A gentle hand touched the arm of my wheelchair, questioning eyes looked up and me, "Does it still hurt?" she asked, her tone voice conveying that this was a serious and important question. And I, of course, misunderstood it. I said, seriously, because it was a serious question so I quelled my natural inclination to make a joke about it, "No, my disability doesn't hurt. My legs just don't work very well. She smiled, nodded, and began to walk away. She looked defeated. I sat there wondering what I'd said wrong.
I called her back, she turned, smiled and began the walk back to where I sat. She was maybe thirteen, maybe fourteen. She was attending, with her mother, a session I had done for parents of teens with disabilities. She had been the only teen that had accompanied a parent but she had sat listening in rapt attention while I spoke. I will admit that I changed what I was saying, not the manner of the presentation, so that she would feel as if some of the information was directly for her, in her lived experience as a teen with Down Syndrome.
When it was over she had come to talk to me. The first time was just to ask some general question, a few about what I'd said and she wanted to tell me that she was proud of herself as a young woman with Down Syndrome. Her mother had always wanted her to be proud. Then she'd left. Joe and I were readying to leave when she came back a second time, laid her hand on my wheelchair and asked me if it still hurt.
She stood beside me waiting, I'd called her back, I must have a purpose. I said, "I dont' think I understood your question. You asked me if it still hurt and I told you my legs didn't hurt. Was that what you were asking?" She shook her head. No, that hadn't been it. I suggested that she ask again but this time tell me more about what she wanted to know. She took a breath, "Does it still hurt, you know, when people stare at you?"
Oh. My. God.
Several things ran through me all at the same time. I felt anger at the source of the question, this lovely gentle young woman, by her question was telling me that she experience the kind of social violence that few are really ever concerned about. I felt outrage that the world was so brutal to difference that it didn't care who was hurt. I was angry at eyes that point, and eyes that hit, and eyes that laugh, and eyes that dismiss, and eyes that damn, and eyes that call names.
But she'd asked me a question.
I didn't want to weigh her down with the truth.
Yes. It always hurts, a little bit, every time.
"Does everyone stare at you? Does everyone make fun of you?" She said, that no, it wasn't a constant experience. "Why do you think some people do?" She thought and said, "they don't understand."
"Do you stare at people?" She was immediate in her answer, "No, it's rude."
"So when they stare, are they being rude?"
"Yes," she said.
"And the people who don't stare?" She thought, "I guess they are being nice."
"You asked me if it still hurt when people stared at me. It always hurts a bit but once I realized that they are just rude people, it hurt less. Rude people are just rude people. A trick I used with I was your age, if someone stared at me, I'd look for someone who wasn't staring at me. That reminded me that it wasn't about me, because if it was EVERYONE would stare at me. So, in my head I was said, 'thank you' to the one's who didn't and went about my business."
She stood there thinking, and then she said, "Lots of people don't stare at me."
"Isn't that wonderful," I said.
"Yes, it is," she said and smiled at me with a huge smile.
After she left I sat and thought, "Yes it is, it really is."
So to those of you who stare at others, stop. And for those of you who don't, thanks.