My husband and I were having lunch at an Indian restaurant in Tucson with my friend Samir—a very accomplished young man who also happens to not have hands—when my husband turned to me to tell me how the women at the table next to us were blatantly staring at our group. I turned to look and noticed that the women did not even attempt to hide their staring. They were actually turned around in their chairs and almost facing us.
This is not a new occurrence for me. I have been stared at my whole life and have come to accept that it is just one of the things that comes with not having arms. My mom always tells the story of how she would bring me to the grocery store as a kid and how people would make comments such as “Oh, poor baby” or “What happened to her?” Those reactions really bothered and hurt my mom, but the staring made her feel even worse. Staring doesn’t only affect the child. It also affects the parents, siblings, friends, and anyone who is around when it is happening. Parents of differently-abled children approach me all the time asking about how I deal with it.
I think back to my younger self and remember how difficult it was. I recall a particularly horrible day when I went to Sam’s Club to pick up my aunt who needed a ride. I was tired and not looking forward to dealing with the holiday shoppers. I went inside, looking for my aunt. As I walked by the lines of customers behind the registers, heads turned one by one, like domino pieces. I felt so exposed and vulnerable that I hid behind the nearest rack of clothing, just wanting to escape all that unwanted attention. I managed to pull myself together and leave the store that day, but that low moment brought about a resolve to be stronger in dealing with people’s staring.
I realized I could either cower like I did at Sam’s Club or I could show people that my confidence and my happiness are not affected by their staring. Now, I often think of one of my favorite quotes, “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.”
Coming from a position of understanding also helps. Giving people the benefit of the doubt lessens the effect staring has on me. Sometimes, the staring or the questions just come from genuine—albeit, insensitive—curiosity. On some good days, I could even start a conversation and who knows, develop a friendship. It is certainly an opportunity to enlighten and educate. But I am human, and sometimes, I just want to go into a store and get a gallon of milk without having to answer questions about why I am different.
I remember the first time I met my mentor, Barbara, who successfully raised two children and enjoys bodybuilding as a hobby despite having no arms. We went out for coffee and I was so excited to meet someone for the first time who, like me, did everything with her feet. We sat directly across from each other and picked up our coffee cups at the same with our right foot. Looking at her, I had an “aha! moment.” It was like watching myself! In that moment, I thought, “Oh, I get it now!” People stare at me because the way I do things looks so different. Though this is the way I lived my whole life, I had never actually seen what it looked like as an outsider.
I learned so many things from that encounter, and from Barbara herself. And so the next time someone stares at me (likely to happen anytime today, tomorrow, and any day for a long, long time), I can only hope that my being different, and my way of doing things differently, can bring light to the fact that confidence, joy, and happiness is a choice no matter what life challenges you are given.
For those of you who have a visible disability, here are a few pointers that can help:
1. Don't take it personally when someone stares. Take it at face value. People simply stare when they see something that is different or out of the ordinary.
2. Remember, while you are not in control of the staring, you are in control of how the staring affects you. You can choose to let it bother you or you can choose to brush it off.
3. Use humor to put a positive spin on it. My friend Sean Stephenson, who happens to be in a wheelchair, says, “I just use the staring as practice for when I become a celebrity!” If you are really annoyed, you can tell someone, “If you take a picture, you can stare longer!"
To anyone who may encounter a differently-abled person like myself and do not know how to react, here are some tips:
1. Understand that people feel uncomfortable when you stare. Think about how it would make you feel if someone stares at you.
2. Don’t let your curiosity get the best of you. Before you stare or ask a question, think about how many times that person must have answered the same question from people who were just as curious as you. Be empathetic and give them a break.
3. Recognize that the person you are staring at is first and foremost, a person. As such, they are defined by qualities greater than their physical difference, no matter how different they may appear. Would you like to be defined by your wide waist or your knocked knees?
4. If you make eye contact with the person you were staring at, you can always smile to ease the awkwardness. You would be surprised at how powerful a smile can be! You may even gain a friend.
Each of us is unique. If we try to really see each other beyond the superficial, we will discover how much we all have in common. I think that’s a cause for celebration.