Do It Myself Blog – Glenda Watson Hyatt

Motivational Speaker

When People Stare

Filed under: Living with a disability — by at 9:45 pm on Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Piercing cat eyes
(Photo credit: Marcel Hol)

Yesterday my friend and blogger extraordinaire Liz Strauss posed the question: What do you do when people are looking at you?”

Being in a wheelchair with an obvious physical disability, people look most times I head out my front door. People look because we are curious. We notice that which is different. I admit my head whipped around when passing a guy, wearing a business suit and carrying a briefcase, had a green spiky haircut. In a way, looking acknowledges one’s existence.

However, there is a point when a look becomes a stare. Mind you, not all stares are bad. In wonder, we stare at babies. In awe, we stare at the stars. In admiration, we stare at a person’s face.

Other times, staring can be intrusive, reduce dignity, and inflict shame. Stares “reinforce the strongly held notion that being different is somehow shameful, that being different is some how at odds with universal human experience.” (from Staring Back)

Eli Clare, poet and activist, eloquently shares her experience:

Gawking, gaping, staring: I ca*n’t say when it first happened. When first a pair of eyes caught me, held me in their vice grip, tore skin from muscle, muscle from bone. Those eyes always shouted, “freak, retard, cripple,” demanding an answer for tremoring hands, a tomboy’s bold and unsteady gait. It started young, wherever I encountered humans. Gawking, gaping, staring seeped into my bones, became the marrow. I spent thirty years, shutting it out, slamming the door. Thirty years, and now I am looking for lovers and teachers to hold all my complexities and contradictions gently, honestly, appreciatively.

What can you do when people stare?

  • Take a deep breath and lift your head high. You have nothing to feel ashamed about.
  • Look them straight in the eye and smile. When a smile begins creeping across their face, they become aware of their inappropriate behaviour. Occasionally this works beautifully and a connection is made without a word being uttered.
  • Use my Mom’s line, “Take a photo. It’ll last longer.” With my speech, I haven’t used this strategy myself. Imagining the potential response makes me smile, though.

How do you feel when people look at you? When they stare? What do you tell children when they are hurt by others staring?

If you enjoyed this post, consider buying me a chai tea latte. Thanks kindly.

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Comment by Joanna Young

April 23, 2008 @ 11:32 pm

Thanks for sharing this Glenda. Your words have really made me think this morning.


Comment by Karen Putz / DeafMom

April 24, 2008 @ 4:09 am

My family has handled their share of stares over the years. From the time my kids were young, they’ve had swirls of color in their earmolds. I remember the first time my oldest son asked for clear earmolds–he was in sixth grade. He didn’t want to handle the stares at that age, he wanted to blend in.
Of course, when we sign, we often feel the stares of people too. I’ve gotten so used to it over the years that I don’t even notice much anymore.

Comment by Chris Brogan...

April 24, 2008 @ 7:32 am

When I was in Boy Scouts, I was a patrol leader. I had the “special” patrol, which had two boys with Downs, and two that had other mental disabilities. Boy, did WE get some stares. Further, people were always looking me over to figure out what MY disability was, which was interesting to me.

I’m pretty decent at not staring, but have once been accused of the opposite. “Are you avoiding looking at me?” It was very embarrassing, partly because I think I *was* avoiding looking at her (she had some really severe burn scarring), and partly because I didn’t realize the impact of not-staring meant that I wasn’t giving her a “you are alive” ping.

So this was a great post.

Comment by Avril

April 24, 2008 @ 7:52 am

Thanks, as always, Glenda, for a thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I think you hit the nail on the head with your suggestion to look people in the eye and smile when you catch them staring. It’s a gentle way to call them out and, at the same time, to make a connection that breaks through the shell. And who knows what wonders that can lead to?

(Of course, that hasn’t stopped me from being mischievous when people have stared at me! I remember once, many years ago, a guy staring at me across the counter in my local White Spot. I calmly caught his eye, crossed both my eyes and stuck out my tongue. He nearly choked on his soup!)

Comment by Vivienne Quek

April 24, 2008 @ 8:48 am

Sometimes I would walk up to the person, smiled and asked, “Hi, I noticed that you were looking at me. Have we met somewhere before. If he muttered “no and well away, I knew for sure I wasn’t the problem whatsoever.

Comment by Tracee Sioux

April 24, 2008 @ 10:07 am

I’m not a differently-abled person. I do want to say that I very much appreciate when differently-abled adults choose not to be offended by my children’s normal curiosity.

For instance when their grandfather takes off his prosthetic leg and invites the children to touch it – or an uncle welcomes the children in touching and looking at his hand that never properly formed in the womb.

Their lack of offense and their acceptance of children’s curiosity immediately normalizes starring and makes it just looking and learning. It makes it easier for me to explain that people are different and I don’t have to explain why this may or may not be a “horrible tragedy” in the person’s life, but that it is simply their reality. It also reduces my need to whisper so as not to offend.

People who are different are fascinating, especially to children.

I greatly appreciate Little People, Big World for the opportunity to educate my kids about how people become different and how we should treat those who are.

Comment by Hannah

April 27, 2008 @ 6:16 pm

I wrote an award winning speech about this exact topic. Glenda, would you like to read it?

Comment by Jacqui & Rylan

September 8, 2008 @ 8:52 pm

Isn’t it wonderful though when you do catch someone staring and you can tell they are staring at your child with love and amazement?

Often when I see kids wondering why Rylan is wearing a helmet, I ask them if that is what they are wondering about and then I explain that it helps protect his head when he falls and then I tell them they can touch it if they want. They always do and then they see him smile because they are near and all is good. One little girl in his class gave him a Christmas card and she drew a picture of his helmet and said how much she liked it.

Of course there are the other times..grrrr.

Thank you Glenda for all that you do and for being a friend that I hope to meet someday.


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