Sunday, November 22, 2009

Double Take

Yesterday, my wife and I visited with a young man who is a person of short stature, his girlfriend and his mother. We all met at the mother's house, in the northern suburbs of Chicago. Katie had met the young man years ago, and hasn't seen him since. We spent a few hours together, eating a little bit and talking a lot. Mostly, the conversation focused on disability issues.

At one point, I mentioned the piece referred to in the last blog entry, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's Staring: How We Look. Talking about the piece, I said that although Thomson includes people of short stature in her book, the parameters that she develops around why people stare and how they stare don't necessarily apply to people of short stature. Thomson explained that while there are several different types of staring, people who stare normally try to hide their actions. That is, they want to look but they believe staring is rude. So, they try not to let the staree know he or she is being watched. In my experience, people who stare don't always try to hide their actions. Sometimes in fact, the actions of the starer are quite obvious to me and the starer knows this.

After I spoke, Katie made an important point. She said there is a difference between how others look at people with acquired disabilities and people who are born with disabilities. If the disability is acquired, then there is a very human connection between the starer and the staree. The starer looks, and thinks "this could be me." Because of this connection, the starer is sensitive to the impact of his or her gaze, and tries to respect the privacy of the individual he or she is watching. On the other hand, there is no connection with the person who is born with a disability. If a stranger sees a person with dwarfism on the street, the stranger knows that no matter what happens, he or she will never be a dwarf. As a result, the connection between the starer and the staree is less human, which may in turn explain the different types of staring.

Of course, I know plenty of people with acquired disabilities who can share staring anecdotes in which human connection played no part. But I think there is some reality in what Katie said. Whatever the explanations are behind why people stare, the key to eliminating the discomfort that exists as a result of staring has little to do with strategies about how to deal with starers. It has much more to do with raising awareness. The more we can do to raise awareness around human diversity and difference, the better off we all will be, no matter what side of the stare we fall behind.

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