Sometimes the world does not know what to make of me. I have been stared at for all of my life, sometimes out of interest and curiosity, and just as often out of plain rudeness. Even though I like to think of myself as a routine part of a diverse society, it seems that so many people are just not there yet. I suppose the sight of me is discombobulating, or at least surprising sometimes. My small, slightly crooked frame resting in a black wheelchair that is, and always has been, a little too big for me. The constant jingle of the lanyard around my joystick, and the unnecessary number of pens spilling out of the side pockets. The shreds of colored fabric, the pink exercise band hanging limply off the back of my chair, the ever-growing collection of social justice, dark humor, and snark themed buttons rattling on my headrest.
It’s a lot to take in sometimes. I get that. Still, it can be saddening to know that people often don’t know how to look at me. Even sadder is knowing that some people just won’t look, because it’s easier not to, and easier not to think about the attitudes and assumptions that put the uncertainty in their gazes. Trust me, I don’t enjoy being stared at like a lab specimen, but I’ve spent many years thinking about what to do with those stares, how to handle them, and how to prevent them from becoming downcast eyes that render me invisible. I don’t want to be stared at, but much less do I want to vanish, to become unseen by a world learning how to “be polite”.
This is what I believe occurs when embarrassed parents redirect a child’s widened eyes, and shuffle them away, as if hoping that child will forget what, and importantly, who they saw. From that well-intentioned attempt to salvage a child’s manners comes the beginning of the fear, the shame, the idea that my corner of the world is not worth being understood. That kid grows up, and becomes an adult whose gaze shifts dutifully towards the ground, because that is the procedure when making sense of my presence. How much I wish that each of those embarrassed mothers and fathers would tell the child that it’s okay to say hello. How much I wish they took the time to reject the culture of shifting eyes, mystery, and misunderstanding. I love children, and when the tiniest, most impressionable among us are hastily ushered away from me, I begin to lose touch with those that I consider our hope for the future.
Just several weeks ago, as I approached a local pizza restaurant, a small girl with brown hair and chubby cheeks was pressed against the window. Her tiny finger pointed toward me, another trying to find a place for me in time and space. In this moment, I decided what it was I had to do. This precious child was looking at me, and not in a situation where she could be whisked away before I looked back. Returning her gaze, I lifted my hand and waved. Then, something beautiful happened. She waved back.
This simple exchange made us human to one another, and gave me the hope that this little girl may continue to wave back as she grows older, keeping me visible to the world around me. The glass between us seemed a perfect metaphor. We are living two very different lives, and in some ways, there will always be a slight space between our worldly experiences. Like two people from drastically different cultures, some things in our lives will distinguish our fates from each other. But ultimately, we can choose to not just look at, but to see one another. We can notice what we do have in common, and convert the silence and fear to appreciation for each other’s humanity. We can affirm the presence of all people. We can wave back.