Someone recently asked me what should someone do about public scrutiny if s/he has an obvious movement disorder, such as Huntington’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, or other neurological disorder? This question could also be applicable to wheelchair users who are also prone to public scrutiny when out and about in the world. While the focus of this article is on eating out in public, the “tips” provided apply to other situations as well.
Let’s face it, people are going to stare. We look at things we don’t understand with curiosity, and unfortunately, this curiosity can feel like scrutiny and judgment when you’re on the receiving end. It’s important to remind yourself that not all “lookers” are doing so with negative judgment. They may simply be curious or intrigued by something they may have never seen or experienced before. Unfortunately, that may be you getting the stare, and it is easy to feel objectified and defensive. Your reinterpretation of the stares can make the experieince a bit easier to deal with and provide a more accurate perspective of the situation. Remember: not all people looking at someone with a movement disorder or a disability are doing so with malice. Who knows — they may have been reminded of their brother-in-law and that may be why they’re looking. It may not always be the physical disability that draws the attention.
Here are a few suggestions to help ease some of the awkwardness that comes with living your life with a physical disability that is in public view.
1. Experiment. Trial and error. Whatever you call it, get out there and try different venues to help determine what is most comfortable for you. Try going to a favorite restaurant or cafe once or twice a week to see if over a short period of time you might feel more familiar and at ease there. Get to know the servers and/or owners, if possible. If you’re a messy eater, as many people with movement disorders are, be sure to leave a big tip. That way you don’t have to worry about leaving a mess and it will endear you to your server. Create a short list of restaurants and cafes that you enjoy going to. This also applies to any stores or businesses, not just food establishments.
2. When eating in restaurants, try to go during non-busy times. Having an early dinner at 5:00 pm will give you more physical and psychological space. Going into restaurants, cafes, or any business establishment for that matter, during peak hours maybe both overstimulating and stressful. Go early (or late), spread out and enjoy yourself.
3. Wear a Medic-Alert bracelet or similar type of identification bracelet. This lets other people know that you have a medical condition and are not drunk. Sometimes movement disorders can look like drunkenness and that can certainly attract public attention. It’s also a good idea to wear such a bracelet for your own security (and the comfort of your loved ones too!).
4. Don’t give up. You are entitled to be out in the world and to enjoy it. Social isolation is detrimental to your mental health. You are more than the disorder and more than just the movements your body makes.