Could staring be the key to becoming better allies?
“It’s rude to stare.” At least that’s what we’ve been taught when we see someone with a disability. But two people I spoke with recently are ready to flip that narrative. Their message: Please stare. Let your children stare. Let them engage and ask questions. Be curious and encourage your children to be too. Because a stare can lead to a conversation, and that’s how we’ll break down the walls we all create when something is uncomfortable.
As wider diversity and inclusion conversations gain momentum globally—and with the world’s eyes on the top para-athletes at the largest Paralympics in history as we speak—it’s time to start breaking down barriers and talking about how we can all be better allies.
I sat down with two remarkable individuals, Patrick Moran and Scout Bassett, both of whom have disabilities that do not define them. We discussed misperceptions, lessons they’ve learned, and why staring could be the key to becoming better allies.
By way of quick background:
Patrick Moran is the head of Information Security for EMEA at Citi, where he’s spent more than 20 years. He is also a father and a husband. Diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) at age 11, he has gradually lost his eyesight and has proudly been with his guide dog, Yoda, for five years.
MORE FOR YOU
Scout Bassett is a U.S. Paralympic Athlete in Track & Field and two-time Team Citi Athlete. She grew up as an orphan in China after losing her leg in a tragic fire. When she was adopted and came to the U.S., sports became her way of transcending cultural and social barriers. She has been an athlete ever since.
Read on for raw, tangible insights that we all can learn from and use to build a more inclusive and empathetic world. I have condensed and clarified from individual conversations with Patrick and Scout.
Nell Derick Debevoise: What has been your experience with staring?
Scout Bassett: I experience staring every day. Sometimes it’s curiosity, sometimes it’s uncertainty, and sometimes it’s pure shock or even fear of the unknown. I’ve had my disability since I was very little, so I’ve gotten used to the stares. But I admit they still affect me from time to time.
Patrick Moran: As someone who is blind, staring has a different meaning. I can’t see a stare, but I listen for them. I know when people are looking, and I can sense when there is discomfort. For me, those are the moments when I usually try to engage. I listen for a cue to respond to an inquisitive child asking their parent about me, which often is met with enthusiasm and follow-up questions. When my wife is with me, she tells me parents often watch with smiles as I answer their child’s questions in a way the parent might have struggled to do, and we all walk away with better understandings of each other.
Derick Debevoise: What do you wish able-bodied people knew about those living with disabilities, particularly when it comes to staring?
Bassett: Counter to the commonly held belief that it’s rude to stare at people with disabilities, we want you to know that it’s okay to stare. Let your children stare and ask their questions. Be curious and teach your children to be too.
Moran: We’re both fortunate enough to have gotten to a place where we’re fully accepting of—even grateful for—our disabilities and the people we are today as a result. Between the two of us, we’ve led very fulfilling yet different lives, but it has taken us both a lot of work, resilience and sharing our stories with others to get here. That’s why stares that lead to conversations are so important. It’s the key to better understanding and empathy—on both sides.
Bassett: Stare so you can learn. Stare so we can learn too. We want to learn about why you’re looking—maybe your friend or relative is going through something similar, and we can share what has helped us. Maybe we can offer insights to help you become a better ally.
Ask questions that give us an opportunity to share our stories. Everyone is at a different stage in their journey, so be thoughtful about your language but know we all have a story that includes our accomplishments and passions that make us stare-worthy. We want you to know about that background so that you see us beyond our visible or non-visible limitations. It’s okay to ask, and we’d much prefer you do.
Derick Debevoise: Do you have any tips or advice for people who may not know how or when to begin a conversation?
Moran: I know it can be uncomfortable when we see things that are unfamiliar to us. My advice would be that just starting the conversation is all you need to do. It will be easier from there than you think. Start by saying hi! Start by asking about my guide dog and why she has a bell. If you see us struggling, it’s okay to ask how you can help or offer to lend an elbow.
Bassett: One of my favorite things is when people come up to me and say “Oh, are you an athlete? You look like an athlete”, instead of “What happened to you?”. When someone recognizes me for my accomplishments and passion, and all the hard work I’ve put into my craft, it makes me so proud.
Moran: Importantly, discuss and reinforce our conversation with others after you walk away. If your child has follow-up questions, engage with them and help them understand what they just heard. If you learn something you didn’t know before that might help others, share with friends and family members. This is how we will turn the stares into productive curiosity. It’s how the uncomfortable will start to become more comfortable, for both of us.
Derick Debevoise: What’s your broader aim behind teaching people that it’s okay to stare?
Bassett: If we had one wish—or mission—going forward, particularly as the DE&I conversation globally gains momentum, it would be to change perceptions of people with disabilities and dismantle the barriers that have built up over time. Our disabilities are just one characteristic about us, they don’t define us. And ultimately, that’s how we want to be viewed.
Moran: More conversations lead to better understanding, and better understanding leads to better allyship. It’s also about improving accessibility and representation, both of which are enhanced by better allyship.
We must enable people with disabilities to perform necessary jobs by providing assistive technologies and tools—particularly in the current job market with growing labor shortages on the heels of the pandemic. Increased accessibility leads to increased representation, which creates a virtuous cycle where people with disabilities are embedded in the workplace, classroom and other environments, and become part of the decision-making and building plans—thereby facilitating access for others to join as well, which in turn increases representation.
Bassett: We have made progress, but we have ways to go. If we all had one conversation a week, the world would be a changed, more inclusive place for all of us. It starts with a stare.
Email us for a free worksheet to build purposeful habits, such as getting comfortable staring when you see folks with disabilities, per Bassett’s and Moran’s request.