level of decency they would award any other human being. They’re not walking monuments, they still breathe and still have hearts that beat. And the same goes for disabled people or anyone else who gets stared at for looking different. No matter what we look like or what we may be known for, we’re all human, and don’t deserve to feel like we’re not by being stared at.
To help emphasise this point, here is an extract from my diary which I wrote around a year ago (I’m a very dramatic kid XD) I may have been writing about adults who tend to look away, but I think it can apply to staring in general: “Most people when they see me look quickly away again. I know that they see an error or something wrong before they see the person. I am a mistake to them, someone who ‘came out wrong’, a glitch in the system, a blemish in their ‘normal, average’ world. So, they look away, some trying not to think too hard about what my horrible life must be like, others just glad they’re not me. I know some people like having me around, I can see in their eyes that I am their daily reminder to be thankful for their lives, a daily reminder of what could have been. After all, there’s always some poor sucker going through something much worse. There’s always some poor sucker like me.
But the truth is that this is my life. I know it’s impossible but really pause for a second and try to imagine that this IS my life. Our disabilities don’t dissolve at the end of an inspirational speech or wash away in the Paralympic pool after winning the gold. Every morning you wake up to this, 24/7, every hour of every day – it’s all you know. Don’t just brush it off as bad or hard, because if you do, you’re not imagining hard enough; an entire existence could never be summed up in a single negative phrase like that. This is my life, and apart from a few sucky setbacks, I still breathe, I still blink, I still live the same as you. Life is just life, and this is just mine – different, yes, but nothing worth the aversion of your gaze, trust me😊”
There’s nothing wrong with being curious, just remember to not treat someone differently because of the way they look. When I walk down the aisle one day, I hope I do have everyone’s eyes on me, and I know we all dream about those moments in the movies where the beautiful character steps into the party and everyone turns around to admire them. If someone is wearing extravagant or creative clothes then I don’t think they’d mind being stared at or appreciated, but if someone like me is just going about their everyday life then I don’t think that’s what they’re after.
#2: A Smile Makes All the Difference
When I see people staring at me, sometimes they’ll look into my eyes and smile. Smiling makes all the difference because it’s an acknowledgement that there’s a human being behind the body you are looking at. It makes me feel happy and causes me to smile back. Whether it has anything to do with staring or not, a smile is always a great way to cheer up someone’s day and something the world needs more of. It makes me feel especially happy when I see children doing this, it’s a reminder to me that they’re full of love and joy and not intending to hurt me with their curiosity.
And NEVER EVER point. Pointing is what you do at the zoo when you’re trying to show your friends an animal which is hidden in an enclosure, it’s NOT something that should apply to human beings. If I see a wheelchair-user with awesome flames painted across their wheels, I’m going to turn to my friend and say: “Hey, check out those awesome flames! That wheelchair is the coolest thing ever,” not point.
#3: Children and Staring: What to Teach Them and How to React
Of course, staring is slightly different for children who are more curious and haven’t learned as much about the world yet. I’ve consulted briefly with parents to come up with these main tips:
- If I was a parent, I would show my children pictures and books about people who are different. Consequently, they’d be more used to them and less likely to have never seen someone like them before if they do come across someone different in public, and therefore less likely to stare. Show your children strong black women with natural afro hair, disabled people, trans people and humans from all around the world. Educate them on things like wheelchairs and why we have lifts. This will also lead to a more open-minded child in general. When you teach your children, don’t teach them to fear or avoid disabled people, don’t teach them that all disabilities are because of accidents or are something ‘sad’, just teach them that everyone is different and give them other examples of this that they’d understand.
- Teach them not to point along with their ‘pleases’ and ‘thank-yous’ and the rest of their manners. It may be difficult to explain how staring can be hurtful but it might be worth a shot trying to include ‘not staring’ in that list of manners.
- I’ve often heard people say that we need to encourage staring to help educate children on wheelchairs and the different things that we may use to help us out during our daily lives, but I’d like to think that children can learn much more about us by simply asking instead of staring and trying to figure things out for themselves. How much can you truly learn from staring alone? Personally, I much prefer when children ask me questions rather than staring. If there’s one thing I always try to have patience with it’s answering children’s questions, because there honestly is nothing wrong with them asking. I would like to encourage parents not to feel scared if their child is asking something. It makes me sad when I see parents shushing their children, pulling them away from me or apologising when their children are asking me questions.
To all those who usually get stared at by children, I would recommend smiling. That often supplies them with the confidence they need to approach you and possibly ask a question or say ‘hello’. When most children stare persistently, there’s usually an element of uncertainty or fear mixed in which a smile can help to dissipate. You’re going to need a bucket-full of patience when dealing with them. I know how useless the advice of ‘just ignore them’ can be, but do keep in mind that they are just curious and that our best chance of tackling ableism is helping to educate the younger generation on disabilities. Communication is key if we want a future of openness and acceptance.
#4: What to do When You’re Stared at in a Way That Makes You Uncomfortable
My sisters used to tell me if I saw someone staring to simply stare back, but I’ve discovered over the years that this piece of advice isn’t as easy to follow as it sounds. I’ve stared back at people only to discover that they were looking at something else, and sometimes staring back doesn’t always cause people to look away. I recommend addressing someone if they’re staring at you in a way that makes you uncomfortable. A small, “Can I Help You?” or “Excuse Me?” usually does the trick.
#5: Consider The Consequences of Staring
Like I said before, all I truly have to share are my own experiences of the effects of staring: I was always a loud, carefree child, but when I had to start properly using a wheelchair at the age of eleven, I started to realise people staring at me for the first time and was forced to swallow the truth that I was more different than I had previously thought. It was a big shock for me at that age, especially since I used to be able to walk and wasn’t used to being stared at so much. I started to curl into myself, becoming more shy and caring about what others thought. Everyone around that age experiences spots and bad hair days, but when I had them it would feel especially awful because I knew that people would be staring, after all, they always were. When the staring got really bad, I used to try and hide my face or conceal the most ‘disabled’ parts of my body by sitting on my curled fingers and hiding them from view.
One of my teachers at the time told me to: “Just deal with it. You’re going to have to get over it.” But that was easy for her to say. Being someone who people usually stare at sounds frivolous, but it’s not. It can make you feel more like an outcast than anything else, and even after all these years, I still haven’t truly gotten used to it. When I’m in front of a crowd, it feels humiliating being stared at during moments of vulnerability like when I’m being lifted or lowered into vehicles. In those moments, I’d give anything to be invisible. Even these days, I sometimes surprise myself with how upset I get when I see people pointing or tripping over themselves to catch a glimpse of me and show me off to their loved ones.
To me, staring isn’t just rude like burping or not saying please or thank you, it is alienating, it makes you feel inhuman like a zoo animal. How can you ever feel like everyone else around you if people are always staring at you as if they’ve never seen anything like you before? And even if you do just ignore the stares, you can’t truly ignore this feeling that accompanies them. I know that most disabled people will roll their eyes at me for having a problem with staring. They’re probably thinking: ‘staring is just something you should get used to, there’s no harm in a bunch of eyes anyway,’ but maybe they’re just stronger than I am.
As a naturally shy person, the staring really broke me. Most introverts want nothing more than to curl inwards and be left alone by the world, so being one that is constantly watched and given lots of attention is overwhelming. Still, all I want to do is shrink away, but the world won’t let me be. When I was a pre-teen, the staring also made me scared of children. When I used to see a group of children approaching, I would turn around and hide until they passed because I knew what type of staring usually accompanied them. I’m not as bad as I used to be with staring though so I guess in a way my teacher was right.
#6: Don’t Overthink It
‘Relax and don’t overthink it’ was also my last piece of advice at the end of my Talking to Someone in a Wheelchair Dos and Don’ts post and it applies to all social situations with disabled people. When you overthink not staring you get things like avoiding looking at people to try not to offend anyone, but that can be hurtful too. My main advice is not to overthink it and just treat disabled people the same way you would treat anyone else if you cross them in the street.
That’s it for my six tips on staring. Did you agree? Chances are, we’ve all been stared at one time or another in our lives so I’m sure that most can relate. See you next week!