It’s inevitable that people will treat you different when you’re in a wheelchair, whether that works in your favor or against it. It’s nice when people open doors for you or offer to help you with something. But then there are the stares.
Being in a wheelchair while also having an invisible illness means that when people stare, I know they’re asking themselves, “Why is she in a wheelchair? She looks fine.”
It was hard growing up and having all my teachers doting on me before turning around and disciplining the kid who was talking too much. And I could feel the eyes boring holes in the back of my head as I read a book while everyone else took a vocabulary test or a final exam because my education was modified due to my form of muscular dystrophy.
The real test of my patience, though, was my family’s occasional trip to Disneyland. To grow thick skin, there’s nothing like a sea of people cutting in front of you, whispering, staring, pointing. It also made me realize that when people stare, they don’t always mean to be rude. Sometimes they don’t even know they’re doing it. My friends would always tell me to stare back or give them the “stink eye,” but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to make them feel the way they had made me feel, or worse. Instead, I smile. Smiling makes people realize their mistake while also sending the message that I’m friendly and approachable.
On Valentine’s Day, my boyfriend gave me a kiss while we were coming out of the movie theater. I was aware of a woman and her husband walking by. I heard her say, “Aww, look at her and her valentine!” It definitely ruined the mood, but as my boyfriend drove me home, we both realized that even though it ruined the moment we had hoped for, it also made a memory. My boyfriend, never before in a relationship with someone with a disability, took notice of the fact that people treat me differently than if I was able-bodied. To me, it’s just the norm these days.
The last couple years, my mom has been developing more symptoms of mitochondrial myopathy and has had to rely on a scooter for long distances. I’ve had to teach her a lot about maneuvering tight corners, steep driveways, and such. She now knows what it’s like to feel those eyes on our backs everywhere we go, but she and I both agree that it’s a small price to pay for mobility, and we won’t let that stop us from enjoying our lives.
Just because someone stares doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you or that they’re trying to get on your nerves. Everyone stares sometimes, but if you’re kind and smile, you just might get a smile back. And if you don’t, at least you know that you tried. Besides, the world needs more smiles.
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