There are few things I enjoy more than a tasty meal out with friends. On my list of “Top Things that Begin with the Letter F,” food and friends lag only behind family.
Over 20 years, I’ve learned to live with many of the hassles that come with dining in my bulky power chair: inaccessible restaurants, cramped dining rooms, rude servers, a lack of tables I can roll under — and then there are the gawkers.
Gawkers are the people whose minds are apparently blown by seeing a wheel¬chair user out in public enjoying their life, and can only respond by staring. Some might think that on the eve of 2019 homo sapiens would have evolved beyond such behavior, but if you’ve spent any time in public in a wheelchair you probably know too well how far we have to go.
I know gawkers drive some people crazy, but not me. To be honest, I’m fascinated by them. In fact, I’ve developed a rough classification system to help differentiate between types of gawkers. It’s far from complete, but here are some of the predominant classes with details on how common and annoying they are on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being Highly Annoying:
Quick peekers, Common, 3: Known for their tendency to glance surreptitiously, quick peekers are often found in fancier settings where staring is considered rude.
Statues, Very Common, 6: Just the sight of a person with a disability has been shown to trigger facial paralysis and empty stares in many of these individuals.
Jaw droppers, Rare, 8: Sometimes con¬fused with their more common relatives, the statues, jaw droppers can be singled out by the dramatic plunge of the mandible.
Talkers, Uncommon, 10: Stares lead to an urgent need to make self-conscious conversation, including bad jokes (“How fast does that thing go?”), blessings (“I’ll pray for you”) and pure awkwardness (“It’s great to see you out”).
Identifying your own gawkers can be tricky. The hardest part is often separating gawkers from people who may be staring at something other than you or your chair.
For example, on a recent dinner date with friends, the empty, cold looks of the people waiting in line outside the restaurant could easily pass for the frozen grimaces of statues, but experience tells me they are more likely simply focused on getting inside where it’s warm. Similarly, experience tells me that a table full of food is known to produce longing looks from diners waiting for their own meals — expressions that can easily be mistaken for gawking.
With practice, you, too, can identify and classify gawkers. Deciphering the slight¬est of social cues and gestures is a great way to turn what might otherwise be an awkward interaction into a fun evening for you and your friends. Maybe you’ll even discover some new categories!
With the exception of the rare aggressive talker, gawkers are harmless. As they are usually products of ignorance, a simple conversation can have a dramatic impact, sometimes even helping a gawker evolve. If you feel up to it, go for it, but don’t feel obligated to intervene. Most importantly, don’t let the social ineptitude of others ruin your time on the town.