Don't tell your child not to stare at dis­abled peo­ple – we are al­ready in­vis­i­ble enough

The Guardian Australia - - Headlines / News - Tanya Mar­low

When I be­came a wheel­chair user, need­ing to be pushed by a carer, I ex­pected the lack of free­dom. What I didn’t ex­pect was the in­vis­i­bil­ity. It’s partly be­cause the last time I was at this height on wheels peo­ple were coo­ing at me, hop­ing to see me drib­ble. Now they see a wheel­chair and turn aside in case they see me drib­ble.

Po­lite adults are con­di­tioned to look away from dis­abled peo­ple be­cause they fear say­ing or do­ing the wrong thing. I am in­vis­i­ble. It is my new su­per­power. One time at an air­port, a checkin clerk glanced over my head then asked my hus­band, “What’s her name?” She was a brave woman: in a wheel­chair I am at the per­fect height for head-butting some­one in the groin.

Chil­dren, how­ever, are a dif­fer­ent breed. When they no­tice the dif­fer­ence, they are cu­ri­ous – of­ten loudly. As a par­ent, there’s noth­ing quite so mor­ti­fy­ing as your child yelling in a crowded area, “Why is that boy shak­ing?” or, “If that lady has a white stick for blind peo­ple, how come she’s read­ing a book?” Even if kids don’t shout, they stare.

Alice Broadway, au­thor of the young adultInk tril­ogy, re­cently tweeted her ad­vice for ex­actly this sit­u­a­tion, ar­gu­ing that chil­dren’s cu­rios­ity about dis­abil­ity is to be em­braced, not si­lenced. Af­ter all, it is strange to see an adult who seems to be in the po­si­tion of a child. Her el­dest boy is autis­tic and has Down’s syn­drome, so she speaks from ex­pe­ri­ence.

Her sur­pris­ing ad­vice for par­ents? Don’t tell your child not to stare. Al­though it sounds coun­ter­in­tu­itive, Broadway ex­plains this com­mu­ni­cates shame to your child for notic­ing dif­fer­ence.

So­cial niceties are less im­por­tant than so­cial jus­tice: dis­abled peo­ple must be ac­knowl­edged. Broadway im­plores, “Please don’t even hint to your chil­dren that it is OK to ig­nore a dis­abled per­son in or­der to make your own life a lit­tle eas­ier and more com­fort­able. It’s in­sid­i­ous, this stuff, and learn­ing NOT to say ‘don’t stare’ helps dis­abled peo­ple be fully vis­i­ble in so­ci­ety.”

What should a par­ent or carer do in­stead? Recog­nise our dif­fer­ences, but high­light our sim­i­lar­i­ties. Broadway’s ap­proach is to en­cour­age a child to share what they have ob­served. Af­ter you have ex­plored what makes the dis­abled per­son dif­fer­ent, re­mind your child (and your­self ) of our com­mon hu­man­ity. Beau­ti­fully, Broadway sug­gests you point out some­thing pos­i­tive and or­di­nary about the per­son, then re­spond as you would with any stranger, with a smile and hello, or at least friendly eye con­tact if you’re not near them.

Per­haps most im­por­tant is to model the right at­ti­tude to­wards dis­abled peo­ple: ex­er­cise em­pa­thy, not em­bar­rass­ment.

I would com­ment to my own boy, “Yes, that teenager is shak­ing and needs her carer to wipe away her spit for her. Maybe she has a dis­abil­ity where her nerves and mus­cles don’t work as ours do. I bet that’s re­ally an­noy­ing for her – she must have to be re­ally pa­tient.”

With the power of Moses part­ing the Red Sea, when I’m pushed through a city street, peo­ple peel away from me, their faces turn­ing aside as they do so. It’s a lonely ex­pe­ri­ence but it’s a symp­tom of a big­ger prob­lem. Dis­abled peo­ple are al­ready ig­nored on mul­ti­ple

lev­els. Able-bod­ied politi­cians cut the dis­abil­ity sup­port pen­sion, push­ing dis­abled peo­ple fur­ther into poverty and home­less­ness. A re­cent re­port re­veals Aus­tralia’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem ex­cludes dis­abled chil­dren. We’re erased from pop­u­lar cul­ture – when was the last time you saw a show where one-eighth of the work­ing-age char­ac­ters had a dis­abil­ity, as is the case for Aus­tralia? Come to that, when was the last time you saw a dis­abled ac­tor? Most cru­cially, our right to live is ig­nored, with doc­tors ad­mit­ting they of­fer lower care to peo­ple with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties.

With this in mind, I urge you to fol­low Broadway’s ex­am­ple, teach­ing and mod­el­ling to chil­dren that dis­abled peo­ple are peo­ple, not lesser peo­ple, nor ob­jects of fear. It’s pos­si­ble to go over­board and smile ar­ti­fi­cially brightly at a dis­abled per­son. But I’d much rather have eye con­tact, cheesy grins and awk­ward con­ver­sa­tion than an­other gen­er­a­tion who pre­tends dis­abled peo­ple don’t ex­ist.

Pho­to­graph: Lu­mineI­mages/Getty Im­ages/iS­tock­photo

‘I’d much rather have eye con­tact, cheesy grins and awk­ward con­ver­sa­tion than an­other gen­er­a­tion who pre­tends dis­abled peo­ple don’t ex­ist.’

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