We can’t help but notice when someone looks different -- if they are very tall, or very short, or missing a limb for example. It is probably very primal, built into human nature as a protective strategy to separate out friend from foe. But if you are the object of that stare, it is still very uncomfortable.
Since you don’t see too many people without an AARP card using a walker, people can’t help but look at our son, Danny, who is now 18 and has cerebral palsy. When we first enter a store or restaurant, all heads will turn towards us, like a classic scene in a Western movie when the stranger first comes into the bar.
Both adults and children will stare although the adults don’t like to get caught in the act. You can almost see the thought bubbles over their heads:
“What happened to him?”
“Is he one of ‘Jerry’s Kids?’ ”
“Will he ever walk by himself?”
“I feel so sorry for that Mom”
I don’t really mind the kids, especially the younger ones, since they are just curious and probably haven’t seen a child with a physical disability. Once during a visit to the Zimmer Children’s Museum that included an exhibit with an ambulance and medical equipment, a child saw Danny using his walker with the tennis balls on the ends and yelled out to her Mom, “I want a turn with that right now!”. It took a lot of explaining to convince her that Danny needed it for walking, not for playing.
Most of the time, I ignore the stares and do my best to present a happy exterior but this can be tough when Danny starts to demand a Carmel Frappuccino in the middle of the movie or is whining about wanting to go home. He doesn’t realize that we are on public display. When I’m tired, hungry or just running out of patience, I start to fantasize about turning to the person looking at us and saying, “Keep staring and your face will freeze!”
But in more my more charitable moments, I view these staring episodes as a “teachable moment” for all involved. I say hello or nod with a smile, acknowledging their looks in the most positive way possible. Most of the time, the person will smile back, and that’s a whole lot better than staring.