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.
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.