How To Survive Being Stared At

January 28, 2012 — 56 Comments

I originally posted this piece on in June 2011. 

The other day some kids stared at me.  My son’s class was meeting at the park to perform their year-end songs and I decided to surprise Sam by coming.  Earlier I told him I had to work, so when his friends saw me walking toward the park they started shouting, “Sam!  Your dad’s here!  I thought you said he was for sure not coming?!”  Sam ran to me, smiling sheepishly, and wrapped his arms around my neck.  Then his friends came over.  There they stood.  All lined-up, their little 7-year old fingers pointed at me like an adorable firing squad.  “What happened to his arm?” some of them quietly asked.  “Hey, boys,” I said.  I mean, I’m used to this.

I was born missing my left arm just below the elbow.  People have been staring at me my whole life.  Heck, I stare at me when I walk by a store front or when I see myself in a video.  I’m different; it’s a fact of life.  So, those situations at the park are not altogether uncommon.  Kids are curious.  They also have no sense of decorum.  And that’s totally cool, but honestly, it’s still hard sometimes.  It’s hard to be stared at, even when it’s been happening to you for 33 years.

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So, how do I deal with it?  It helps me to remember a few things.

Kids don’t know any better. I’m not saying kids aren’t smart or anything, I’m just saying they’ve (probably) never seen somebody like me and their brains are still in that stage where they’re like, “HOLY CRAP. THAT DUDE IS MISSING HIS ARM. I MUST KNOW WHY. I WILL ASK HIM IMMEDIATELY.”  I think my favorite reaction is when I tell them that I was born without it and they say, “No you weren’t.  Where is it really?”  They’re convinced I’m somehow hiding it.  It’s awesome.  So, yes, it can still be somewhat awkward when kids stare, but I can’t fault them.  They’re curious; and for good reason.

Parents usually don’t know any better, either. Honestly, parents are harder to deal with.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not mad at them.  I kind of pity them, actually.  Most of the time they have no idea how to react when their child gets vocal about my arm.  And I can’t blame ‘em.  I mean, that’s not one of those things you practice with your child.  ”Ok, so if we happen to see someone with one arm today, let’s make sure we politely say hello and walk by them without staring.  If you must ask them what happened, please do so with dignity and tact.”  Right.  Usually the kid blurts out, “HE’S GOT A BROKE ARM!” and the mom’s face contorts in terror while she tries not to stare at me and then yells at her kid to be quiet.  Awkward.  So, for all you parents, take the opportunity to teach your kid that it’s ok to be curious and then help them ask the questions they’re wondering about.  Everybody wins when that happens.

We are all infatuated with differences. Did you ever have that little, thick Guinness Book of World Records when you were a kid?  The one with those humongous twins on tiny motorcycles?  And that super tall guy?  And the dude with the fingernails that curled and curled because they were so long?  Only now do I recognize the irony in my obsession with the abnormal.  The fact is, differences catch our attention.  And that’s not bad, it just…is.  I notice people stealing glances at my arm during conversations and it doesn’t bother me a bit.  I know they can’t help it.  They’re not trying to be rude.  It’s like looking at a white sheet of paper and trying not to stare at the bright yellow blotch in the corner.  Impossible.  I understand that.

And while these ideas help me to some extent, the reality is that sometimes it still hurts to be stared at.  Maybe you feel the same way.  Maybe you’re tall.  Or short.  Or overweight.  Or you have red hair.  Or no hair.  Or you limp.  Or you use a wheelchair.  Or you’re blind.  Or you’re a different color than all your friends.  It could be anything.  I want to tell you that it’s ok to not enjoy being stared at.  I also want to tell you to accept that it is a fact of life.  Most people don’t mean to be rude.  Most people don’t even want to stare, they just can’t help it.

I challenge you to believe that you were made just right. I had an atheist college professor named Dr. Goodpaster (delicious, right?) who once asked me, “Since you believe in God, shouldn’t you be mad at him for making you that way?”  Despite being horribly offensive, his question does make sense.  Well, if you believe the only people worth anything are perfectly shaped.  I told him that, no, I don’t believe I should be mad at God.  He made me this way for a reason.  And I believe He made Dr. Goodpaster the way He did for a reason.

And I believe He made you the way He did for a reason.

I believe each of us are “wonderfully made.”

And when we believe that, it’s makes surviving the stares a little bit easier.

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I'm a husband, a father, an author, a speaker, a friend...all kinds of things, actually.

56 responses to How To Survive Being Stared At

  1. Thank you for sharing this subject. Nicely written.

    Most of the children respond very naturally, they ask a brief question and the subject is ready. But some children do not stop asking questions or do not stop staring. That is really annoying.

    However I must admit that with my myo arm prosthesis, staring has decreased enormously. It makes me feel much freer now.

  2. So good man. You continue to encourage me.

  3. oh, this is wonderful. I have a 2 month old with significant limb differences. we’re just starting out this life of being stared at all the time. I found your words quite encouraging.

  4. Hi, Ryan. I’m a new follower of your blog and I’ve really been enjoying it. I love the humanity of what you say. Not all blogs are that way. So, just wanted to say hi and look forward to the future.

  5. I am so used to being stared at that it doesn’t faze me anymore. I am always glad when a child asks a genuine question. You are right that the parents are the bigger challenge because I always have to reassure them I am not upset with their chlld. A smile does wonders in that situation as you well know.

    What gets to me still are the adults who glare not stare as they try to mow you over with their cart at Target. That I don’t think I will ever get used to.

    The message is that their time is too important to wait for me to get out of the way. What they don’t realize is that I never saw them coming and that as they nearly knock my crutch to the ground that I am going as fast as I can.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience, February! As hard as it is sometimes, it sounds like you have a good handle on things. Hang in there! 🙂

  6. Ryan, I saw a link to this post on my twitter feed. After reading it I had the feeling I could have written the post myself. I’m a 33 year old mom who is also a left, below the elbow congenital amputee 🙂 Your words are encouraging and thoughtful. I can’t wait to read more from you! @andersonkiki

  7. The end of your post is a question I have intended on emailing you. We recently adopted our 1 year old daughter from China. Her arm is almost exactly like yours. When kids ask, our standard answer is “God made her that way. He made everyone different, huh?” or “She was born that way.” Sticking to a standard answer (for now) is helpful for our other two young children to know how to respond as THEY are the ones fielding the questions for now. Curious what your standard response to the kids is.

  8. As always, its a pleasure reading your insight. We embrace the stares in our household. We use it as a way to enlighten those that we meet who are “perfect”. My favorite to date, a little girl probably about 5 yells at her entire family to come look at this baby boy with no arm. Her parents were devestated. Its hard when you can see their internal struggle. I reassured them it was fine while she is still reeling with questions, how will he text? Oh my, kids now days and the things they consider top priority. :)) Love it!

    • So funny! I just heard a commercial on the radio ridiculing people who “text with only ONE thumb.” hehe Little do they know… Thanks for sharing, Kirk!

  9. As a teacher I am very used to kids staring and asking questions about my arm. It doesn’t bother me and I think it is very natural. However, last summer I was at an amusement park with my children when some girls around 10 years old started whispering, giggling and pointing at my arm. It irritated me because these girls were old enough to know better. My daughter handled the situation by staring intently back at the girls. They promptly turned away in a huff. Sometimes it’s nice to have children that protect their mama!

  10. Thanks Ryan. You are so wise. I agree that you, my son, and many others were created just as God designed. “The Purpose Driven Life” is a great book dealing with some of these issues. (especially chapter 2) Thank you so much for sharing. We love watching your videos. My kids are already making their own “Doing things one-handed” videos with the BING. ha ha

  11. I was with my son’s family when their friend with a 4 year old daughter stopped by and while the “grown Ups” visited I talked to the little girl. I was holding my one month old grandson and she wanted to see his “little arm”. She told me that my grandson Micah had lost his arm in his mommy’s tummy and then talked about how she wasn’t going to lose her arm. Of course it was obvious that it had occured to her that if it had happened to Micah it could happen to her. So I reassured her that she was not going to lose her arm and showed her I had both my arms and always would, and she would always have both her arms. Young children don’t get the explainations of why some children have missing limbs etc. They are thinking about themselves and worried about it happening to them. I’m 61 and I remember in High School seeing a classmate with a missing hand and I was shocked and alarmed because I hadn’t realized it for weeks. I tried not to stare. I knew better than to do that. I know that there will be kids and adults doing double takes when they first see my grandson. I expect everything from curiosity and ignorance, to stupidity. The first two you can help, but the last one you either ignore, or tolerate and feel sorry for.

  12. Gaby Cavalcanti January 29, 2012 at 9:33 pm

    Hi ryan, just read your post above, thanks so much for sharing this. I seriously want to print it and post it somewhere at home. My youngest one (she is now 6 months) was born with an underdeveloped right hand and I am just trying to prepare myself for this kind of situation. I know it will be hard, but if I can help her see that she is “wonderfully made” and that she is loved just the way she is, I know it will all be a little easier.

    • That sounds like an awesome idea, Gaby! I’m glad it impacted you. Just keep loving her like crazy and you’ll both be fine. 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  13. Jeanne Strepacki January 30, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    Another awesome post, Ryan. I particularly enjoyed the story at the end about the professor (that wasn’t really his name, was it?!) I’m curious….how did your parents react when people stared when you were a kid? Do you have siblings, and if so, how did they react? Hope you are all doing well!

    • That WAS his real name!! Awesome, right? hehe

      Those are great questions. And to be honest…I’m not sure! I plan on having a LOT of conversations in the near future with my parents, siblings, relatives, friends…to get their perspectives. I think it’ll be really eye-opening for me and I’m excited to learn and share! Thanks for asking! Hope you all are doing well, too. 🙂

  14. This was a really encouraging post! Ever since I was little, I have had a lazy left eye that often wanders and very rarely is oriented the same way as my right eye. I get the feeling when some people are talking to me that they are trying to make eye contact with me but aren’t entirely sure which eye to make contact with. Kids have asked me “What’s wrong with your eye?” I was really encouraged by your post and I think you have a great point, God has made each and every one of us to be exactly the way he wants us to be. One of my favorite verses about this is in John chapter 9, “As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” (John 9:1-3) Thank you so much for posting!

  15. When our son was born I felt like everyone was staring at his little hand and when he was about 9 months old I was talking to my husband about how people don’t seem to stare anymore when it hit me that it was ME who quit looking for the staring people! Blake is now 5 and is doing great he started preschool in September and the teachers told us after the first week we should give ourselves a pat on the back for the great job we aredoing with Blake and that he handled questions about his hand perfectly and did not skip a beat. His answer is I was born this way and then he usually shows them how he can move his nubbins and pick up things with his partial thumb!

    • That’s so great, Jowana! My dad mentioned a similar experience the other day. He said something like, “It wasn’t that they were just staring at you; I felt like they were staring at ME, too.” Keep up the great work with Blake! 🙂

  16. Hey Ryan
    I have a 4 year old grandaughter who is missing her left hand. She is at the age now that when other kids staring or grabbing her arm to say to all the other kids “hey look she has no hand” really upsets her. I have stopped taking her to the park now because the kids make a fuss and she ends up in tears. Can I ask how your parents handled this situation and how they helped you – and what did you tell yourself at 4 when this happened? I’d love to help her more. Thank you and bless you for your wonderful site. 🙂

    • That’s a wonderful question, Kim! I’ll have to ask my parents about that. I honestly don’t remember that kind of stuff ever happening to me. I imagine it’s really hard at that age to deal with. I would just continue to instill confidence in her. The more she can accept and love who she is, the easier it will be to deal with those types of things. Hang in there!

  17. I came across your blog today and I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I tell my daughter who is 20 months that she is wonderfully made and can do anything as often as I can. She has the most beautiful, giving spirit of anyone I have ever met. I think it is hard on me as the parent, to let people know it is okay. I am not mad. I have a hard time dealing sometimes but who doesn’t….and I am not the one dealing with it, she is. I deal with the looks from the parents, the kids questions and my daughter as she does not understand why she is made visibly different. You are right, the look from the parents when their kid asks you about it is priceless. I would rather you ask than to stare at my beautiful girl. Thank you thank you thank you for taking the time to share your life with us. In Christ.

    • So glad you found us, Jennifer! Sounds like you’re doing a wonderful job raising your beautiful daughter. 🙂 Keep encouraging her and allow her to be HER! I’m starting to believe this whole experience is harder on the parents than it is on the kids, so hang in there. You’re doing great!

  18. The Birthmark

    One Summer whilst working at an activity centre for children with disabilities and their siblings and families I saw a boy with an orangey mark on his head. I said to him,
    “Oh, I think you’ve hurt your head.”
    He said,
    “I haven’t.”
    “Oh, well maybe you’ve got some paint in your hair.”
    “I haven’t.”
    “Are you sure?”
    I felt mortified and he looked pretty embarrassed and angry. Quickly I rolled up the leg of my jeans,
    “Look I’ve got one too.”
    He came over to see and smiled,
    “Oh, you’ve got one too!” Then he ran away to play.

    I don’t really see how this situation could have been avoided, I didn’t know him and had to check he wasn’t hurt. I’m sure he faces similar questions all the time, and I’m glad I managed to diffuse it and show him that other people have birthmarks too. I wonder what others could have done, who aren’t blessed with a birthmark to whip out in such circumstances.

    I love mine and if I ever lost the leg, I’d want to paint it back on the prosthetic along with the tattoo on my foot.Sometimes people ask if mine’s a bruise, again they are just checking I’m ok. I hope the boy likes his too.

  19. I have just gone through this piece. I have a 11year old child who was born with one hand. Yes it is very painful when people of all ages stare, at times ask offensive questions. It hurts. Can you suggest some tips on how to handle such rude people who my child comes across on a daily basis? Also how you tackled such situations and how you confidence.Thank you very much for all the information you shared in this piece.God bless you.

  20. It can be rough at times, while other times I just let it roll off my shoulder like the rain. My daughter at 3 is more versed and accomplished than many, she also brushes it off when another child points or tries to grab her arm, our point out to others that she has part of her arm missing. In essence this only seems harmless because people think oh their just kids. When in actuality the parents should be teaching their children that it is wrong to grab or point out someone else is different. Often times now she will come up to us her parents and saying my arm is broken. So in retrospect of your story here thanks for sharing. Though I do feel a bit more firmly in my stance on the subject as a whole. I do believe people were made how they are for a reason, but parents need to teach their kids better.

  21. Thank you for sharing your life . I have a cousin born with only an arm . I am scared thinking how he s gonna deal with it . Your story inspires me . I am looking forward to see more of ur posts .thank you

  22. Um hi my name is Skyler im 15 i was born without some fingers and toes ive been pretty upset by things people have said but ive lernt to deal with it i have amneotic banding syndrome or abs for “short” (cuz im short a few digets) iv kinda dedlt with it but lil cusions still are embaressed of me we went to food lion and we were in line and she said skyler hide your hands it really hert but becouse of your site im a lot less anal about other people but when people start there sentence with not to be rude i know wher there going so THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Skyler – This means so much to me! Thank you for sharing your experience and being so honest about it. Stay strong. You’re awesome. 🙂

  23. Lisa Thompson July 23, 2012 at 1:09 am

    I am so impressed with this site, and what appears to be your zen master method of dealing with the setbacks and annoyances of having a diffability I am in a wheelchair hen we go shopping or somewhere I’d have to walk long distances I never get stared at in fact and I feel invisible most of the time – clerks look right over my head and ask my husband how they can help “her (meaning me) even doctors and nurses, who really should know betterI even had a couple of teenagers run right into my scooter at Disneyland, btw how ould you suggest we teach our kids to approach youI always told my kids they were not to comment on or criticize things people had no choice about, i.e. skin color, their names, acne, and so on I am going o recommend your site to a couple of friends who are teachers, if that’s ok w/you

    • Thanks for commenting, Lisa! I love your philosophy of not criticizing things people have no control over. I still think it’s appropriate to teach children how to ask questions respectfully. They are naturally curious, so to surpress that or punish them for it is unfair, in my opinion. I think teaching them that everyone is valuable goes a long way in that arena. Again, thanks for writing and I’d LOVE if you recommended my site to your teacher friends! 🙂

  24. I happened to stumble across your website tonight because I was feeling very insecure about myself (it happens more often than I’d like it to, being a teenager all) and wanted to find something to cheer me up, particularly something I could relate to.. which happens to be the staring.

    But first, hey there. I’m Kaitlin, I’m 17, and I’m starting my senior year soon. I’m fortunate to have attended a school where the classes are small enough that everyone knows me, or of me, and I’m nothing new. Lately, though (as in a few years), going out in public has been painful for me. I wonder if it’s just because I’m a hormonal, hugely irritable thing that’s just trying to survive high school and life in general, but I’ve developed the habit of trying to hide my hand when out and about. ..Oh, and I actually have a hand. Well, 1/2 of a hand, I guess. I have a forearm and a wrist, with my hand being developed only about an inch or so from the wrist.

    Anyway, back on topic. I’ve never had an issue with the kids staring. I have no doubt I stumbled across a human being in a similar situation when I was younger and no doubt gawked without realizing the irony of the situation. But of course, I grew up and became more aware of other people and their reactions. Which quite frankly, is not helpful to my already complicated self-esteem issues. I mean, I am a girl in high school, right?

    In the back of my mind, I know that a large percentage of strangers that happen to catch a glimpse of my hand don’t even care. But I do. Then I read your blog and I realized, nobody should care, including myself. We live in a world where the abnormal is normal, don’t we? We see armless/legless people everyday.. pfft, that’s boring compared to the other stuff we could uncover. The big challenge now, for me, is to work on being proud of who I am, especially *how* I am, and not being ashamed to be myself in public around people I don’t know. I have a feeling that most of your blogs are going to leave me thinking, “Hmm. I’m being an idiot about this whole thing. Stop being dumb and go outside in a t-shirt.”

    ..But it’s dark out, so I’ll leave that for tomorrow.

    • Kaitlin…I love this comment. Love it. 🙂 Thank you for sharing your experience so far and please stay in touch! If you’re on Facebook, come join us there, too! Nice to meet you. 🙂

  25. Its funny. I was born with one hand – ends about wristish area, with four finger bumps (the fifth fell off when I was a baby playing with my mums curls) – and most of the time I don’t really notice it. In fact, when I went to boarding school and we’d get new students in my year I would actually explain what happened to my hand from the get go after intro’s. Their response? “You have one hand?! I totally didn’t notice that!”

    But the funny thing is (likely because I don’t really know anyone personally who is limb-different) I stare when I see someone who appears to have been born with one hand! I always have a dilemma about it – because I want to ask/look, and at the same time don’t.

    But I agree on children – they really don’t know any better. Most of the time, I don’t mind their stares and questions (its when the adults try to get friendly on the topic that I get annoyed, for some reason). I often pause in whatever I’m doing to explain it to them, and kids I’m familiar with (such as cousins, nephews, and children of friends) often like to touch it because they think its just so cool!

    On a note about children though – a co workers children didn’t notice I had one hand until several months after they met me. One day after she stopped into work with them, they asked on the way home what I happened to my hand. She had to double take because she thought they’d noticed and didn’t feel the need to ask.

    Anyway, thats my little share. I’d also like to let you know that finding this blog has inspired me to spend more time on my craft blog talking about how I do things one handed. I’d already planned on doing some videos on how I crochet/knit, but I’m going to expand it to other every day things as well – both to educate those who want to know (I’ve been asked too many times to count to show how I tie shoelaces or plait hair!) and to help people in similar situations – whether born that way or other.

    (Also, I absolutely love your jumprope vid. Especially knowing I’m not the only one handed that does a double thumbs up ;] )

  26. May I point out that some people use wheelchairs. They are not in them. Subtle difference, perhaps, but it matters. It describes the person separately from the assistive device.

  27. hello,

    I really enjoyed your blog post, in fact I found it rather funny. This has happened to me more times that I dare to count! I was born with one arm also (my left arm is normal length, I just have 3 fingers but only 2 are usable…my right “arm” is half the length and I have I fully developed finger and one partial that I can’t move). I have such a weird disability and it has received tons of attention over the years.

    Like you I have had hundres of people children, parents, teachers, friends, family members, doctors (they were always my favorites) asking me what happened, and for the most part I tell them the truth I was born this way but sometimes I have had some fun. I once told a young boy that a dinosaur ate eat he was shocked but thought it was rather cool, but in recent years I try to convince kids that they ate my arm one night by accident when they were looking for a midnight snack. They tend laugh when they hear it.

    Sometimes though I do try to hide it because I just want to blend in for a brief moment…feel normal just for a second (the irony is that people notice it even more lol). Living with my handicap has had some perks and share of challenges. I had to teach myself how to do everything since most people couldn’t teach/help me the way that I needed. Also, some people were/are very accepting of my handicapped, some weren’t/aren’t and they found/find it unfair when i received/receive special treatment (basically accommodations) or not meeting their expectations.

    I’ve excelled in many of life’s challenges and I’ve done rather well with my handicap. I’ve learned to be very independent, compassionate, and ingenuitive…but the darkside is that I found myself emotionally/physically isolated (no one i know is like me and in the past people spent years telling me that i couln’t do things, and that there was something wrong with me), mentally/emotionally drained (i always have to figure out ways around things, deal with ignorant people as well as my own frustrations and limitations). I got my BA degree last year and it’s been tough finding great job (job your promised to get when you’re done with college) and it’s tough convencing employers to look past my handicap (i think that they worry if i can compete/compare with their other non-handicapped employees). You always have to prove yourself worthy.

    It’s tough being handicapped and having all these complex issues can be quite exhausting to the point where you resent your handicap (basically yourself) and you start questioning your worth. But it’s wonderful to hear from someone who understands, and if you could give me words of advice I would greatly appreciate it. But I love my handicap, I just lose sight of that sometimes. Afterall it made me who I am today.

  28. Awesome post.

    Dr. Goodpaster was probably wishing he believed in God just so he could be mad at God for giving him that surname.

  29. Hello, thanks for sharing your experiences. I remember my nephew and their friends kept asking me where my missing fingers. I told them that I just came back from the war with dragons and my fingers gone because of the flame from the dragons breath. I was happy that they believed it and enjoyed my story.

    I like medieval story and fantasy 🙂

  30. Sierra Enterline December 14, 2016 at 3:44 pm

    I was born without my left hand and I am doing a speech on how my arm has impacted with my life? People make fun of me. I choose to take the positive side and joke about my being not having a left hand. I play trumpet so I joke with my band teacher and say, “Mr.Gibson should I keep both hands on my trumpet too?!!” I needed help with my speech this really helped. THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!

  31. A beautiful insight. I’ve been stared at too, for racial reasons, and it does get under your skin. I’ve got family who are differently abled and they get it worse – the pity, the condescension, the outright dismissal. What you said to Dr. Goodpaster really hit the mark – we are all made the way we are for a reason. And we only judge some people as lesser than others because we have some messed up standards and don’t see the reason. Thank you.

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