Dear Imprudence: May I Burden You?

Gentle Readers!

I love advice columns almost as much as s.e. smith, and I especially love ou’s deconstructions of them, so I get pretty stoked when ou passes them along for the rest of us to take a crack at them.

This one comes to the the New York Times’ Social Q’s from a mother who is getting a little bothered by the imposing looks of strangers when they take her daughter out in public:

Our 19-year-old daughter is disabled. She’s ambulatory, but walks with an unusual gait and is cognitively disabled. Wherever we go, people stare at her. Not glance, they stare. Recently we were out to dinner, and the woman at the next table couldn’t take her eyes off her. I wanted to say: “This is not dinner theater, and our daughter is not your entertainment.” But I didn’t. Most times, I just stare back and hope the gawker gets the message. Is there a better way?

Paulette Mann, Rye, N.Y.

I get extremely uncomfortable and irritated with people who can’t manage to be polite and respect the privacy of other people. “Othering” is a concept that riles me pretty good, and othering people based on circumstances beyond their control is right up there on my list of things that will get you “unfriended” or “unfollowed” in a keystroke. Beneath that is treating people with disabilities as if they do not have a right to privacy when they are in public with you. As if their existing in a manner that you find abnormal is somehow negating their right to eat lunch without you staring at them. Or asking them awkward questions about their condition. Or talking about them with your friends as if they aren’t right there.

I can only come close to imagining what Ms. Mann’s emotions must roll through when she wants to protect her daughter. How it must feel to want to shield her from all that uncomfortable awfulness. She is right to react the way she does, and to feel the way she does. Most of us with children want to do whatever is in our power to protect our children while we raise them to independence (or even in this case, possibly she doesn’t live at home and they are just enjoying some time out together). Here, Paulette is asking for advice on how to help with that deflection. People often turn to advice columns because it seems that they have exhausted other avenues. I applaud Paulette, actually, for taking this extra step, because I know how it feels to want to protect your child when it feels as if you can not.

I feel like the response that she received was anything but helpful to the situation that Paulette Mann drew out for us. Let’s have a look:

First off, let me apologize to you and your daughter on behalf of all the Lookie-Loo’s out there. That they don’t mean any harm is beside the point; you shouldn’t have to deal with them.

Well, Philip Galanes starts off OK. He sure got that right! *searches for cookie*

But now I’m going to impose another burden on you (as if your family weren’t shouldering enough of them). The next time you encounter a rude rubbernecker, like the wide-eyed woman in the restaurant, just smile and ask: “Would you like to meet our daughter?”

Yes. That sounds like it is exactly what she wants to do! Paulette Mann wrote to you, saying that she wants people to leave her daughter some privacy, and you want to have her now force her daughter to meet strangers! Here! Shake her hand! Come over to our table, invade her space and maybe you can ever startle her and frighten her by being a stranger! Without knowing more about this young woman, all I can say is that this is terrible advice to give to a mother who is asking for a police way to tell a stranger to piss off while her family is trying to enjoy a nice meal out. Without the Britney Spears following (a woman in another group of people I feel have invaded privacy).

Not to mention, let’s place more burden on a caregiver (because, if I don’t talk about the caregivers someone is going to run in here and call me insensitive). A parent needs another burden, amirite? As if we are not keenly aware of all the burdens we carry as parents. All we are expected to bear as we guide a child to independence. As a parent of a seemingly AB/NT child, I can not begin to understand what it is like to have that extra layer of responsibility raising a child with disabilities, but I can understand parenting from a disabled parent perspective. The pieces are different, but I am willing to bet the energies even out as they fit together similarly. “Impos[ing] another burden” is just what this mother needed, for sure. Smashing advice. Brilliant.

Oops. Was that sarcasm?

My hunch is when they shake her hand, they’ll begin to see her as a human being — with feelings and everything — and not some curiosity. Maybe then they’ll show you some of the respect (and privacy) you deserve.

It’s asking a lot, I know. But it may make a difference.

I don’t know that the best way to demand privacy is to invite others to invade it. I don’t know how that would affect her daughter. I don’t know how that would affect Paulette’s energy stores. I don’t know a how to do proofs on a Geometry test.

What I do know, is that, as a parent, this advice would have really felt hollow and a tad overwhelming. I don’t know that Galanes really had a handle on what he was suggesting. I can not imagine introducing a child to everyone who stares at her, and I can’t imagine that it would be a positive situation. Perhaps I am way off base, and I am willing to admit that if I am wrong. My own Kid would not enjoy that kind of invasion. Without knowing Mann’s daughter I couldn’t say for sure. But I am willing to wager that it isn’t a burden that Galanes had any right to place on her at all.

A special thanks to bzzzzgrrrl for the link to this letter!

6 Comments

  1. As my son has been moving through his teens, I have noticed a lot more staring–or maybe it’s more obvious that strangers are not just admiring a cute little child. Hardly a day passes without me catching someone actively swiveling their heads, craning their necks to follow us as we pass, with expressions that don’t read to me as friendly. I do the stareback sometimes, but I don’t think it does much good; it certainly doesn’t stop the next Curious George from following the same script.

    I would NOT invite someone that rude to visit our family’s table in a restaurant. I might reorient our seating or otherwise arrange to present a less fascinating view, as a gesture of reclaiming our space. On my more generous days, I might tell myself that the starer has a personal story to explain the stare (a brother remembered wistfully? maybe she has seen us before and can’t remember where?), but an explanation isn’t an excuse.

  2. Well, that is the worst advice I’ve seen a columnist give about disability. And that is saying something. Seriously, what the heck was he thinking? Lets just give another burden to PWDs- educate the world! Be an ambassador! And a burden for their caregivers/loved ones- help the PWD in your life to educate the world! Encourage them to shake hands with strangers! Ignore the fact that the people staring at PWDs are the rude ones. Don’t burden those good, able-bodied folk by asking them not to stare or by telling the letter writer that it is OK to tell the starers to go away or encourage them to stare back at the starers. No, put the burden solidly on PWDs and their loved ones and caretakers. Lord knows they don’t have enough to deal with in an ableist world. Arggg!

    Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with educating people about your own disabilities. I do it. But that is because I chose to do so. I have to right to decide I am out of spoons and not explain why I do what I do.

  3. I don’t notice stares since I am blind, but when people shout to each other “Hey look a blind!”, I sometimes do the equivalent of a stareback by pointing out every sighted person that comes along to whomever I’m with. It doesn’t work a lot of the time, but can be fun to do.

    As for the advice column, that was really horrible indeed. I have noticed from meeting people that they tend to first invade my privacy as much as they can by asking invasive questions. The same would likely happen to Paulette and her daughter if they introduced themselves to starers.

  4. I’m wondering if what the advice columnist was driving at here was an attempt to publicly shame the woman with her staring. Saying “would you like to meet our daughter” confronts her with the fact that she was staring and that it was noticed. I don’t know if this would actually work in terms of shaming her. I also wonder what the woman’s response would be. I would hope she would feel so called out and embarrassed that she would just apologize, but you never know. I don’t think it’s a great idea to force anyone to have to meet strangers for any reason. Personally, I would hate it! However, if the daughter likes meeting strangers, maybe it would work out great.

  5. I used to get lots of stares (and still do) from people when I’d go out in public. I could never tell if they were concerned or found me to be some morbid curiosity. When ever I’d catch someone doing it I’d stare back at them. I’m sure the fact that I wear sunglasses inside a lot of the time helped in making me seem more opposing. Nearly every time they would look a bit frightened and hurry away. I wouldn’t walk up an introduce myself to those people. All I wanted was for them to leave me alone.

  6. I know some people with intellectual disabilities can be unusually friendly to strangers, but it’s hardly a given (or even the majority). Lots of 19-year-olds with and without disabilities are shy, or just get lost in their own thoughts, and wouldn’t like to be introduced to some random person whenever they’re eating a meal. Also, I feel like this guy is making a big assumption that people will shake this girl’s hand and realize she’s Just Like Everyone Else. What if she isn’t verbal, has to be prompted to shake hands, etc.? Anyone who’s so uncomfortable with disability that they stare at disabled people in restaurants would probably be really freaked out if the girl doesn’t interact with them in a conventional way, and will probably have an even more negative reaction to disability in the future–“The poor things! They can’t even talk/shake hands!”

    (This isn’t to say that *I* think people should freak out about meeting someone who can’t talk or greets them in a nonstandard way. But if disabled people have to earn respect by appealing to the sensibilities of ableist people, then we will never have respect, because not all disabled people can behave conventionally.)

    Also, the advice columnist doesn’t know if Paulette’s family are “shouldering a lot of burdens” or not, so he doesn’t need to mention that. They (and by they I mean mostly the daughter) can decide for themselves if they feel that way.