Perhaps I’m making assumptions here, but when I notice people staring at me as I go about my business, I don’t think it’s because of my goddess-like beauty. I think it’s got a little more to do with how exactly I’m going about my business, that being in a wheelchair.
When out & about in Leeds city centre I regularly see other wheelchair users; I often see ten wheelchairs in as many minutes. Admittedly Leeds is the most disabled-friendly place I’ve ever been, certainly more so then London or Manchester, so perhaps wheelchair-users are more likely to be seen here. However, I’ve even spotted an increase in wheelchairs being visible in high-profile TV series & films. Surely by now, the novelty of seeing someone disabled has worn off.
Being stared at as if you were a circus act is beyond irritating, & particularly in adults only serves to make people look gormless & dim-witted. However, unless a well-placed lamp post is involved, it tends to be a relatively harmless practice.
Sometimes, however, the staring is accompanied by questions & I am expected to answer those questions. It doesn’t matter if I am in a hurry to get somewhere, or simply don’t want to recount the miserable tale of how I ended up in a wheelchair for the tenth time that morning; if I don’t provide a sufficient answer, I’m the rude one. More & more I’ve taken to ignoring such questions from strangers on principal; I should be able to go about my business just like anybody else, without having to justify my existence at regular intervals. I have more than made my peace with being considered rude; it’s not like information on disability is particularly hard to find.
When it comes to staring & questioning there is one group I never mind, & that is pre-school children. There ignorance is born of innocence; they lack social inhibitions, & unless someone in the family is disabled, they probably won’t encounter disability until at least school-age. However, at school children have daily social interactions, & since disabled people are no longer separated & institutionalised as in previous times, they are highly likely to encounter some kind of disability as their horizons expand. If nothing else, they should at least know that staring & pointing is considered rude.
It is not my job or my responsibility to educate children. In fact, on more than one occasion I have been chastised for trying to parent somebody else’s child when answering a question. The expectation that disabled people do not have the right to privacy, & must be completely transparent with total strangers about complex & intimate symptoms, is ableism in a nutshell.
Nor is disability something to be ignored, being hushed & hurried away leaves the impression that that is the appropriate response to seeing someone disabled, not treating them as simply another person.
Disability is something that exists. Parents & teachers have a responsibility to teach children that despite our differences, we are still human beings. As a childless person I have no right to tell people how to parent their children, but as a disabled person I should have the right to set boundaries concerning my privacy, & for those boundaries to be respected.