James N. Myers

One of the things that I think gets lost in these discussions that I think is very interesting is that we discuss the staring problem as if it were a single problem, when in fact it is three quite different problems, all with different causes and effects. First there is the problem that we all have of fixing our eyes on something we haven’t seen before and are curious about. We don’t just stare at people with disabilities, but at anything we find fascinating. A number of years ago I was running on the Stanford University campus when I spotted a young woman sunning herself in a bikini. I ran smack into a pole. Sometimes you get away with staring. Sometimes you get punished by getting caught at it or by running into a pole.

The next problem is being a disabled person who gets stared at. It happens so often that you get used to it and it is not a very big deal. It is unpleasant but as I said, you get used to it.

The third, and quite different problem, is being with someone who gets stared at. That can be very unpleasant and humiliating and hurtful. My experience tells me that it is far harder to deal with than being the one stared at. I suspect that it has something to do with guilt or inadequacy feelings, but I’m no psychologist. I think that the staring at your child feels to you like an impertinent question being asked that you want to answer: No I didn’t cause it. Yes, it’s very sad. I have other children this didn’t happen to. Or you would like to see the starer run into a pole. But, of course, you never get to answer because the question never gets asked. It is a little like being out on a bad hair day (a nuclear bad hair day). Not long ago my mother fell on the way to the airport to come visit me. I picked her up at the airport and she had an astounding black eye that covered a third of her face. I went around with her just the same; but I hoped that everyone knew I hadn’t hit her. I imagine the starers had a hard time deciding which of us to stare at.

Whether I have the third part of this right or not, I do think that it is important that problem two and problem three are quite different. When you feel the pain of your child being looked at, it is your pain you are feeling, not to be confused with your child’s pain. There is not a lot you can do to decrease your child’s pain at being stared at; but you can increase it by reacting too strongly to it, at least after the child is old enough to sense what is going on. I feel far worse when I realize that staring is getting to someone I am with than I do just getting stared at alone. I would be humiliated if the person I was with decided that he or she had to set the staring person straight. At the point your child is old enough to understand, I would advise you to let him or her deal with it and to keep your own pain under control as best you can. If your child starts showing reluctance to go out and be exposed to others, he or she may need your help to deal with that problem. Otherwise, I think less is better.