Tuesday, August 16, 2011


As someone in a wheelchair, I tend to stand out. It's unavoidable. You're different. Your inability to walk distinguishes you from the general population and it leads to things like pity, prejudice, assumptions and so on.

In Western cultures, we are taught that staring is impolite. This rule enters a weird gray area when it comes to people with visible disabilities. Most commonly, either people will stare at you intensely or avoid looking at you as if looks could literally kill. Both of these extremes can be a little annoying, though it's the staring that bugs me sometimes.

A few days ago, I came across a video interview with Paralympian Chelsea McClammer from neighbouring Washington state, who received an L-level spinal cord injury when she was a small child. She was asked about whether it bothers her when people stare at her. Her answer was quite interesting (and amusing):

Her answer was not at all what I expected. Personally, I hate being the centre of attention in a group (outside of spectator sports, where I often cheer for the enemy team). I get uncomfortable when people give me attention only because I'm in a wheelchair. I'd rather be noticed for something else – ANYTHING else – other than that.

However, my answer is not all black and white. I don't mind it if a child stares, because they are merely curious. But when the child's parents usher him/her away and order the child not to stare, that also bugs me because it re-enforces the idea that people with disabilities are to be feared or ignored.

Yet I don't like grown-ups staring at me. Go figure.

Also, not staring can lead to ignorance. I don't mean "ignorance" as in "lack of knowledge" but rather as in "ignoring someone." I've been in situations where I would enter a store and the clerk would completely ignore me to the point where if I needed help finding or getting something, he/she would be totally oblivious to my presence. That's not good either, so perhaps conditioning people to not stare (or even look) at people with disabilities is a problem.

This question is more loaded than it seems, so I posed a question on Twitter:

I asked this question a few days ago & would love to get some input: As a person with a disability, do you mind others staring? Why/why not?less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

Some of the answers I got were quite interesting:

@NextStopOrBust I hate it, but what can we do? I can't get angry about all of them...less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

@NextStopOrBust Vent-dependent quad here! I've gotten used to it. I just don't know why I'm so fascinating. Ok I can't breathe on my own? SOless than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

@NextStopOrBust This is - partly - an answer to your question. @Notorious_QRG writes re: disability and metrosexuality.http://t.co/LYGOcZOless than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

@NextStopOrBust And here's a bit by me, about using my wheelchair on the street. http://t.co/mdAFQhAless than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

It's a bit fascinating to hear answers going both ways.

I guess the only thing that can please both sides is the often-stated goal of "normalcy" for people with disabilities. Treat them as you would treat any other person, instead of ignoring them or giving too much attention (to the point where it is unwanted) to them.

The friends of mine who knew me before I started using a wheelchair have definitely noticed the staring because they get stared at too, by association. This ties in to the idea of "normalcy" – it should be normal for someone in a wheelchair to be able to hang out with able-bodied friends. Instead, it feels like my friends and I are a bit of a curiosity when we're out.

Hopefully there will be a day when a person with a disability will get stared at for having some food stuck on his/her face instead of his/her method of mobility.

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