Are You Looking at Me?

Let stares be dares to conversation

by Abby Albrecht on September 1, 2006 - 3:14pm

QUEST Vol. 13, No. 5

The sidewalk is bumpy because city planners decided bricks would look better on the main street. Small restaurants reach out to customers by blocking the sidewalk with outdoor dining. Trees, newspaper stands, shoe-shine stands — you name it — all take up space on the sidewalk.

Getting down the street isn’t easy when you use a wheelchair.

Then you add in people. People who watch you as you try to navigate the sidewalk maze. People who stare as if you were an alien, or had food stuck in your teeth. People who pretend they aren’t staring at you; or worse yet, people who stare without considering how you may feel.

You could be seeing a concert, or racing to catch a plane. You could even be shopping at a mall. People stare. People may stare whether you’re of a different race, a different culture or different physical ability.

What is staring?

As most of us know, staring can hurt your self-esteem. Bookstores are full of self-help books to deal with rudeness and difficult people. New studies, however, shed light on why people stare. It isn’t always a sign of rudeness.

Jill Pantozzi, 23, a scooter-using radio disc jockey in Union, N.J., said, “Sure, sometimes I feel like yelling out at people, but that’s not me and I don’t think it’s really fair to them either. Everyone is curious.” Pantozzi, who has spinal muscular atrophy, admitted that when she’s out with friends, they become more upset at the stares than she does.

Nancy Miller and Catherine Sammons, Ph.D. social workers who work with families of children with disabilities, wrote Everybody’s Different: Understanding and Changing Our Reactions to Disabilities (Paul Brookes Publishing, 1999) after new research on the brain led to insight on automatic instincts, including staring.

In an article for the online magazine Special Child, Miller notes that people don’t stare to be rude or curious, but because for an instant they see something “different” (be it a disability, blue skin or other unusual characteristic). People appear to stare while their brains process this difference and decide if what they see requires fight or flight.

Miller writes, “One of the most important functions of our brains is to protect us from anything that is potentially harmful. It does such a good job staying alert that sometimes it really overreacts to situations that aren’t at all dangerous.”

Of course, a person with a disability probably isn’t dangerous, which the person doing the staring quickly realizes, Miller says. That fact is evident in the response the stared-at person sees next. Some starers “feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, awkward, and might say or do something really inappropriate.”

Getting out, getting known

Miller reports that these incidents leave some children with disabilities and their parents feeling angry and hurt. They then tend to steer clear of similar situations in order to avoid being hurt again.

But Miller recommends just the opposite. “As more people have more contacts with children — and others — who have disability differences, they will see that disability differences are not so unfamiliar.… And as their contacts are more positive, they will become increasingly less unsettled and uncomfortable about knowing how to react.”

Carly Gray, 20, of Holdrege, Neb., noticed that, “when I go out of state, it seems like I get treated as if I’m mentally handicapped. People seem to associate wheelchairs with having mental stuff too, and it drives me crazy.” Gray has facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy.

If you live in one place and go to the same school, church, stores, etc., you’ll be less likely to come upon people who don’t know you. Over time, you’ll make friends and acquaintances and feel less like an outsider. At that point, your reaction to a person staring at you moves from “yet another person judging me on my disability,” to “I wonder if I have spinach in my teeth.”

Location, location

Some stares depend on where you are. When Gray goes into “really odd places” she notices she gets far fewer looks. “In tattoo parlors I get the most acceptance, but at Wal-Mart I’m stared down. Maybe people into different things … are more able to accept differences.”

In broader terms, you may feel that in East Lansing, Mich., everyone is staring at you and judging you; but in Berkeley, Calif., you’re downright mundane. Cities like Berkeley encourage people to celebrate their differences, so a wheelchair or strange walk is nothing compared to the naked guy next to you.

But what about the children?

Children are a different matter when it comes to stares. Rebecca Harcourt, 21, of Oslo, Norway, expressed a common view: “I don’t care as much when it’s children staring. I answer their questions properly.” Harcourt has limb-girdle MD.

Some parents try to cover the fact that their child is staring. Others tell their child they “shouldn’t bother” you.

Pantozzi said, “Young kids will usually stare just because they think my scooter is cool.

“I try to give them plenty of smiles and maybe even a hello so they know that handicapped people are no different from other people they pass on the street. Or if they are bold enough to start talking to me, I answer their questions.”

A little conversation with a child will positively reinforce the understanding that people who use wheelchairs or scooters aren’t scary.

The incidence of people staring seems to have gone down over the last generation or so. Pantozzi said, “With all the advancements as far as vehicles and accessibility in public places, people with disabilities are more easily able to be out now.” With more of us out and about, we become less strange and less stare-worthy.

Smile a little smile

I have to admit, I let the stares get to me. I avoid shopping in stores where I know I’m more likely to encounter stares. I become a little more depressed every time someone stares at me as I come home from work.

But, over the years, the stares have almost become a dare to me. For every stare I encounter, I try to say “Hi” or smile at someone else. And you know what? I’ve met some really incredible people that way.

Abby Albrecht, a freelance writer and Web designer in Concord, Calif., has spinal muscular atrophy.

There are days when someone stares at you and you wish you could come up with something witty to say. Just remember, even though you may want to say the first thing that comes into your head, don’t.

  • Pardon me. Do you have any Grey Poupon? Unless you have a stuffy English accent, the mood just isn’t right.
  • Is the zit really that noticeable? You run the risk of someone saying, “Yes.”
  • Jaffa, kree! Not everyone watches the TV show “Stargate: SG-1,” so you might reinforce their belief that “people with disabilities = scary.”
  • I knew we should have taken the left turn at Albuquerque. Yes, it’s a fabulous quote; thank you, Bugs Bunny. But it has no bearing on the staring. A witty comment should fit the subject at hand.
  • Do you like them? The doctor gave them to me yesterday. It only works if you’re a woman in a Hooters T-shirt.

What if you really want to tell people exactly what you think of their stares? Honesty is a lovely thing, but rarely a good idea when emotions run high. As Pantozzi noted, “Everyone is curious.”

It might be good to practice a few phrases that won’t offend. (You can say one of the “Things Not to Say” later when you’re talking with friends.)

  • Hi! It’s simple and to the point. Plus, we as a society are taught to reply to that word.
  • It sure is cold/hot/humid out here. This is normally the fastest way to start a conversation with a stranger. Once you have them talking, you become less of a stranger.
  • Do you know where the nearest _____ is? It doesn’t really matter if you’re looking for something. You’re just trying to get the person past the staring and into the talking.
  • These elevators are so slow! Granted, it only works if you’re in an elevator. Complaining about life isn’t normally the best way to distract people from your disability; but when you’re stuck in a tiny, metal box, it will help you bond with the person.
  • Are you lost? As with some of the other options, it snaps people back to reality. Bonus points for showing you feel comfortable in your location.
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