Asking questions is not the opposite of staring at a disabled person

A photo from the summer. James - a one-legged father - is sitting on the floor outside, looking at the camera. Mainie (age 6) is standing next to him in a floral skirt, she's pointing at him with a solemn, slightly quizzical look on her face. Behind them you can just see 1 year old Viola, who is sitting inside James's prosthetic leg. It is not a boat. But she is trying to row it nonetheless. Text with a cream background reads: Asking questions is NOT the opposite of staring at a disabled person.

Asking questions is not the opposite of staring at a disabled person. Is it? I mean it doesn’t make much sense – but it’s often how the dialogue around this goes.

Eg “I’d rather they asked questions than stared”

But why on earth would we be choosing between one and the other?

There’s a particular sort of stare we disabled people sometimes get. It’s absolutely othering. Perhaps it feels like if the starer would vocalise their thoughts it’d close the gap, bring it out into the open – create a connection?

But in reality, both staring at & asking questions of a stranger are othering.

Staring is not the opposite of questions – they’re coming from a similar place. Both are objectifying.

Being stared at as a disabled person can feel like you’re a museum or zoo exhibit, & don’t museums often give details of their exhibits? Encourage questions?

Society has often been fascinated by the details of lives absolutely categorised as other. (I mean, see freak shows.) 

Questions are not necessarily about acknowledging humanity – they can be about the opposite. 

Disabled people used to be kept in institutions. The so called Ugly Laws in the US made it clear this was to save the non-disabled the hardship of having to look at us.

When THAT’S the background, approaching a disabled stranger to ask them questions must have seemed uber enlightened, inclusive. Talking to us at all was legitimising. Acknowledging our existence.

Lots of disabled people find encouraging openness the best way to navigate an often impossibly hostile world – this is not about that. But non-disabled people – pleease stop encouraging questions. It’s not a progressive move towards diversity & acceptance. It’s the status quo.

When James started his book it felt like swimming against the tide to be taking on ‘just ask’ as an ideal – I was worried about how it’d be received.

It takes time to dismantle these things.

But our privacy has to trump others’ curiosity, & I think this is finally breaking into the mainstream.

Lucy Catchpole 

(Posted on Instagram on the 11th of February 2021) 

 

If you enjoyed this, this book by James may be up your street.

You can find What Happened To You? here at our local bookshop Blackwell’s. International delivery is included (affiliate link). Or you can find it wherever you usually buy books.

[Image description: A photo from the summer. James – a one-legged father – is sitting on the floor outside, looking at the camera. Mainie (age 6) is standing next to him in a floral skirt, she’s pointing at him with a solemn, slightly quizzical look on her face. Behind them you can just see 1 year old Viola, who is sitting inside James’s prosthetic leg. It is not a boat. But she is trying to row it nonetheless. Text with a cream background reads: Asking questions is NOT the opposite of staring at a disabled person.]

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