There are few things as uncomfortable as standing in a public place, knowing that someone is staring at you. It can almost seem like an invisible laser beam is burning into your back. The experience is even more irritating when the gaping eyes are on your child. As parents, we have an intense need to protect our children from harm and shield them from the scorn of the outside world. So when our child’s disability attracts attention, going out in public can cause us to squirm with discomfort.
Personally, my days of being bothered by stares are long over. Let’s face it, with seven children I’ve experienced nearly every tantrum, squabble, outburst, and accident known to mankind. I drive a 12-passenger van, for goodness sake. Not much out there can embarrass me. But I remember being a young mother with a newly diagnosed child, struggling with the idea that people might be gawking at my son. With Kyle, it was more about his tantrums than any obvious evidence of a disability. But I can relate somewhat to how parents of disabled children must feel when a normal outing means facing the heartless scrutiny of the public. It’s imprisoning.
I’ve come up with five ways to deal with stares while you’re taking your child out into the world (which, by the way, is your right and responsibility).
1. Look at the person directly and smile. And if you feel so inclined, say “Hello.” This is a friendly way of saying, “I see you there; you’re not invisible.” Plus, it humanizes you. Anytime I’ve done this, the person snaps out of staring mode, smiles, and turns away.
2. Invite questions. If the person staring is a child, say, “Hello there, this is my son Michael. Did you have any questions about him?” Try not to fault children for staring. In most cases they are innocently curious, and simply want to understand why your child appears different. Opening the door to questions is a way to educate people and teach tolerance. Prepare yourself for questions which might sound offensive. “Why does he look like that?” might sound cruel, but this is the child’s clumsy attempt at understanding. Teach your child to help answer questions. The sooner your child can bravely and honestly face the world with his disability, the better.
3. Don’t judge. Now wait—what did I just suggest? For you not to judge? Isn’t the person staring the judgmental one? Perhaps. But then again, maybe she is admiring how cute your child is. Maybe she’s thinking about her grandson, who has a similar disability. Maybe he’s remembering a past student in his class who looked similar. Just as the people staring don’t know you and your life experiences, you don’t know theirs either. On a few occasions I’ve caught myself looking at a disabled child and wondering how that mom is holding up. Hopefully I wasn’t viewed as someone who was staring with disapproval.
4. Let it go. Make outings frequent enough that you simply don’t notice—or care—about looks anymore. Typically, a person who is sensitive to stares has not had a lot of experience dealing with them, or else just hasn’t come to terms with the situation. Accept stares as part of the challenge. You’ve already dealt with a lot worse.
5. Imagine the person in his underwear. HA! Okay, perhaps that’s a lame one, but hey, it just might make you laugh.
Kristyn Crow is the author of this blog. Visit her website by clicking here.
Get out there and see the world with your child, and don’t let stares stop you!