by Jenny Addis
Yesterday I went shopping at the mall and it felt like everyone was staring at me as if I was some sort of attraction or alien! I was wondering if others respond to you that way as well. Do you feel like everyone is staring at you when you are trying to enjoy the same experiences and activities as every other person in society? I have been injured since January 15, 2011. Am I being oversensitive since being a paraplegic is new to me? What is wrong with people? Is this what I have to look forward to? I feel frustrated, alone and alienated from the rest of the world!
First, I'd like to start off by saying, "NO," you are not being oversensitive and you are not alone! I went through that same frustration, alienation and adjustment period right after my injury. In fact, I still feel that way at times. I don't think I am out of line by saying that everyone goes through that same feeling of alienation and loneliness after such a traumatic, life-altering change. I think that feeling alone is a natural response for anyone who has gone through such a loss. A part of you died that day. Your health, which we all take for granted, was stripped away from you with no prior notice.
And now as you adjust to a new way of life, to have people stare is by no means helpful! To anyone out there who is guilty of this behavior…shame on you! Didn't your mother teach you that it's not polite to stare? I remember when I was a child, my Mom always taught my brothers and I it wasn't polite to stare. I'd like to think that this is still a common practice among parents and their children today. Why, as a society, do we have this urge to stare? Think about it. We all have been guilty of it, young and old, but as we get older, we should know better. We expect this type of behavior from a child. Their curiosity and urge to learn is why they do certain immature or unacceptable behaviors, because that’s part of the learning process.
One of my previous columns, “Age Appropriate Or Not,” is an informative "Hey Jen!" entry on how important it is to teach our children that it's not polite to stare. Children should be taught that we are all equal and deserve the same respect as all individuals in society. A common question I receive from a staring child is, "Why are you in that?" obviously referring to my wheelchair. I have no problem answering any questions a child is asking and helping the parent by interacting with the appropriate answers to any questions their child has or they do as a parent, because sometimes the adult may not know the appropriate answer.
My first reaction after my quadriplegia was the same as yours, Maika. I assumed the stares had negative intentions attached to them, but why in the world would anyone, after going through a traumatic physical body change, not by choice, feel like a stare by a stranger would have any kind of positive attachment? The images of my own insecurities and fears of the unknown on how people were going to treat me after my quadriplegia reside in my head yet today. I found the most consistent place that produced the majority of those unwanted stares was at the shopping mall as well, which was one of my favorite places to visit and enjoy time with my friends and family. Sadly, my favorite activity started becoming my least favorite.
The question of why people stare is extremely universal, whether you become that chosen object due to a physical or developmental disability, obesity, overly attractiveness, unattractiveness or a nontraditional appearance. Whatever the person staring is obsessed with causes the victim or the person being stared at to become insecure and closed off from the outside world. As I researched this subject, I found some interesting and beneficial reasons to why people stare. Here are just a few:
Admiration. There is a possibility that the person staring at you admires you for some reason and wants to initiate a conversation with you and continues staring at you to see whether you reciprocate the stare or not. Reciprocating can be a sign of interest.
Insecurity. People who feel insecure about themselves may stare at others, so they know what others look or behave like, or as a defense mechanism.
Amazement. The person staring at you may just simply be amazed by your attractiveness that they just cannot take their eyes off of you.
Judgment. The person may be judging you through their stare, especially if they see something different or outside what's considered the norm.
Why people stare is really hard to answer unless you speculate or guess. Staring is not hard behavior to notice, because you can easily make out if someone is gazing at you for an inappropriate amount of time. The reasons above can be beneficial when you are searching for an answer. Keep in mind, whatever the reason, it is still rude, impolite and an invasion of an individual's privacy.
My suggestion and advice is straightforward. What I have learned over the 14 years I've been living with an obvious, out of the norm, physical disability known as quadriplegia is that whatever the reason is for the stare...don't let it get to you negatively. For me, it has become important to me to get to the bottom of the stare, because after all these years I know the stares are more out of curiosity and a lack of education, not necessarily negative. My response to a stare usually begins with a smile, saying hi and I may even initiate a conversation with the individual staring at me, even if they do everything possible to avoid me! The person is either going to quickly turn away out of their own feelings of discomfort or respond positively and appropriately with a smile right back and a verbal response. If they quickly turn away, then I know the answer to that stare. It was impolite, rude and hopefully, I made them as uncomfortable as they could have made me feel. If the response is appropriate, it may become an opportunity to share my personal experience of overcoming adversity and to educate them. This is a perfect example for others to see that just because we may be living with a disability, does not mean that we cannot be as intelligent, beautiful, handsome, funny, capable of loving, being loved, career-oriented and the list goes on and on. Whether you are living with a physical, mental, or developmental disability, does not mean that you are not capable of giving, wanting or needing the same everyday needs and wants as the rest of the world.
I think I speak for everyone living with any type of disability or in a situation that may be considered "out of the norm" when I say that, if you find the urge to stare, please be polite and walk away or simply approach us and say what’s on your mind. We will appreciate your honesty and respect. The moral of this story is simple...Remember, "It's NOT Polite to STARE!"
To read Jen's previous entry, "Age Appropriate...Or Not!" Go to: http://www.mobilewomen.org/2011/04/hey-jen-age-appropriateor-not.html#more. To find more "Hey Jen!" columns, visit www.mobileWOMEN.org/heyjen. Remember, nothing is too personal in my book, so send your questions to “Hey Jen!” at: mobileHeyJen@gmail.com! Learn more about me and my story at my website: www.InspirationSpeaks.Me.