“Stop staring! It’s rude,” the embarrassed mom loudly whispers to her daughter before she drags her away from us. My daughter Campbell, who is in a wheelchair, is fortunately looking elsewhere at the time.
I just stand and watch the situation unfold and observe the child as she looks at her mom with a guilty face and then mutters, “I’m sorry” before turning back once more to look at us.
“Don’t be sorry,” I silently think to myself, “it’s okay to look. Once you get to know her, she’s not so different from you.”
I smile at her, and for a moment she returns the smile. There is a small connection forming.
“What’s wrong with her?” she asks looking halfway between her mom and myself.
I want to answer her. “It’s okay to ask” but I don’t get the chance.
Her mom averts her eyes from us and pulls her away even further, making it impossible for me to hear what she is saying.
Maybe she wants to know how old Campbell is or her favorite color. Maybe she wants to know if she likes Taylor Swift or Selena Gomez.
I guess we will never know.
This isn’t an uncommon experience. Sometimes it might not be as obvious. It may just be the mom whose child is looking at Campbell in the waiting room at the pediatrician’s office, who smiles politely at us before she picks her up and moves across the room.
I smile back but silently think, “I wish you had stayed.”
Another missed opportunity.
Our parents, and society in general, teach us not to stare. Especially if it is at someone who is “different.” We are told it is rude.
But are we really sending the right message?
As the mother of a child with a craniofacial difference who also happens to be in a wheelchair, I say no.
I think by telling our children not to look at people with differences or to ask questions, make them stand out even more as being different.
Children are naturally curious and ask questions. Let them. You’d be surprised that most of the time; it might be a wonderful learning experience. Maybe even making a new friend.
Just recently a spunky, blonde eight-year-old girl approached us at an archery tournament. We were standing in line at the concessions and she had been staring at us for a while before she started asking questions.
“Why is she in a wheelchair?”
I explained that Campbell can’t walk and has to use a wheelchair to move around. Then I showed her how the wheels on her chair light up, which she thought was super cool.
“Hey, look, my shoes light up too!” she said excitedly as I smiled at the similarity.
“Are her legs broken? Because I broke mine last year and had to wear a cast. It was really hard to walk.”
I explained that her legs were not broken but she was born this way. And even though she can’t walk, she can get around with her wheelchair.
“That’s so cool. Can she go really fast like I do on my bike?”
I laughed a little before I told her how her brother enjoys pushing her fast especially in the grocery store.
“Oh, I’m sorry” she said with a look of pity on her face. I was a little confused before I realized what she was talking about.
She patted Campbell on the shoulder and said, “It’s ok. I’ve got a big brother too. He’s drives me nuts!”
She laughed. And so did Campbell.
Then she asked if it was okay to push her as we made our way closer to the concession stand. I agreed while I listened to her ask Campbell “hey, do you like Taylor Swift? Because I love her.”
Campbell nodded her head excitedly and I confirmed that yes, she does like Taylor Swift. They both smiled at each other as the little girl pulled out her phone and started playing “Shake it Off.”
I stood there for a while, watching these too little girls listen to song after song. Smiling and laughing. The little girl pushing Campbell’s chair to light up the front wheels as her shoes did the same.
I was thankful that she had taken the time to stop and ask questions about Campbell even if it started with a stare.
I smiled and brushed away a tear, silently thinking, “They really aren’t so different after all.”