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!