Dear Imprudence: Yeah Hi I’m Actually Right Here

Back in July, the following letter/response ran in Dear Abby:

Dear Abby: I am the parent of a child with special needs. To an outsider he looks different; adults and children stare at him when we’re out. My son is not aware of their impolite behavior, but I am — and it really irks me. What should I say to these insensitive people? — Boiling Mad in New Jersey

Dear Boiling Mad: I don’t think you should say anything. It is not unusual for individuals of every age to do a double take when they see someone — or something — that is “different.” Of course staring is impolite, but unless someone makes a remark or asks a question about your son, you should ignore the person.

Abby got some reader mail in response, so she decided to run a column featuring some of the letters she received. As FWD readers know, I am not a fan of the euphemism ‘special‘ and I dislike labeling basic needs as such. However, it’s very common, so I pretty much expected a thicket of ‘special’ this and ‘special’ that in Abby’s column. But I also expected at least one letter from a person with a disability, because Abby has run letters from us in the past on topics relating to disability issues.

Were my expectations met? No, they were not. The title of the column is ‘Special-needs kids build bridges of understanding.’ Three of the five letters were from mothers of children with disabilities and they all pretty much said that we have a responsibility to educate people staring at us:

…I now regard it as an opportunity to educate them about autism. I hand them a card explaining it that contains a link to the Autism Society of America.

This tactic, rather than ignoring people, is the way to go. If more people educated others, the stares and rude comments would become smiles and support.

One letter, well, here, I’ll give you the first paragraph:

I worked with special-needs children for a number of years. I actually believe that it is good when people stare. It gives us a chance to help the child learn social skills.

And finally…

I’m one of those folks who “stare” at others. By no means is there ever a bad intent. I’m a people-watcher. I love watching people communicate in different ways, like signing. Whether someone is in a wheelchair or has a visible disability, I value each and every person.

Maybe “Boiling Mad” doesn’t understand that many of us are willing to reach out, lend a hand or just be friendly. I wish to embrace, not ignore, and I hope my behavior isn’t perceived to be offensive.

So, we heard from parents. We heard from people who are a fan, evidently, of the ‘tough love’ school of thought; staring makes you stronger! And we heard from someone who likes to stare at people.

We did not hear from anyone who gets stared at. Ouyang Dan, writing about a different advice column involving the nondisabled gaze and what to do about it, pointed out:

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.

Abby’s decision not to represent any people with disabilities in her column is noted. I’m willing to bet that some people with disabilities wrote in about how much they do  not like being stared at, to point out that when everyone is staring at you, it is most definitely perceived as offensive. It’s not ’embracing’ at all to feel like you can’t go to the grocery store, ride a horse, sit in the library, or do any number of other things without people gawking at you. Being stared at is not fun.

It is also not an opportunity for a teachable moment. People going about their daily business are not diversity educators. They are human beings, doing human things, and just wanting to get those things done. Having to question whether or not you want to go out on any given day because you don’t feel up to dealing with stares is not enjoyable.

I don’t know how to deal with staring. I get stared at a lot and it upsets me. Ignoring people doesn’t quite seem to work. Staring back sometimes shames them into looking away, by reflecting their gaze back on them and forcing them to consider how it feels to be stared at, but I really have a hard time with eye contact and often staring back at people forces me to meet their eyes. Sometimes I say something like ‘pardon me, is there something on my…’ and then they mumble and look away. But I definitely do not feel like it’s my responsibility to educate people when I’m going to the post office or having dinner with friends. They can go educate themselves. Or they can pay to take a workshop where I would be more than happy to educate them in a structured classroom environment.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

12 thoughts on “Dear Imprudence: Yeah Hi I’m Actually Right Here

  1. The “staring helps children develop social skills” letter enraged me to no end. What makes people think that a child with disabilities would want to be stared at any more than an adult with disabilities? That they’d somehow be more comfortable with it? I know I sure as hell didn’t, I hated it! It made me more anxious and paranoid. Children don’t just magically like being stared at because they’re children, they’re people too and have their own varying comfort levels.


  2. What the hell is wrong with people?

    I will never forget when I was 5 and my mom caught me staring at a man with one leg, walking with crutches. She nearly ripped my arm out of its socket dragging me away and then gave me a blistering speech about staring at people. I guess not everyone had the benefit of my mom’s sense of etiquette and responsibility.

    As for “I only stare because I want to help”? If you want to help, stop staring.

  3. dude if you’re a “people-watcher” you can watch people without making it obvious. wear sunglasses or something. I guess I’m a people-watcher but I don’t just stand/sit there STARING at people in a really obvious way. the only reason people do that is that they have tons of unexamined privilege and they think it’s their right to treat less privileged people like they’re in a museum. it has nothing to do with “valuing other human beings.”

  4. I was enraged by the staring-helps-teach-social-skills nonsense, too. First of all, there’s the assumption that all children with disabilities lack social skills. Secondly, there is the assumption that it is the responsibility of the person with disabilities to handle the staring “appropriately”, rather than it being the starer’s responsibility to stick ou nose somewhere else.

    As for how I handle staring – of which I’m only aware when accompanied by verbal comments -, I sometimes point the sighted person saying “Oh wow, a sighted person!” That may be impolite, but no less polite than the staring itself.

  5. I’m also bothered by something that “Boiling Mad” said in their letter. “My son is not aware of their impolite behavior, but I am.” I mean, it’s quite possible that the boy in question isn’t aware of the behavior, but I’m worried that this is a case of a non-disabled adult assuming that a disabled child doesn’t notice the world around them. I saw this a lot when I worked with autistic kids — the other staff would talk about the kids literally right behind them, assuming that they weren’t aware enough to notice. How is “Boiling Mad” so sure that her son doesn’t notice the way people treat him?

    Or how about these letter writers encouraging “Boiling Mad” to educate random passers-by about her son? Did it never occur to them that he might not be comfortable standing by while his mother chatted away with strangers about his disability?

  6. I get stared at whenever I go out into public. It’s incredibly annoying. There is no way I would see it as a “teaching moment.” Just because they’re ignorant that I’m a person doing the same things they are (“despite the burden/hardship/difficulties/challenges”) doesn’t mean I have to educate them on the fact.

    And then let’s not forget the people who feel the need to come up and SAY that I’m so brave/strong/inspirational for doing these things. That pisses me off more…

  7. I agree with Zoe, the mother’s comments were big-time offensive. For me, as an autistic person, her telling us that her child is incapable of noticing people staring at him felt a lot like being told that I was lying about hurt because autistic people supposedly can’t even comprehend emotional pain.

    Wile where on that subject: Learning social skills? Are you serious? What kind of social lesson is he supposed to come away with? I know what lesson I come away with whenever people stare at me: You are a freak and less than human so you should expect to be treated as such. Nice lesson plan.

  8. Oh, how I hate that “teachable moment” stuff. Yeah, with my kid or her friends, I’ve done the teachable moment thing, but for the rest of the world, on a moment’s notice? No. Not for free. I’m not a drop-in disability workshop.

    Regarding the staring thing, I have to admit that I have sometimes stared at people (not on the basis of difference) because of the nature of my disability. For a long time, I didn’t even realize I was doing it. I would get caught up in the visuals of how other people look, partly because that’s where my brain goes, and partly because I’m usually trying to keep track of the sensory world in one way or another. It can make me look pretty intensely focused, and if I happen to look in someone’s direction, it looks like I’m staring, even if I’m thinking about something else. I don’t know whether all autistic people have “the stare,” but a lot of Aspies do, and it’s pretty much unintentional. Once I realized I was doing it, I switched to looking intently at things rather than people (which has its own social pitfalls, but at least I’m not making anyone uncomfortable).

  9. Assuming your child doesn’t notice people staring is like (and part of) assuming your child has no idea that they are different from other people. I know I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m fairly sure most of us have a pretty damned good idea right from the point that we start having to interact with our age-peers.
    It’s a typical case of not seeing a reaction (or not noticing it because it’s not standard) and then assuming there’s nothing going on (also like: if you can’t speak, you don’t think).

    Or maybe it’s just the age discrimination thing: assuming that (young) children are somehow oblivious to everything and have no way to sense anything at all and do nothing intentionally.

  10. Yes to almost everything the other commenters said!

    Also, I have been stared at quite a lot over the years and that jerk who said about the people watching made me want to scream. When I have an assistance dog with me, I get a lot of sappy, beaming smiles of benevolence. They get old after a while, but I get that a lot of the stare is because of the dog. When I am dogless, then it’s just the “OMG-what-is-it?” stare.

    I’ve never been good at figuring out how to respond. I LOVE Astrid’s idea! Usually I try to ignore it, but over time I have gotten up the courage to stare back — and I’m happy with the results, so far. I think the starers often don’t realize just how much they’re staring or they think that nobody is going to call them on it, so when you do turn their gaze back on to them in an obvious way, they tend to get pretty surprised and flustered and look away, which is fab. So, that’s my “teaching moment”: I learn how great it feels to MAKE people STOP staring, and starers learn that the freak they’re staring at is Hey! A Human who will call them on their shit!

  11. What social skills is which child supposed to learn? The stared-at child learns that people will stare at her or him for appearing different. The staring child learns that staring is an OK thing to to at people with disabilities. Than the staring child will grow up into an adult who still thinks it’s OK and we end up with the status quo. I suppose it’s an effective method of teaching social skills that continue to reinforce the current state of ableism.

    The main staring I’ve encountered was as a medical student when I started to use a cane. My classmates stared and stared but none of them said anything. This continued for three years. My response was to treat the cane like the elephant in the corner it clearly was and to get a toy elephant to attach to it. They continued to stare and not say anything. Interestingly, lots of other people commented positively on the elephant (and the flowered cane I mainly use now) so I claim he’s a good judge of character. But I got the fun canes for me, and I am willing to do disability education for me. It is not my responsibility to do either. And I worried that these future health care providers were not learning it was their responsibility to not stare.

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