Through the Lens

Feeling tired and hungry during a shopping trip at the local mall, my folks and I decided to have a quick lunch before heading home.

It was still early and the restaurant wasn’t very busy, thankfully. I chose a table in a quiet corner, feeling the need for some privacy, after a morning out in public with hundreds of staring eyes on a busy end-of-the-month day.

Dealing with looks of amazement and staring can be difficult at times. Some days I feel strong enough to handle people gawking at me. Other days I just want the floor to open up underneath me and swallow me up. Often I wish I could just be ordinary like everybody else or have a magical ability to become invisible to hide from the wide eyes so that I can go on with my business without being made to feel self-conscious.

I know that people don’t purposefully mean to make me feel uncomfortable. Most are just curious by nature. Often they are simply marvelling at my slick electric wheelchair which certainly is impressive. Some don’t even realise that they are staring until I make a point of making eye contact with them, and then flash my brightest, bravest smile at them. They immediately look away, poker-faced and pretend that they never saw me or they blush a little and smile sheepishly, embarrassed that they’ve been caught gaping. A few will find the nerve to come up and chat to me, which is always nice.

Sometimes when my confidence is lacking, I try to fool myself into believing that they are staring because they want to be just like me. I’ll try anything convince myself to lift my chin and look the world in the eye or I would never have the courage to leave my home. You’d think that I’d be over it by now after being exposed to all the ogling for so many years. But, sometimes it still bugs the hell out of me that I want to shout at the top of my lungs: “Stop staring!”

As the waiter fetched our drinks, I was glad for our little secluded spot because the tables around us were rapidly filling up with lunchtime approaching. I scanned the menu and looked longingly at the juicy steaks, but decided that it was not worth all the constipated suffering afterwards. I didn’t feel like eating chicken and almost settled on a fish dish when I remembered that I was in the steakhouse. Whoever orders fish in a steakhouse has to be nuts. I had made that mistake more than once. So I decided, boringly, on something vegetarian and easy to eat as I’m aware of the hazards of being fed by someone else. The last thing I wanted to do was to attract more attention by having my plate end up on my lap or food smeared all over my clothing.

We were halfway through our meal when I became aware that my picture was being taken by complete strangers, without my permission. At first I thought that I must be mistaken, looking over my shoulder to double check that somebody hadn’t miraculously set up a table behind us without us noticing, even though I already knew that was impossible. I nearly choked on my food when I looked back to find all four of the people at the opposite table now directing their smart phones straight at me, clicking away. They were so engrossed in taking the pics, then comparing and discussing them, that they were still completely unaware that I had noticed them photographing me. Or they simply didn’t care and purposefully ignored me.

How dare they, I thought. At that point, I didn’t know whether to be angry or amused. I just sat there, glaring at them and shaking my head, hoping to get their attention and make them feel as uncomfortable as they made me. With today’s technology we are all at risk of being photographed or filmed by somebody unknown even without our knowledge, which is a really scary thought.

They were a family of four – parents with two teenagers, probably a brother and sister as they all looked alike with very fair skin, blue eyes and blond hair. They definitely weren’t locals as they were dressed funny, wearing socks and sandals in the heat of the day. They all had skinny white legs that hadn’t seen the sun in months sticking out the bottom of khaki shorts. Their shirts were creased, probably from travelling and I could hear that they were speaking a foreign language. It sounded like German or Swiss as far as I could tell with my limited linguist skills. They looked like typical tourists to this area, probably trying to escape the harsh European winter by coming on safari in Africa.

They continued taking pics of me and my mind began racing. Should I go over and ask them, sarcastically, if they want my autograph, I pondered. I was immediately annoyed with myself for not persevering and learning to write using my mouth. Suddenly I felt ashamed of being a quadriplegic, of being in a wheelchair and of being me. I wished with every fibre of my being that I could go up to them to start taking their pictures without asking whilst making some snarky comments about their appearance, just to get back at them for humiliating me in this way.

The waiter reappeared, temporarily blocking my view of them as he questioned if everything was in order. He had obviously noticed that I was no longer eating my food, despite encouragement from my folks to carry on eating and not worry about what others were doing. Sometimes, for me, it’s easier said than done. I didn’t tell him that I’d lost my appetite because of the rude people at the opposite table, taking pics of me. Instead, I told him that I’d had sufficient, preferring to take the rest home in a doggy bag to have later in the comfort of my own home, where the only staring eyes are the adoring ones of my two gorgeous Great Danes.

I started discussing the incident with my folks after the waiter walked away, wondering how I should handle it. Quite frankly, I was in total disbelief at the audacity of these people, unable to say anything to them, at the time, and the moment was lost when they all stood up to leave.

I was incensed at myself for not being more forthright by standing up for myself and insisting they stop taking my picture. I felt irritated at my vulnerability by allowing others to make me feel so ashamed of being paralysed and out in my wheelchair when I have every right to be. I was disappointed that I let them get to me in that way and spoil my day out.

I know that instead of feeling sorry for myself, I should pity them and their ignorance.

Picture by Dirk van der Merwe

Picture by Dirk van der Merwe

By now, my face is probably among some happy tourist snaps, shared all over Facebook and other social media. Lucky me! I am riled that I didn’t make the most of the opportunity and charge them a fee for taking my picture. I always wanted to be famous. Careful what you wish for, Tracy!

I’m seriously considering having a large, hard-to-miss sign made for my wheelchair, especially for ignorant tourists: Welcome to South Africa: The land of the Big5 and quadriplegics.

About Tracy Todd (Brave Lotus Flower)

Author of Brave Lotus Flower Rides the Dragon – an intimate and inspiring memoir of a quadriplegic. Inspirational Speaker. Teacher. Counsellor. Wife. Mother. Animal lover. Although I need a wheelchair to get around, it is most certainly not what defines me.
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27 Responses to Through the Lens

  1. Kellie Malone says:

    Dear Tracy,
    I realize I’m coming in a little late in the game here, as I just noticed your blog. I’ve read it, and wanted to give you my take on this. I’ve been a C-5/6 quad for 28 years. I was 28 when I was injured, so August 2013 was 50/50 for me. Tough year.
    When my almost 30-year-old niece sent me an article she found that you’d written, she excitedly sent it to me, saying that she thought it was something that I’d written. She read it several times, just to make sure it wasn’t me! 🙂 It was exhilarating reading about your take on quadriplegia. After reading it, I immediately signed up for your newsletter, blog, whatever. I’m not particularly 21st- Century technically savvy; I just got an iPad a year ago!
    I have a completely different take on your experience..
    The people about whom you spoke were probably Scandinavian, and they were probably amazed at what you were doing! Everyone has different experiences, depending on where they live. Perhaps they knew someone with an SCI or other disability “back home” and wanted to show them what’s possible. In other words, “this is how they do it in South Africa! Damn, that’s cool.”
    After 28 years in a chair, and being an extremely outgoing type a personality, I would not have
    hesitated one second to either “smile and wave,” as suggested earlier, or better yet – roll-on up there and say howdy! Even if the restaurant was crowded, I would’ve immediately tried to connect with them. I doubt that they intentionally meant to hurt your feelings, as inappropriate as it was, but now, you’ll never know!.
    You sound like a very open and brave person, so don’t hesitate to take your shiny wheels ANYWHERE you’re able to do it, and talk openly to strangers, wherever they are, about what your
    experience truly is. You can certainly catch more flies with honey, and educating people about disabilities of all kinds is imperative. I’m not sure how long you’ve been injured, and living in the US is very different with the ADA., although it’s not enforced enough in my opinion. My motto since 1985, has been “go for it!” I’m much older now, and too tired most days to take my own advice.
    But settle in to just be yourself-a smart, very cool, and beautiful woman! Oh, yeah… with wheels!

  2. Annalene says:

    Hi Tracy, I can not imagine myself in your position, I would have freaked out, right there and then. Sometimes I suppose it’s just best to “smile and wave,” “smile and wave.” xxx

  3. Andy Smith says:

    Thanks for your post Tracy.

    Over the years I have learned that I should be slow to judge until I know the facts.

    While I do think it extremely rude and insensitive of those tourists I suspect that they have a close connection back home to someone in a similar position and wish to use you as a positive example to encourage them to go out to a restaurant.

    Either that or your beautiful confident appearance awed them.

    There lack of English ability probably was their excuse for not communicating.

    You must see the looks when I (C5) take my mate Jabu (C4 – like you) out in my van (by myself) to the mall to have a drink.

    Best regards

    • Kellie Malone says:

      Very cool, Andy! As a C-5/6, I used to love going out when I was young, strong, and in my prime. It was great – driving myself wherever I wanted, with my friends or family! I’m way old now, and I’m too tired to go out much. So, while you can, keep it up!
      PS I’ve been married 22 years, and rolled down the aisle to the man of my dreams! We are still going strong!

  4. Elize Coetser says:

    Tracy ek weet wat jy bedoel ek ondervind dit ook daagliks! As dit weer gebeur moet jy sommer klip hard vir hulle Rod Stewart se liedjie sing “Do think I’m sexy”. Hulle sal so simpel voel….glo my. Ek het eers altyd vir die mense “middel vinger” gewys….tot eendag toe ek in die dorp was toe wys iemand vir my die teken en groet my en se “hallo” toe voel ek lekker stupid. Wat ek ook gedoen het was as iemand staar dan sal ek sommer na hulle ry en se “As jy sirkus toe gaan dan betaal jy om te kyk! As jy na hierdie sirkus wil kyk en ek wys na my dan moet jy ook betaal dan hou ek my hand uit . Tot eendag toe ek dit weer vir n man se……toe gee hy my R10 ek het so skaam gekry dit nooit weer gedoen nie…….en nou steek ek maar vir hulle tong uit……sterkte Tracy en vir almal wat ook in dieselfde posisie is…..xx God Bless

    • Tracy Todd says:

      Thank you for your comment Elize. You had me in stitches of laughter. It’s nice to know that there are other people out there who also feel uncomfortable with the staring.
      (Forgive me for answering you in English but my voice program doesn’t operate in Afrikaans.)

  5. Moonyeen Price says:

    Hi Tracy you needed a few blondes(me included) around you so that we could stare them down:) and then we could do the African rain dance… on a serious note let it go, do not sweat the small stuff and they are small stuff. Thanks for being so brave sharing this with us! Still hot here down under – watching the cricket.
    My son scored his first 50 in grade cricket and I was thinking of you and your son.
    The Aussies are one of these days in SA…playing cricket.
    Be brave and beautiful. Moonyeen

    • Tracy Todd says:

      The image of blondes doing an African rain dance puts a smile on my face. Yes, I agree we shouldn’t sweat the small stuff, thank you for reminding me. Congrats on your son’s achievement. Enjoy every second, watching him play from the side of the field because time flies and before you know it, he’ll be all grown up. I’m looking forward to the big clash between the Aussies and our Proteas 🙂
      Thanks for the kind words.

  6. Dolores says:

    No my darling, you have it all wrong…Believe me, they were not deliberately being rude, just a bit oblivious to people’s feelings. I think that they were totally AMAZED at your good looks, how well you were dressed, your guts to go out and act normal and enjoy a restaurant meal with your family just like others do. They have probably shown the photo’s to others in your position and told them to go out and enjoy themselves like you were !!!. Your fancy chair might have given them some ideas too.!
    Lovingly, Aunty Dolores.xxoxx

    • Rolf says:

      I do like your take on this and would like to believe that you’re right!

    • Tracy Todd says:

      Yes, I must agree with Rolf, I also love your take on this Aunty Dolores. Thank you for the kind words. Love you lots.

    • Kellie Malone says:

      I totally agree, Aunty Dolores!

    • Kellie Malone says:

      Since you are Tracy’s Aunty, you seem to know and understand her situation well. I think your “take” on her experience hit the nail nail right on the head! The folks were inappropriate, but they were very likely impressed by what they saw. I’m 56, and a 28 year C-5/6 quad. My experience has always been to confront, with kindness and humor. As a teacher by vocation, I make every effort to connect to people, then educate them openly about disability!
      As an aside, My auto accident was surprisingly similar to Tracy’s. It was uncanny!
      As I commented to her, “one catches more flies with honey than vinegar!”
      (I think I forgot the part about the vinegar, but the sentiment is the same!)
      Kellie Curtis Malone

  7. You don’t strike me as being a person to go out of your way for a confrontation, even if it’s a “teachable moment”. If you had spoken to them, or had the waiter do it, I’m not sure they would have understood anyway. They already thought it was acceptable behavior. Perhaps this was a moment where your best option was to be aware of your own feelings about the invasion of your privacy. Writing about it memorably is a big help, so those of us open to the lesson can benefit.

    I’ve been in restaurants where people at adjacent tables were making racist remarks. I’ve been in the grocery store when parents decided to “discipline” their children by hitting them. On rare occasions, I’ve been close to throwing a punch at someone I thought was behaving badly. I had to learn to walk away, the first step being to walk away mentally. I have to tell myself, “I’m not like that. I’ll never be like that.” Then I can be compassionate about their disabilities.

    We live in a world of cruelty and beauty. Understanding the first opens us to the second.

    • Tracy Todd says:

      You are right, Mikey, I’m not a confrontational person at all. In fact, I hate all forms of confrontation and usually do my best to avoid it at all costs.
      And yes, I agree it’s very important to have the ability to walk away. We most certainly do live in a world full of contrasts and once again I agree with you – we must experience and understand the difficult times in order to appreciate what’s good and beautiful.
      I always appreciate your deep, insightful comments, thank you!

  8. Thank you Tracy for sharing so frankly! You mentioning they might have been Germans makes me feel ashamed for my country-fellows… I wonder what makes people behave like that. It must have been horrible for you and I am impressed how you are capable to reflect on it! Congrats, Tracy! You are the strong one in this encounter!! Susanne

    • Tracy Todd says:

      There is no need for you to feel ashamed, Susanne. One thing I have learnt is that we do not have control over what other people do, or how they behave. I honestly don’t know what makes some people do the things that they do. But then again, it takes all types to make the world go round.
      Thanks for your kind words. Sending you lots of love.

  9. MaanKind says:

    Oh Tracy, Today my Facebook update read (roughly translated): Babies who are not touched might die of ‘skin hunger’. And it’s a proven fact. Go rub someone’s arm near you right now . I find it easy to touch strangers – man woman or child – and it is often misinterpreted.
    Well, right now, I really need to rub your arms and neck and back softly, for a long, long time.

    • Tracy Todd says:

      Ooh, just the mere thought of having a head and neck massage makes me feel so much better. I agree that touch is important. I have always been an affectionate person by nature so I find it incredibly difficult not to be able to reach out and touch others, especially those I love. I also realise that sometimes touching others can be misinterpreted, especially by those who don’t like to be touched.
      Thank you for your comment and for caring.

  10. I cannot believe there are still so many insensitive horrible people in the world. Kudos to you Tracy for being a better person than I would have been.
    🙂 Mandy xo

    • Tracy Todd says:

      Thank you, Mandy. It is hard to believe that people still behave that way in a modern-day society, but honestly believe that they are just simply ignorant. Take care.

  11. Rolf says:

    Thanks, Tracy, for sharing this. Something deep inside me wishes, though, you had confronted them, so that not only you, but also I could know what possessed them to so unashamedly snap pictures of you! Your mentioning of their language particularly caught my attention, with the probability that they may have been Swiss – like myself. One more reason for me to want to know their reasoning for such audacious behaviour.
    I have noticed big differences between countries when it comes to staring at disabled people, or people who are different in any way for that matter. My home country, I believe, features very much high up in the ‘list of staring’, very much in contrast to countries like the UK, or Japan (where I live). Granted, people do look also here, having their curiousity getting the better of them. But it is much more subtle and thus somewhat less obtrusive. People here at least seem to realise that what they’re doing is wrong.
    However, I simply cannot imagine how anyone can think it’s acceptable to snap pictures of a wheelchair user just like that. And a whole family doing so? I’m aghast!
    But perhaps they DID think you’re someone famous, so maybe you should just think of them as papparazzi and enjoy the limelight. 😉

    • Tracy Todd says:

      Yes, Rolf, I also wished that I’d had the courage to confront them at the time, although being confrontational, is not in my nature at all. I think if people see something that is different or something that they are not used to seeing everyday, they will stare. That’s just life! I must just learn to not let it get to me so much.
      I like that idea – think of them as paparazzi. 😉 Although, to be honest, I also wouldn’t want that kind of life where your every move is photographed by some trashy magazine – it must be hell!

  12. Bill says:

    Wow. I don’t know how I would’ve reacted. Your honesty on your feelings is what is important to me as there are times when I have felt the same way about something. For me it isn’t a quad issue but one of being haman. Thanks for shaing this as well as the insight. Bill

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