How do you address my girls, particularly if they don’t have direct eye gaze?
There are times when Rachel and Janneke are sitting in their wheelchairs, and I am standing between them, I am asked what the girls understand. Sometimes I want to say, “Ask the girls.” The reference to them in third person while they are present amuses and saddens me, yet I understand. How do you address my girls, particularly if they don’t have direct eye gaze? As we walk through the hospital or the mall, I see a common reaction from adults – the averted eyes and pinched smile. In contrast, children typically have the stare that lasts well beyond us passing each other, feet stumbling forward while head is turned backward. The adult or child that holds my eyes or my daughters’ eyes and smiles broadly is often someone pushing or using a wheelchair.
Last year, I attached a GoPro camera to Rachel’s headrest for one morning. A GoPro is a small camera that attaches easily to your body or your equipment; it is often used by thrill-seekers and outdoor sports enthusiasts. Admittedly, Rachel was only headed down the street to school, but I was curious to see what she saw. I attached the camera alongside her headrest, so the angle would be the same as her eye gaze.
To be seen
It was a fun experiment. I was able to watch the reactions of her classmates and staff, as she wheeled up and into the school. I loved seeing the eye contact and smiles of her friends, and it was interesting to watch the perspective from that angle.
I had to laugh at the number of stomach shots. I mean that in the kindest way, but the camera angle reminded me of how often Rachel is given the belly button before the eyes when it comes to adults.
While acknowledging that for some children and in some cultures, eye gaze is intimidating or disrespectful, my own children do benefit from direct eye gaze. In fact, when Rachel is wheeled into her Grade 5 classroom, we wait for Rachel to meet her teacher’s eye. Rachel often smiles when her eyes connect with others, so we try to support this experience by encouraging people to meet her face-to-face. Janneke has yet to develop a strong connection with her eyes, but the skill is slowly emerging.
To be acknowledged
Recently, I followed Rachel and her Grade 5 class to Fort George, a historic military structure from the War of 1812, located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.
In arranging the class trip ahead of time, our school explained one student named Rachel would be attending in a wheelchair. When we arrived, we were given a quick introduction by the costumed staff and sent off to find our tour guide. As with many class trips and outings with Rachel, I automatically step into the role of translator, so I geared up, along with her EA, to help facilitate any of the interactions with the Fort George staff.
Within a few moments of meeting our young tour guide, I was surprised to see him address Rachel, both with eye gaze and name. Throughout our morning, he was intentional in choosing paths that would accommodate her chair, and as his eyes scanned all the faces, he also looked at Rachel. When it came time to assemble on bleachers for a weapons demonstration, he told Rachel (not her mom or her EA) where she’d be sitting. He also considered ahead of time how certain spaces and doorways might work (or not work) for the wheelchair.
This was a powerful experience for me, and it was also noticed by the parents who came along as chaperones.
Not everyone wants to start a conversation with a stranger, yet the feeling of being seen and acknowledged lends itself to a glimpse of belonging. Connecting with someone, whether through eye gaze or head space, shows dignity and authentic engagement. In short, to be seen and acknowledged is empowering. According to my nonverbal daughters, meaningful eye gaze speaks volumes.
When the eyes say one thing and the tongue another, a practiced man relies on the language of the first.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (Conduct of Life)