When you use a wheelchair, you’re practically guaranteed to be stared at. I’ve been using a wheelchair now for around 18 months which isn’t a massive amount of time, but the amount of stares I’ve accumulated over this time is probably far more than someone with a penis tattooed on their face might get.
It’s sad that even in 2016, with more and more people being diagnosed with chronic illnesses and using wheelchairs as a result, that people still feel the need to blatantly stare at you. I’ve noticed, surprisingly, that it tends to be older people that feel the need to do this. It’s almost like they’re trying to work out why on earth a young person would need a wheelchair (of course young people don’t get chronic illnesses or other disabilities), and why I have a smile on my face (you’ve got to be depressed if you’re using a mobility aid evidently). The worst situation you can end up in is when you come face to face with an elderly person in a wheelchair. You’re made to feel like you don’t have the right to even be in their presence- especially if your wheelchair is better than theirs!
The other main culprits for staring are children. Being stared at by a child doesn’t bother me quite as much as other people, but at the same time, being stared at open mouthed isn’t very comfortable either. My favourite things about children are the comments they make about my wheelchair. My most memorable conversation I’ve ever overheard was just before Christmas when I was getting very frustrated trying to negotiate my way around Christmas displays (that’s a different blog post though). A little girl (maybe around 2/3 years old) in this said shop was being pushed around in her pushchair by her mum. She stared at me open mouthed for a bit while I was trying to perform what must have looked like an intricate stunt trick, and as I wheeled past her to get out of the shop, I hear a little voice pipe up: ‘Mummy, can Father Christmas get me a go-kart like that lady’s for Christmas?’ I nearly wet myself laughing.
The difference between stares from children and adults is that children tend to be innocent. Most of aren’t even sure what a wheelchair is (hence the little girl in the shop) and those that do tend to just be amazed at how they work and why you’re in one. Adults however, seem to have a more sinister agenda. They KNOW what a wheelchair is, and they’re bound to know some of the reasons you’re in one- yet they still decide to have a good old look at you. There are different levels of staring of course, from a glance out of the corner of your eye to walking into a wall because you were too busy staring (true story, I’m talking about you middle aged lady in new look). Some I can brush off, but if you’re having a fairly long day shopping and you get stared at by at least half of your fellow shoppers, you can feel slightly belittled. It gets to the point sometimes that if a person is really having a good look I stop at the nearest aisle to them and loudly say to whoever’s with me ‘so many people are staring at me today, what the hell are they looking at?! Never seen a bloody wheelchair before?’ and trust me- that makes them SQUIRM. It’s my absolute favourite thing to do when I go shopping, and I like to think that it makes them think twice before staring as me, or any other wheelchair user, again.
The other side to staring is people looking at whoever’s with you. This is a different type of stare though, what I like to call the ‘pity stare’. My mum experiences this more than anyone else, where they look at her, and give that sympathetic smile. That smile that says ‘poor you, having a disabled daughter’ or ‘that’s a good mum, taking her disabled daughter out’. UGH. This ‘pity stare’ doesn’t only happen to your companion though, it can also happen to the wheelchair user. That patronising look that says ‘oh look at that poor girl in the wheelchair, what a waste of a life’ or ‘what a shame’. I don’t know when the public are going to realise that neither me, or whoever’s with me at the time need their sympathy! Being a wheelchair user is far more of a help than a hindrance for most of us!
When you start to use a wheelchair, you just have to develop a thick skin. There are ignorant people EVERYWHERE, and it takes a LOT of strength not to run them over. I hope that one day, this’ll change and we can go out without having to worry that we’re constantly being observed, like a strange, exotic sort of animal living in a zoo.