Dec 6, 2011

All eyes on me

Joe from Conyers, Georgia asks:

Do people stare at you a lot? ... Does it bother you when [they do]?


This is one of the most common questions about wheelchair users that people like to know. Why is it asked so often? Part of the reason is because everybody has a different answer to this.

Being in a wheelchair, I tend to stand out whether I like it or not. Some people never get used to the staring, but others do. I am somewhere in the middle for a few reasons, the biggest one being how I am still considered a fairly "new" wheelchair user compared to other people.

When I first had to use a wheelchair, I was terrified of being in public. Part of the reason is the potential for people to stare. I went through the same experience when I first had to wear glasses. Even though it was a necessity, the prospect of having new glasses or a wheelchair scared me.

Some people do stare at you like you are a sideshow. Even though I had been taught how to get around in a wheelchair, I paid a lot of attention to doing things right – it was of the utmost importance that I avoided doing something such as hitting a crack and taking a spill or lose control while going down a slope. I knew that if I screwed up, it would lead to more staring and I wanted to avoid that. To this day, I still have this fear in the back of my mind.

What I found was that it was a mixture of staring and complete avoidance. Some people would be fixated on me while others would act like I wasn't even there. These two extremes are best displayed at places like stores: some clerks will not even acknowledge your presence while others will pay special attention to you in case "you needed any help." The avoidance can become a problem when you actually DO need their help, of course!

So why is there a mixture of staring and avoidance?

The staring is easier to understand. Often it is not malevolent – people stare because they are curious but do not wish to express their curiosity with words. If you were to stare so intensely at an able-bodied person in a place like Canada or the United States, it may be interpreted differently.

I like to relate the staring towards wheelchair users to the staring that a Caucasian person may get in an Asian country. When I was in Asia, many non-Asians told me that they got a lot of stares but they understand it is from curiosity more than anything, since some areas are not accustomed to seeing non-Asians. I believe it is this same type of curiosity that causes staring in the West towards wheelchair users.

The reason for avoidance is much more harder to pinpoint but the prevailing theory is that it comes from childhood. When I am out and about, parents tend to direct their children away from me or tell the child to not stare or ask questions. Over time, the child is trained not to look at or interact with wheelchair users at all, resulting in avoidance.

Is this the right thing to teach our children? This is a much-debated question.

Those who say "yes" are often basing their answer on etiquette. They are trying to get their children to not be rude (by staring) or nosy (by asking questions).

Those who say "no" are often trying to promote understanding by familiarizing children with disability culture from an early age. It is theorized that if children are taught not to ignore people with disabilities, it will result in a more inclusive society.

Personally, I am in favor of the latter answer. I do not mind children asking questions because they are simply curious; it is also a great age to start learning about how other people live, whether it be related to different cultures, nationalities, sexual orientations or abilities/disabilities.

What about older children, teenagers or adults? In general, I do not mind older children or teenagers asking questions either. For adults, it depends on the person because I find that some adults hold some very concrete (and often incorrect) prejudices and assumptions about disability that are hard to crack even with the right information, for whatever reason. Older children and teenagers have prejudices and assumptions as well but they are not as concrete and inflexible as adults. This is my own observation, so other people may have different experiences.


Concluding thoughts

Does staring bother me? It does, but so does avoidance. When you hear the word "inclusion," it does not mean treating certain groups differently but rather the same as everybody else. Both staring and avoidance are based on treating me differently because I am in a wheelchair. Treating me like everybody else you know would be the best solution.

Should we teach kids not to stare or ask questions? I do not think so. I think it is important to promote understanding at an early age before adulthood, when the more hardened prejudices and opinions about people with disabilities set in. I do not mind children and teenagers asking questions; I would rather have them ask questions than make assumptions that continue into their later years.

I understand that the staring is often due to curiosity, and not everyone gets a chance to ask the questions that satisfy that curiosity. That is what this blog is for – hopefully by answering questions, there will be fewer stares because you will already have some sort of understanding.


Keep the questions coming! No question is off-limits (as long as it has benevolent intentions)!


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