From the start of this I am going to say that being a little taken a back when you see something that you’re not expecting is normal. It is in fact, physiologically impossible to avoid as the neurons in your brain are disrupted slightly when they receive information that doesn’t match what they are programmed to process.
What I do have issue with is what people choose to do beyond that millisecond of realising that something is a little different. The people who continue to stare. That is not an automatic response. That is a choice.
Life is all about choices and there are consequences for every single choice we make in life whether we are consciously aware of them or not. Let me illustrate that point.
I got caught speeding a few years ago. I hadn’t realised that I was driving above the speed limit and was caught by a roadside warden. I was so cross at myself because it meant that I had a £100 fine that I couldn’t afford and penalty points on my licence that increased my insurance premium. You’d think that would have taught me a lesson. Apparently, it didn’t. A few years later, I got caught again. Another fine and this time, a road safety class on the dangers of exceeding the limit. I complained that it had only been a few miles per hour, it wasn’t like I was treating the road like a race track. Surely, they should let me off for a little excess speed. Then I found out the startling difference that a few miles per hour can make to the survival chances of a child if you hit them in the car you are in charge of. I came face to face with the potential results of my choices and it made me feel awful. I realised that rules are there for a reason and in breaking them, I needed to be told that I was a fool and a potential weapon on the roads. I wondered how forgiving I would be of the motorist that killed one of my children even though they were just driving at ‘a little excess speed’. I knew after that lesson that if I was to speed again, I could cost someone their life or their health. I knew that if I received more penalty points then I would risk losing my licence altogether which would cost me and my family greatly. Now, I am more mindful when I am driving. I make different choices so that the outcome is better for everyone.
Whether you realise it or not, when you find yourself staring at someone, you’re making a choice too. The first time may be a learning curve as it was for me with speeding but after that, you are making a conscious choice and I hope that my blog today is the wake-up call that the speeding class was for me. Be prepared, you wont like everything I am about to say but it needs saying.
Disclaimer – Todays blog is not assuming that everyone stares but I want it to be a post that can be read particularly by teenagers and young adults who are having their lives and opinions shaped by the encounters in their lives (under the guidance of the parents & professionals who will read this). I am not insinuating that anyone who stares is deliberately being horrible but in being my usually brutally honest self, I do hope to unsettle a part of those people who stare as their default setting and make them question why and how they can be better.
To the person who feels its ok to stare…
There are lots of reasons why you may stare at someone who looks different. Maybe it’s the first time you have ever encountered anyone with that particular difference and you are curious as to the reasons. Maybe you unconsciously buy into the social media idea of what is acceptable and positive in society and what you see doesn’t fit with what the media tells you is ideal so on some level it makes you feel uncomfortable. Maybe you believe the narrative that disabled somehow means ‘less’ and you haven’t had a conversation with anyone about what it means to be different so are ignorant to the value of that difference. Maybe you feel sorry for the person.
It could be all of the above or it could be none of them but what you need to know is that when you choose to stare (and I am talking about the long stare here that lasts longer than a passing glance) you choose to be regarded as someone who lacks compassion. I have blogged before with advice to people on what to do if they are being stared at but never to the people staring and so this message is for those people who choose to stare because they think they can. Because they believe somehow that peoples differences in body affect their capacity to feel and think. Wrong.
I often say to my boys when we are being stared at “just ignore them. It says more about them than it does about you”. That is such a loaded comment. What I mean to say is “just ignore them. They add no value to our lives and if they are so small minded and ignorant that they need to stare at others with no concept that it makes them feel uncomfortable then they are not the sort of people we would ever want to be around. It’s their loss in missing out on how wonderful you two are” Harsh? Possibly, but it’s true regardless of why the person is staring. You need to know that it makes people feel small, uncomfortable and unwanted. You need to know that you might be the nicest person in the world but if you are choosing to stare and / or whisper, point, laugh etc then in that moment you are choosing to be rotten inside. You need to know that that we are not zoo animals in cages to be stared at and discussed. We are valid, important, bloody awesome individuals just like anyone else and there is so much that you won’t see when you look at my boy and others like him.
So how can you change? How can you become the sort of person who acknowledges instead of belittling those who look different?
The internet is an incredible resource. There are fantastic accounts on Instagram if you search for hashtags such as #faceequality #differentisbeautiful #disability #diversability #disabilityawareness. There are loads and each will show you a collection of photographs from people passionate about sharing their achievements as well as their challenges.
And a YouTube channel I’d love everyone to visit is Special Books by Special Kids which is a platform for people to share their stories and tell the world what they want to be known for (its never for their disability!) The channel is brilliant and Chris and Alyssa came to the UK in December and interviewed us as part of their tour which was just brilliant. Check them out!
More practically, you can simply be the person who makes eye contact and smile. Just that simple. Practice it! Have discussions at home about what it actually means to be disabled – which parts of a person’s body or life are affected by conditions and what absolutely aren’t. Watch the Paralympics to see that disability doesn’t have to define people. We are only ever limited by our own self belief and the stories that we choose to believe.
Change the way you think and you will change the way you see.
Change the way you see the world, and the world will change.
And this world, where people with any kind of disability or visible difference are still regarded as less important at times than others, desperately needs to change. It starts with me and it starts with you.
Stare less, smile more. You’ve got this.