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.
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.