A few weeks ago I was taking advantage of the lovely UK heat wave and having a staycation in the Cotswolds. I always try to time holidays and days out when children are at school so that 1) places are less crowded and 2) I don’t get as many people starting at me. I know I can’t avoid either of those entirely and most of the time staring in small doses doesn’t bother me but one particular incident on this holiday keeps intruding on my thoughts.
Let me preface this and say that I know that kids stare and I also know that some kids who look ‘old enough’ to know better can’t stop themselves for lots of different reasons – this is partly why I don’t tend to challenge anyone about it. However, to experience this staring on and off all day, even by little kids, is extremely tiring and damaging to ones self-esteem. I do actively try to avoid places that I know it will happen a lot because at the end of the day I don’t want to be watched and observed I just want to get on with my day to day activities just like anyone else. Equally, lots of the time, if the parents or caregivers acknowledged that the child was staring and spoke to them about difference and gently told them it was rude to stare it would be a much more positive situation all around – but most of the time the adults either ignore it, or tell the child off which doesn’t help at all (but that’s a whole different post!).
Anyway, unfortunately the person I was with doesn’t have any issues with telling children that it’s rude to stare and so we were at a wildlife park and this girl had been following me staring at me for a good minute (adults who were with her were just behind her and could see what was happening). I was trying to avoid her and drive away, trying to put other people between me and her but the person who was with me simply said to her “It’s rude to stare”. This provoked a not uncommon reaction from the adult with her – a defensive one. I can’t remember the exact wording or order of what happened next as for the most part I was still trying to ignore the situation but the accompanying adult basically tried to say that the child was doing nothing wrong, she is “only” 10 years old and that she is just curious. He went on to say that staring was okay because she hadn’t actually said anything to me and that it was silly to say that staring is wrong because it was like saying she couldn’t look at anything in the wildlife park – she is only curious. I think the person I was with said at some point that he clearly doesn’t have disabled children and doesn’t know what he is talking about.
At the mention of the child’s age and the justification that staring was okay because she hadn’t said anything to me, for once I did actually stop and join in. This person did the usual lean down to me to talk to me like a child and started to tell me how I was wrong to be upset (lots of intersections about power are evident here – non-disabled person explaining to a disabled person why they are wrong, adult explaining to a person who looks young why they are wrong, male explaining to a female why they are wrong; I’m not sure which was the driving force or perhaps all three). At this point we walked away before it escalated into a full blown argument. I should have reminded him that freak shows were outlawed a long time ago and that comparing me to an exhibit at a zoo is frankly disgusting – but as usual these good retorts only come to you hours later at 3am.
But it got me thinking. Do people really think that staring has no impact on people? That so long as nothing is said it’s perfectly okay to follow a person because you are ‘curious’? To be clear I don’t blame the child – at the end of the day if that is the view of the people she is with how could she know any better, but this holiday was unusual in that I got an increased number of adults staring openly at me as well – often with looks of disgust/distain on their faces.
I wonder how much this attitude feeds into the publics tendency (especially recently) to police disabled bodies and challenge people who ‘don’t look disabled’, and how much it is also linked to the general tendency for people to think they can ask you whatever they want however inappropriate just because you are a wheelchair user, move differently or have a deformity. @BlondeHistorian has recently started a twitter campaign (#JustAskDontGrab) to raise awareness about the importance of not grabbing people with visual impairments which is a common experience just like having your wheelchair being pushed or leaned on without consent.
Just because you are disabled does that make you no longer human but an object to be manhandled, gazed upon, appraised, approved or more often rejected and then be expected to be grateful that the treatment wasn’t worse?