It's Okay to Stare... Then Engage a Question!
By John Register
Associate Director, Outreach & Development, U.S. Paralympics
When I was five or six-years-old and saw a person with a physical or cognitive disability, I would stop, stare, point my finger and might have said, “Look at them Mom and Dad!” as I tugged on her skirt or his coat tail. It was a new discovery time for me!
My mother or father would usually tell me that it was impolite to stare. They may have even offered an apology to the person who was the focus of my attention. Then, they would then promptly take me down another aisle, or usher me in some other direction so as not to cause anymore embarrassment to the person or to me.
How many times has this played out in the lives of persons with disabilities? How many times have we had to endure the ignorance of others? Later on in my teens, I would see these same individuals through eyes of pity and wonder how they acquired their misfortune. Inevitably, I would avert my eyes or find myself looking for a path of escape and flee to safety so as not to make direct contact with them. I thought those windows of the soul would be able to see right down to my own shallowness. What was I afraid of? Why did I feel sorry for them?
Amazingly, my perspective has since changed since my accident and subsequent physical disability. It is ironic that five-year-old kids now staring at me as I walk the store aisles in my shorts that expose my artificial leg. I can see them out of the corner of my eye tugging on their Moms’ skirts or Dads’ coats , pointing in the direction of their new discovery…me! I over hear the whispers, “It's impolite to stare!”
It took a few months for me to overcome the stares of others. Though I was self conscious about it, I did not do anything about it. In fact I was very good at becoming oblivious and indifferent to it. In my opinion it was their ignorance that was the real disability. I chose not to give the uncomfortable situation life; I chose not to react, not to respond nor give it any attention. Was some unwritten cycle of avoidance to a social issue was being allowed to continue?
During one of these occasions of perpetual avoidance, I began to think how I might change the outcome of this expected scenario. After thinking about it, I boiled it down to this - our need for information and the answering of questions, "What happened to you?" and "Why are you different than I?"
My perspective changed the day I sat on a warm summer day in an airport gate area. I was wearing shorts. Not so much because it was hot but because I seem to get through the TSA security lines faster!As I sat there two young kids came up to me looked at my leg, and asked me, "Hey Mister, what happened to your leg?" The question caught me a bit off guard. At the same moment I noticed a smiling woman walking toward me who was probably the mother of one of these two little inquisitive monsters. I prepared myself for the apology she would offer. But what she did next shocked me. Her words were the platform and catalyst for a personal change in my perspective.“Excuse me sir,” she began as she pulled her two children close to her. “My name is Jenny, and these are my two sons (Kevin and Chris), they are fascinated by your artificial leg. Would you mind explaining to them how you lost your leg and how this leg helps you get around now?”
I was blown away! What a simple thing to ask! She just flipped the script on me. Now, with the other passengers in the area looking at me for a response, I knew the next words out of my mouth would have the impact of giving them a positive or a negative experience about this current situation and perhaps reinforce their perceptions about persons with disabilities. I looked at the lady and her two kids and said, “Sure!”
I proceeded to speak about my athletic career which culminated in winning the silver medal at the 2000 Paralympic Games. I ended on a positive note saying that no matter what happens to you in life, you can choose to make your life bitter or better because of it.Jenny thanked me. Her kids thanked me and said, “You’re cool!” I heard a few chuckles by passengers who were eavesdropping on the conversation.
I realized at that moment that I was just as much a cause for their ignorance and perception about my leg. If I wanted people to treat me for who I am then I would have to accept all types of attitudinal perceptions. From that moment I began to look for teachable moments and do my part to decrease attitudinal and social barriers for the disabled. With and emphasis on the physical disabled population.Those of us who have a limitation physical or otherwise do not have to shy away from the rest of the people who appear normal.
We have a voice and can effectively use it to foster a better world.
JFA Daily 3/5/08