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?