Stares: An Opportunity To Educate the Non-Disabled
Reflecting on my kindergarten years, I remember dreading the day it was my turn for Show and Tell. My biggest fear was standing in front of the classroom with all of my peers staring at me waiting to hear what I was going to say. In my 5-year-old mind, my presentation had to be perfect. No matter what, I made sure not to do or say anything that would cause my classmates to laugh at me.
My First Stares as a Wheelchair User
Fast-forward to 2006 when I suffered my spinal cord injury. Rolling down the hospital hallways, that same dreadful fear resurfaced as I was subjected to stares, whispers, children pointing, and adults asking a multitude of questions. It would anger me, especially since the only time people approached me for conversation was to inquire why I was in a wheelchair. “What happened to you? Were you born like this?” they would ask.
Each time I would satisfy their curiosity with a heartbreaking answer, I had to relive my tragic injury.
Then, I would get the usual response, “I’m so sorry,” as if it were their fault, followed by a look of pity and, “You’re so inspiring!” But what is so inspiring about simply surviving?
The Stares Never Stop
As the years go by, and I have become more independent and accepting of life with an SCI, I notice that the stares, whispers, pointing, and questions haven’t stopped. If a parent catches their child gawking or asking why I’m in a chair, I hear them say, “Don’t stare. It’s not polite!”
I began to realize that instead of fighting my differences, I should take advantage of the fact that I stand out.
When someone stares, points, or asks questions, it’s an educational opportunity. It just might be that person’s first experience with someone strong enough to answer their questions and teach them that disability is natural and can happen to anyone.
Embrace the Stares
Being different sets us apart from others, but it also opens many doors. It’s an occasion to share your platform and beliefs as well as advocate and educate. The uniqueness and attention disability attracts is something the average individual strives to obtain. So, when someone stares, instead of being annoyed or embarrassed, embrace it.
Engage with, educate, and empower that person. Share your story proudly.
If you’re uncomfortable with it, take the chance to explain why. You might be the first person they’ve ever met with a disability. Let them know we expect to be treated with respect even if they don’t understand who we are or why we’re in a wheelchair.
An Opportunity to Educate
Personally, I have learned to enjoy sharing. When I finish my story, before people have a chance to express their condolences or tell me I’m inspiring, I also let them know how difficult it was to talk about when I first got injured. They should be made aware that it’s not always okay to ask someone why they are in a wheelchair. Instead, if they include me as part of their normal activity or as a friend, they will learn that even though I may look and do things a little differently, I’m a human being just like them with the same goals in life as everyone else.
I tell people we live in a very diverse world with an assortment of cultures and abilities.
What makes this world beautiful is when we can accept each other’s differences without fears, reservations, or the need to stare or ask why.
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Margarita Elizondo, is a motivational speaker, founder of Rolling With Me, model, dancer, and writer. She was paralyzed in 2006 and began speaking in churches and schools shortly after her injury. In 2013 she was crowned Ms. Wheelchair California 2013 and in 2019, she was crowned Mi Modelo Especial. Margarita has used her titles as a platform to educate the public on the importance of fully including individuals with disabilities in our communities by breaking down physical and perceptual barriers.
Dance as her therapy has helped her regain range of motion in upper extremities, and lyrical dance taught her emotional expression through movement. She was a dancer before her injury and discovered wheelchair dance after her injury through San Diego Wheelchair Dancers Organization. In 2016, she learned lyrical dance through choreographer Tam Warner. Margarita now travels the country as an Abilities Expo Ambassador sharing her love for dance.
Margarita is the author of a children’s book series, Rolling With Me & Friends, which teaches children disability etiquette through fun stories. Her writing has also been published in various publications including Abilities Expo — The Buzz, Wheel-Life.org, and Mobil Women.