Staring and disability

For World Mental Health Day, I’ve decided to tackle a topic that affects me pretty much every day and has a massive impact on my mental health. On a good day, I make an effort with my appearance, I zone it out, I smile or I choose to ignore it. On a bad day, I make an effort with my appearance but I’m self-conscious, embarrassed and waiting for it from every person I pass in the street.

Staring. Let’s just clarify what I mean by this term. I don’t just mean looking at me for more than 2 seconds. It’s the double-take, nudge of someone else’s elbow, the looking into your soul stare matched with a look of, well let’s say they’re not smiling and worst of all, the disregard that I know exactly what’s going on.

I’m writing this blog partly for other disabled friends who experience this too but also for people who have been guilty of this in the past. So I took to social media to ask what some of my followers wanted to know about this topic. This is only my experience of course, but I thought it was important to share. Here we go!

“Why do people do it?”

I’m probably the wrong person to ask this because I genuinely forget I look “different” but I’m constantly reminded when I go outside of my house. I suppose to be blunt, people don’t see 2”11’ wheelchair using women every day. People are intrigued. But I can’t answer why some people are intentionally rude.

One parent replied with a really interesting point, that the most intrusive kind of stare is when someone is watching how you do something. Whether that’s eating, traveling or even just socialising with friends. You become a spectacle doing every day things and ultimately, feel like you can’t do anything without a pair of eyes on you.

“Sometimes I want to admire fancy shoes or funky hair but I don’t want to look like I’m looking because they are disabled”

Of course! Who doesn’t want to admire fancy shoes!? I think the disabled person will know when this is happening. It’s completely different if you are nervous that you think you’re staring there’s nothing wrong with saying “I like your shoes”.

“How do you deal with it? Do you have any comebacks or do you just ignore it?”

Ooft this is a question and a half. I recently shared a tweet about how I challenged three men at a bar and you could say it went somewhat “viral” as the kids say. Yes, I was absolutely buzzing that I challenged three men for sniggering at me in a bar but I would never do this usually. I have to think about:

  • where I am

  • if I would create danger for myself

  • if it’s worth the mental energy in doing so

All of these factors mean that usually I don’t. But that day, I wasn’t having it.

Most of the time I will either:

  • stare back until it gets really awkward and they realise what I’m doing

  • zone it out (most common)

  • shout HI really loudly to snap them out of it

“How can I support my young child/teenager who is starting to notice they’re being stared at?”

It’s weird when you’re growing up and you’re oblivious. I think I started to really notice and become the most frustrated when I was a teenager. Hormones are flying anyway, all you want to do is fit in with the crowd and being stared at is not a great confidence boost for a young person.

For parents or carers, I would say first of all – talk about it and don’t shy away from it. Even just a simple “can you believe that man today!?” It’s really good (I found anyway) to be able to talk about it, it may then lead on to how they want you to support them. For example, now my mum and I have a quick look at each other and she knows to step where I’m looking to block someone’s view. #teamwork

Personally. I found for me, not making it a big deal when it’s happening to be really important. It’s a stressful situation anyway, but challenging someone on someone else’s behalf (even if you’re absolutely raging) may not always be best for the person you’re with.

“Is there a difference between children and adults staring?”

Yes! I’ve blogged about this before and how parents can handle these situations. But mainly, kids are blunt. They say what they see and there’s actually no judgment there. It’s mostly innocent and inquisitive. I think adults staring is the worst scenario. They know exactly what they’re doing and ultimately, teaching (and actively encouraging) children to stare along too.

“Has anything good ever come out of staring?”

I thought this was a good one to end on. Honestly, I don’t think so. Staring is intimidating and never a positive experience. When I talk about staring, people like to defend it and say, we all look at people sometimes! But this is different, it’s not just the looking, it’s the ignorance and assumptions that are so loud and clear with the looking.

So remember, the next time you see someone and you want to watch them pass or follow them to have a few more seconds looking. Stop yourself, stop your friends doing it and just crack a smile instead.

I’m writing this on World Mental Health Day as I believe this is a massive issue that affects so many disabled peoples’ mental health. You’re seen to be “strong” if you just ignore it, you’re seen to be “brave” if you confront it – when actually, it should be down to the public to know that staring is powerful and sometimes actions literally speak louder than words.

Are you someone who experiences this a lot? Or are you a parent or family member who is still learning what to do? Let’s talk about it, because today is a good day to start.