I’ve dealt with people staring at me my entire life. Ever since I can remember, people would stare, surprised that I don’t have any legs and only have one arm. I’ve always just ignored it, or tried to ward off pesky starers by staring back, or saying something “clever.”
Adults and children both stare. Most adults stop staring relatively quickly or try to stare when they don’t think you can see them staring. Kids stare and keep staring. And then some of them make comments. Loud ones. Like, “mommy, that girl doesn’t have any legs!” It’s been a really downer since it’s become, “what happened to that lady’s arm?” I much preferred being that girl. Anyone who knows me is aware that I’m a very confident person. I don’t make any attempts to hide my disability. I don’t wear prosthetics; I do wear short sleeves. And I’m a pro at ignoring adult staring.
It turns out kid staring is another animal. I don’t remember it being so different when I was a kid, but I think I was mostly around other kids who were familiar with me, such as classmates and 4-H pals. I remember once when our family was on vacation in northern Michigan, my younger sister, who was about 10 year old, told a particularly annoying starer that “nothing is wrong with my sister – there’s something wrong with you!” Before I had my son Gavin, when kids stared and made comments, I tried to smile and engage them, inviting them to make contact and have a positive experience with a person with a disability. Parents are usually really embarrassed by their child, and often try to hush and whisk said child away. Those of us with disabilities have long spoken out that teaching kids avoidance and fear is an early negative message that leads to exclusion and intolerance. Children staring at someone who looks and moves differently is totally natural.
So why does it bother me so much? Why do I feel so uncomfortable being stared at by kids and hearing all the questions and exclamations of surprise? The way adults try to act like they’re not staring sounds sneaky, but I’m learning that I actually appreciate it. Even though I think adults stare now more than ever (she has a baby?), at least it’s quick and/or subtle. Before Gavin, I was okay with the occasional supermarket kid staring. I could gear myself up for a trip to a child-infested destination like a zoo or an aquarium. At the risk of this being a complete “duh” moment, there are kids everywhere I go with Gavin – the baby store, the pediatrician’s office, and most of all, the daycare.
Earlier this week, I was wearing a long sleeve sweater at work (in the freezing hospital). By the time I went to pick up Gavin, it was in the 80s (Thank you, Spring in Texas) and I was getting hot. I was about to take off my sweater, but then the thought crossed my mind that traipsing into that daycare with an exposed stump was like leading a lamb to slaughter. I could just envision my white arm contrasting with my black tank top – attracting all these busy bees to their flower. I stopped dead in my tracks. Was I seriously trying to keep my arm hidden to detract attention? Yes, I was. Is that wrong?
Maybe it’s just that I go in and out of the daycare twice a day, every weekday. I just want it to be smooth and simple. I don’t want to take time to educate other people’s children and make them feel comfortable around people with disabilities. Frankly, I don’t have the time. That sounds really bad. I feel guilty that I’m uncomfortable with children staring at me. I know it’s natural, and I know they mean no harm. I wonder how Gavin will learn to handle it, and questions about his mom. I have a feeling he’ll teach me a thing or two.
How do other disabled parents feel about staring? How do you handle it? What do your kids do?
Very interesting article. When I was a small child and I’d stare at someone who was different and ask questions my Grandmother would get embarrassed and angry. So when I had my 1st child and she’d see something novel to her, my response was the same whether it was a new plant, an animal, or a person – “isn’t it wonderful that God made so many varieties of (plants, animals, people) to love”. Since my response was the same no matter what it always had the same affect on her – she’d smile and say “God is wonderful and so is (this plant, this animal, she or he)!” If it was a person we were referencing they’d always smile in surprise and say how sweet she was. When we left I’d tell her that people who are different always have to deal with the reactions of people they don’t know and that it can be uncomfortable, so instead of staring and asking questions in front of them it would be a lot kinder if she asked when we were alone. After a few times she stopped.
Erin Andrews says
Sounds like you have a really great way of talking to your child about differences! Thanks for sharing.
I am recently disabled. I notice odd stares the most when I am out to eat with my kids. The vibes of that’s an odd pairing ,could that actually be his parent, they seem so normal. I have learned to ignore it. What really irks me is when servers ask my teenagers what j want to eat or talk to me like I am a child. The best response when we were out once and my daughter was asked what her mother would like to eat. My daughter looked right at her and said I really don’t know you might want to ask her. Problem solved.
Erin Andrews says
Your daughter sounds like a keeper! Thanks for your comment 🙂
i like to People watch. And i think many do. And also what stands out getts more attension, Somthimes. Cos i have often the sort off visible invisible experiens. Like People is so inntent on not staring, that one turn invisible. I sort off prefer kids honest staring Then. But not all days, and Somthimes it getts i gett the same explaining fatuige u talk about. And after i got my son People stare Even more. But at the same time i also gett more positiv feedback. For me i devide staring in to categories. The ust curious one. The positiv one, the patronizing one ( hate that’s one), the insecure, the indifrent, and I gues there are even more types then this.
Some days I handle it use fine. Other days it’s more of a struggle, and if I get the bad types it effects me more. On a good day, I use shrug it of, and feel bad for them.
But I do somthimes think about how this effects my child. And how to deal whit difrent situations as he grows older. But even I have had a the embarrast parent moment. I was trying out a new sport. And there where many amputees there. And my son was asking very laud why and how etc. I had forgotten to talk about this before we got there. Talking about illnes and difrent handicaps is sort still Tabu and hush hush. and I myself often feel very insecure about how to talk about issues regarding difrent types off handicap. Cos one does not whant to offend. Sorry this was a bit all over the place respons.
I really use whanted to say, I understand the getting tired off being stared at. When I fetch my child in daycare, I am in my huge outdoor chair. I am not invisible even a little. I try to answer all the children’s questions open.but it’s not always easy. And it would have been nice to ust blend in at times….
Erin Andrews says
Thanks for your response! It’s always good to know you’re not alone.
I apologize that this doesn’t pertain to the original post. As a result of toxic shock that lead to septic shock I am an amputee as of February this year. I am a triple amputee. I would love to have your contact information! It is very rare that I come across triple amputee’s like myself. Prior to my injuries, I was a registered nurse. I am still learning and adapting to the stares from other people, as I am a mother of three. Please, please contact me: email@example.com
I read this because I had the same questions myself. I recently became a new mother. I have a seven-month-old son and I wonder about the questions he will receive . A fun myself getting different looks now that I have a baby in my lap. Most people are shocked when they learn his fin. I find myself getting different looks now that I have a baby in my lap. Most people are shocked when they learn he is mine. 99% of the time I’ve never been the type of person that cares that I have to be a teacher. But with him it’s different It’s nice to know I’m not alone
Erin Andrews says
Glad you liked the post. Thanks for reading and replying!
Elizabeth Bowen says
Just curious as to why you would say, “I don’t make any attempts to hide my disability. I don’t wear prosthetics…” I think I can speak for a lot of amputees; we don’t wear prosthetics to hide our disability. We wear them to enhance our lives!
Erin Andrews says
Good point, and I didn’t mean to imply that prosthetics are only cosmetic. Obviously they can be functional! For me, my stump is so short that a prosthetic would only be cosmetic, not functional. So I was just referencing my own situation. Thanks for reading and commenting!
I am from Australia. I have an aquired Facial Disfigurement. I am also a parent of a 2 year old. I too have the issue of staring. I too educate people and give them (both parents and children) a positive experience with people who are visibly different. I teach that it is not ok to stare (natural, yes) rather to ask politely what happened thus dispersing any fears that they (or parents) are unknowingly transferring to their kids.
My child is ‘normal’, she has no visible disabilities and I continue to educate people when they stare when she is with me, as I believe this models:
I am OK with being different
It is OK to be different
Differences need not be concerning or worrisome…
But MOST importantly it models healthy self esteem and self acceptance which are key skills to identity.
Does it concern me when my child gets avoided in the pool because I have to be at arms length and some parents shun their kids away as well as the kids themselves… you betcha.
I do not want my Facial Disfigurement to impact negatively on her socialising and making friends. As a mother, this is a whole different level of feelings/thoughts and attitudes to work through and a new skill set to gain… for each milestone in her life from toddlerhood through to her teenage years. I continue educating people because this is the only way to change the culture in which we reside!
My response to your questions… How do other disabled parents feel about staring? How do you handle it? I have answered.
What do your kids do?
She doesn’t know any different. I am modelling healthy self esteem, healthy body image and take the time to explain my Facial Disfigurement (again and again in her presence). This (however annoying at times), gives her the knowledge of my story which is a part of her story… she is gaining a healthy self esteem, skills on how to handle the stares and outside the stares/taunts (inevitable to get at some point herself, as much as I dislike it) and is surrounded by people who she trusts and feels safe with to combat the negatives .
I have my days, where I don’t wish to ‘explain myself again’ but because it is it is a visible difference (and on my face and some people mistake me to be dumb because of), it is important that I continue to educate and handle my feelings in a healthy way (venting to friends or journalling).
I have shared your blog on Karibu Anawim’s “Welcome to The Way of Victory” Facebook page. It is an Australian company who educates and counsels people with Facial Disfigurement. Our mission is to: Train, Equip and Nurture.
Thank you for your honesty and willingness to be open and write.
Erin Andrews says
Thank YOU for your response – very thought provoking. I can identify with having a very obvious difference, and I know how tiresome it can be to constantly model and educate. But you’re right – it’s crucial and really matters to our kids. I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts and sharing the blog and site! Hope to hear more from you in the future 🙂
Chooi Hoong says
In my teens I used to tense up and find it even harder to move my limbs when I get aware that people are staring at my limp in walking. I slowly learnt to calm myself down and remind myself that there is nothing to be ashamed of.
I noticed with children there are 2 kinds- one who completely accept you physically the first time they meet you and the second one who is more observant, curious and want to know why you are different. My answer is to explain that my 2 legs are not strong so I need another pair ( crutches) to help. They still stare but I feel better as I have broken the ice.
Erin Andrews says
I agree that kids are different in the ways they respond – some seem naturally more accepting. Thanks for sharing your perspective!