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Why I Stare at People With Special Needs

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I stare at people with special needs. I do. Maybe you don’t notice – I hope not! I try to be stealthy about it. My family has been stared at a lot over the years, and it always made me feel self-conscious. Still, I find myself looking anyway. Because I know how it feels to be stared at, I try to watch you without you noticing.

You see, my son, David, who had a whole bunch of special issues, died earlier this year. He had uncontrollable sub-clinical seizures that accumulated brain damage for more than three years until he passed away at 8 years old. For years, we would take him out in public and get stared at. Years of tube-feeding, diaper-changing, wheelchair-pushing, wiping drool, managing babbling, sign language lessons, medications, seizures, ambulance rides, balancing sibling needs and all of the stuff you have now. We got stared at.

Carin Bockelman the mighty.2-001

We had really positive experiences with some of the people who stared at us. We were able to educate those who just wanted to know David or better understand his issues. Sometimes we made friends. We met a lot of people who shared stories of loved ones with issues and needs similar to David’s, and those were usually really encouraging and uplifting experiences.

But we also had negative experiences. Sometimes just getting caught staring made people uncomfortable. Parents would scold their children and turn their backs on us. (For the record, I prefer parents to walk over with their children and introduce themselves, so they’re teaching their children how to interact with someone with special needs rather than teach their children how to shun them.) We had a few times when we got unhappy looks, and I often wondered which issue offended them. Was it the drooling? The interracial adoption? That we had the audacity to bring our son with us to a restaurant?

So please forgive me, but sometimes I watch you and your family. I know it might be more polite to come over and introduce myself, but I’m just not ready to talk casually about David yet. It may sound unfathomable, but I miss all the stress and the complications that went into taking care of David. I miss David. And when I see you and your family, I watch with nostalgia and sadness. I watch with empathy and love and little jealousy. I hope, if you notice me watching, it’s the empathy and love you see.

Originally published: August 24, 2015
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