Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

The Experience of “Being Seen” for Persons with Disability


Saevi, Tone


Blinded seeing

How do we experience being seen by others? Perhaps we are rarely fully aware of how others see us. But if we dò become aware, then it seems to be of great consequence, especially if we are not sure of the full significance of the others’ look. Something becomes visible, when it is not just “seen” but when it is made noticeable. In the preface to his autobiography “And yet we are human” the Norwegian author Finn Carling tells what it was like for him to speak for the first time on the radio about the experience of being physically disabled.

Dripping wet from sweat I sank into the seat of the car, waiting for me outside the television building at Marienlyst, leaned back and tried to light a cigarette. Again and again I thought: My God, what have I done! My God, I have told that I am a cripple! Despite the fact that I knew that this was something that everybody who knew me had already learned and connected to me; something that in their eyes had to be a significant aspect of my identity, still I felt as if I had undertaken an irrevocable disclosure. (Carling 1962, pp. 8, 9)

Finn Carling had directed the “eyes” of his radio listeners to take regard of something that had thus far been disregarded, not paid attention to. And yet, it had been a secret that everybody could already see. In fact, talking of “an irrevocable disclosure” when everybody could see his bodily disability seems strange, but this is how Carling experienced that particular situation. So, how may one understand this kind of seeing of disability that is experienced as a disclosing of something that everybody can see? How can one disclose something that is already visible? Simply, it is a certain kind of attentive seeing: it is to make noticeable (and thus thinkable) what was only seen but not thought about.


It is in part a cultural and normative experience that when facing persons with disability, the disability itself is seldom mentioned. Children are taught not to point, stare or talk aloud about the impairments of people they meet. Disability is treated as unmentionable and as something that should remain unnoticed and thus invisible, even in our society of so-called tolerance and openness. Robert Murphy, professor of anthropology, and himself paralytic disabled, points out the painful predicament of this kind of (non)seeing of disability: “And so we are treated to the paradox of nobody ‘seeing’ the one person in the room of whom they are most acutely, and uncomfortably aware” (Murphy et al 1988, p. 239). The condition that is visible to all is somehow kept invisible by becoming a non-theme. We see something but we take no notice, and thus what is seen remains in some sense blinded to our vision. Even when the obvious disfiguring of the other is profoundly disturbing, it is culturally inappropriate to express this particular experience in words. It is inappropriate to even “see” the disability. And thus we practice a blinded seeing.


Seeing but unthinking

By being blind to the disability we do not allow ourselves to think about it, reflect on it, make judgments about it. The blinded seeing of disability remains pre-reflective so to speak–seen but unnoticed. On the one hand, this is how we usually seem to see each other. We see the various unique features that distinguish one person from another and that make it possible to identify and remember the person. But unlike with disability, these features are not taboo for reflection. Someone may have a prominent nose, but even though the prominence of the nose is not taboo or unmentionable, the facial feature is not mentioned. In fact, we may recognize a person by his or her nose or other features and yet not be fully aware of that.


On the other hand, some feature of disfigurement or disability is often something that is not just seen and not reflected on, it is something that one must actually try or pretend not to see. It must not become an object of thought. So to describe seeing disability is to describe a special kind of seeing, it is a normative seeing, in some sense.
A friend of mine tells me she was going to get new glasses. She says that she likes these glasses so much because they are almost invisible. The frame and lenses of the glasses are so thin and clear that they are hardly noticeable, such that others may not immediately recognize the fact that she wore glasses. Glasses that do not look like glasses, but leave the on-lookers with another impression. What impression? An impression of non-glasses, before they disclose themselves as the glasses they really are. My friend wants others to see her in a certain way (without glasses) and (not unlike Finn Carling) her announcement of her intent to get new glasses expresses how she stands in a relation to her (physical) self. But unlike Carling the new glasses are not unmentionable. In fact, my friend may feel quite pleased when she is told how thin her glasses are. “I like your glasses, they are almost invisible!”


Peter tells of his meeting someone at the airport:

Standing in the crowded arrival hall of the airport I tried to come to a decision. I was responsible for seeing to it that one of the main speakers of the International Pedagogy Conference was picked up at the airport and properly transported to his hotel in the town center. I had brought a piece of white cardboard on which I had written his name with black felt pen: Mr. Adnams. The first few arriving passengers already passed through the broad, gray sliding doors between the international transit area and the arrival hall. I looked around and noticed other people holding up signs with names, so that their unknown visitors could identify and connect with them. My panic increased. I felt I had to decide. Should I hold up the handwritten cardboard, or should I just wait and look for a man in a wheelchair? Probably he would be the only one in a wheelchair. My recognizing him would not be a problem. But how would he feel when I, a total stranger, did not follow the usual procedure when meeting foreigners at airports, but picked him from the crowd because of his wheelchair?*

Peter’s agony seemed related to whether or not he should act according to what he perceived as an expected norm, or to the relevant knowledge he had of the person he was going to meet. What makes it so difficult to adopt an appropriate way of acting towards the person in the wheelchair? Why was Peter preoccupied with what would be the right thing to do? If he held up the sign with his name, waiting for the visitor to find him, the wheelchair person would probably see his evasiveness, as he knew that Peter knew. He had properly informed Peter beforehand that he was a wheelchair user, and the car Peter used was designed to transport a wheelchair. That was the reason why Peter was the one chosen to pick him up. So, he could just wait until he saw a wheel chair person and then go up to him as if they had met before.


But what would the wheelchair visitor think? If Peter did not follow the common procedure of meeting the arrival of foreigners at airports, the visitor might feel as embarrassed as he would, when he still had to greet him as if he was surprised to see his identity (“Hello, you must be …”). Peter seemed to experience ambivalence and perplexity, because whatever he decided to do in recognizing the visitor, he would probably feel uncomfortable with it. In spite of his progressive attitude towards disability in general and wheelchair users in particular, Peter was deprived of a feeling of comfort related to his predicament in meeting this person. Peter’s problem was not primarily his own seeing of the disability but whether the wheel chair could become noticeable in his seeing. In other words, Peter’s predicament was that he did not know the visitor’s relation to his own disability: whether the disability could be “seen” as something disclosed in the way that Finn Carling has described, or “seen” as something that is unnoticed. Peter did not know how to “look” at the visitor.


The other’s look as self-seeing

Jean Paul Sartre describes how the look of the other person can make one feel objectified, judged, embarrassed, or ashamed of whom one is. Even if one were doing something inappropriate, such as one’s actions are not improper until another person observes them, but become improper and awkward when they are performed before the eyes of the ‘other’. Somehow my self-conscious evaluation of my “self” becomes activated through the look of the other. I see and judge my ‘self’ as I appear to the other person. “By the mere appearance of the Other, I am put in the position of passing judgment on myself as on an object, for it is as an object that I appear to the Other” (Sartre 1956: 189). This object, which is my “self” as I now see my “self” with the eyes of the Other, has all of a sudden become recognizable to me. I see my “self” not from the inside, as I did before, but from the outside as the other person see me. I have somehow become aware of where “I find myself” by the glance of the Other. The glance has an effect that seems to be experienced even more powerfully by the person being seen, than by the person seeing. The latter may attach little or no significance to the look or to the message provided in the look, still it is how the look is experienced that is of consequence. The young student, Trude, has cerebral palsy and shows how her self-conscious self-awareness becomes activated by the look of the teacher.

I was walking with two of my classmates behind a group of students, padding along the pebbly beach. We were about to return to school from a short biology excursion along the nearby shoreline. I felt so good because two of the girls in class had chosen to walk with me– we laughed and joked, and the weather was just fine. All of a sudden I heard the impatient shout of the teacher from further ahead: “Get cracking you three! We haven’t got all day!” I felt that she addressed herself only to me, and I went as fast as I could. I almost ran, not to cause any delay to my friends. I was not able to speak and run at the same time, so we went silently into the classroom.

This ordinary situation describes a teacher impatiently requesting some procrastinating students to hurry up. But it obviously meant something different to Trude than to the other students. She seems to take the teacher’s prompt differently–one may say, more personally and presumably negatively. Her concern is not only directed towards the teacher, but also towards her classmates. She suddenly feels that she is the one that causes the delay. She may even feel that she is the reason for them being the last ones in the first place because her physical condition only allows her to walk slowly; even more so when she is speaking and walking at the same time. Her friends could have walked faster if they had wanted to. They actually had a choice, but they opted to walk slowly to be with her. Trude could have been happy or proud because of their deliberate choice, and she even tells us she felt so good about it. Still this particular feeling of happiness may also increase her sense of responsibility for the situation. In the experience described by her the plain words are more complex than she is able to express.


How does Trude experience the look of the teacher? How does it make her question her relation to her self? When she was walking and joking with her friends, she obviously “finds herself” just living, without reflecting on who she is. She “lives” her own movements, gestures, speech and actions in a manner that is simple and unreflective. She does not judge her own embodied being, but lives it. In Sartre’s words she realizes her actions unconsciously “in the mood for-itself” not as an aspect of her being as “being-for-her” (p. 221). Her body is experienced in a mode of being that is passed over in silence (passé sous silence). She is completely taken up by her actions and forgets about her body. However, when she feels herself seen by the teacher, she instantly feels judged because she is the one who causes the delay. The look of the teacher puts her in a self-conscious and reflective relation to herself. She sees herself for “what” she is. The objectifying aspect of seeing prevents her from experiencing herself as “who she is”–the whole physical and spiritual person. She is the disabled, cerebral palsy student, unable to walk as fast as the others.


The disabling look

To be looked at, and to experience oneself becoming an object to someone else (and thus to oneself), makes the person aware of his or her “whatness.” This conscious “whatness” somehow brings about a certain vulnerability, and a profound sense of being in default of a personal defense or possible escape from the look. The experience of being vulnerable to the look of another person may in particular be recognized in the following account provided by the young student, Synne. She describes how she is doing the dishes, believing she is alone by herself in the school kitchen. Then, suddenly she becomes aware of the look of the teacher. Synne has severe paralysis in the left side of her body and also poor eyesight. She says that she is only allowed to do boring tasks in the kitchen, but not washing up the dishes, for fear she might break them.

It was Friday afternoon and the rest of the class had hastily left when they were permitted, ten minutes earlier than usual. I had to wait for my on-time taxi to pick me up, and was alone in the school kitchen, except for the teacher taking a call in her office. The kitchen was all tidied, except for one thing. The big, white bowl from our bun baking remained at the counter. I decided to wash it properly, because I love to do the dishes. I filled the basin with hot water, added Sunlight, and put the bowl in the water. The smell and the warm water were so delightful. The bowl rotated in the water, as I whirled the dish brush along the brim. Remnants of dough were stuck to the inside and the upper edge of the bowl, so I had to scrub really hard. I spilled a bit of water but I wiped it up with the dishcloth. My sleeves got a little wet, but I didn’t care. Then a door squeaked and I suddenly felt the teacher was in the room watching me. I must have been too careless with the brush, for all of a sudden the bowl slipped out the basin and smashed to the floor, and water splashed all over the front of my sweater.

The moment Synne senses the look of the teacher, something seems to happen to her. She does not tell us how she experienced the look, whether it was a discrediting or an accepting look. She simply tells that something happened. The bowl slid out of her hands and fell to the floor. This incident could have happened also when she was doing the dishes alone. But isn’t this situation recognizable? Doesn’t the feeling of awkwardness slip into our bodies the moment we sense somebody’s disapproving look? Synne’s focus was directed at doing the dishes and the challenging task it was for her, to hold the bowl and simultaneously move the dish brush. She tells how she enjoyed the warm water and the smell of soap, but most of all, perhaps, she enjoyed the pride and pleasure in performing a task and taking on a responsibility she had seen other people do. The squeak of the door changed all that. It made her aware of the presence of the teacher. We do not know if the teacher really disapproved of seeing her doing the dishes, or even took notice of what she was doing, but Synne feels herself looked at, and the situation suddenly changes.


The feeling of becoming an object under another person’s glance may shatter an adolescent’s fragile formation of a new self-identity, the sense of being “capable” and of doing things that one could not do before. The look of the teacher reminds Synne of being incapable, awkward, dis-able. Rather than looking at the dish she is washing, the look of the teacher makes the student conscious of being looked at. And rather than seeing the dish as an object, Synne sees herself as an object through the objectifying eyes of the teacher. Sartre says:

We cannot perceive the world and at the same time apprehend a look fastened upon us; it must be either one or the other. This is because to perceive is to look at and to apprehend a look-as-object in the world (unless the look is not directed upon us) is to be conscious of being looked at. (Sartre 1956, p. 258)

Sartre describes a situation that is true also for Synne. The look of the teacher takes away her world—the world of the kitchen in which she was fully emerged as a capable person. The look takes away her personal agency. She becomes more sensitive to “what” she is than “who” she is. The teacher’s look reminds her of her paralytic awkwardness. It is ironic perhaps that doing the dishes is a task that few people would prize as a favourite activity. But for Synne it is a pleasant, sensuous and self-affirming experience. However, Synne knows that she should not do the dishes, because she is bound to break them. Ironically the look of the teacher disables her in two ways: it does not only remind her of her disability, it also disables her in the sense of Sartre: the look objectifies and makes her self-conscious and awkward.


Enabling seeing

The look of the other does not always objectify and make one feel alienated to one “self.” People who generally believe in themselves and who are capable may in fact feel encouraged by the look of the other. For example, the athlete may perform a superb act under the admiring glance of the onlookers. The same can be true for Synne. In another situation, with another teacher, Synne might experience the “look” at herself as kind and positive. She might experience the teacher’s look as approvingly and positively promoting her to keep up her good work. Like a successful athlete on the playing field, the sensed glance of the teacher would stimulate her to do her utmost.


Ingrid and Hanne are two students of special education whom I am about to interview.


Ingrid and I sit down in the school cafeteria. Ingrid chooses where we will sit and she tells me that during the break in the cafeteria she always sits facing the teachers’ staffroom. “That is because I look for Jorunn [the teacher]. Today she saw me and smiled at me. When the teacher smiles at me then it is okay to be there among the other students.”


When I ask Hanne if she will come for an interview she glances at her teacher and says loudly, “I have to be back at noon, then my cookies are ready and my teacher has to go for lunch.” Her teacher smiles at her when she overhears Hanne’s remark. I assure Hanne that our conversation will be over by then, and remark on the good idea of the teacher to take care of her baking while she is occupied with me. “The teacher looks after my baking just the way I do. My cookies are safe with her,” Hanne says trustfully before she settles down for our interview conversation.


Even before the interviews has started, both Ingrid and Hanne have unwittingly shown how they experience the look of the teacher. Each student apparently feels herself “seen” and cared for in the glance of the teacher. Ingrid looks for the look of her teacher and when she catches it across the cafeteria, she feels the stimulation of the teacher’s appreciative smile. The smile supports her in the social situation when she is surrounded by rowdy students. She does not trust her peers and has good reasons not to do so. However, the encouraging power of the look of the teacher is seemingly what she needs to hold her own in the situation.


Hanne has handed over the responsibility of her most appreciated activity, baking, to her teacher. The supportive recognition of her teacher is what Hanne experiences in her teacher’s availability. The look of the teacher does not make Hanne awkward or self-conscious; in stead it makes Hanne feel confident in herself. The look of the teacher enables her to feel capable and skilled in the task of baking cookies, and it supports her social ability in dealing with the visitor and the teacher. The encouraging look enables the students to put themselves at risk and increase their personal learning and potential.


Enabling seeing of disability

Oda says,

When my answer is wrong, I know it immediately because Per [the teacher] looks at me with this particular humorous glance and says, after just a tiny little pause: “Yes…?” Then I understand that he wants me to give the question a second thought. He just leans back comfortably and waits. That’s why I like him so much. I feel relaxed and smart with him.

Oda receives the opportunity to rethink the teacher’s question, and through the patient and understanding gesture from her teacher, she has the sense of being a competent student. She experiences the teacher’s “seeing” her as trustful, dependable, and personal in a positive manner. The teacher’s look repairs her habitual experience of feeling disabled among other students who can do many things. We may say that this is the pedagogical look—it is the look that strengthens and builds the student’s confidence, trust and competence.


To Trude the look of the teacher at the beach mediated the disclosure of her disability. For a wonderful period with her fellow students she had “forgotten” her “disabled self” until the glance of the teacher reminded her of it and replaced her experience of “who” she was for her friends, with “what” she was for the teacher. The teacher’s look changed her sense of self, but in a disabling manner. Oda, in contrast, experiences her teacher’s look as enabling. The teacher sees her the way she wants and needs to be seen to grow towards her potential. What then is it that Oda’s teacher helps her see? And how does his way of seeing succeed to provide her the experience of her self as smart and competent (even if, in comparative terms with the other students, she is not so able)?


Oda’s teacher sees her possibilities, in which he obviously has confidence which he expresses in his entire attitude. Simultaneously, the teacher seems to see her vulnerability, to which he responds in a caring and patient manner. And the teacher is capable of expressing and communicating his pedagogical intention in gestures, voice and attitude in such a way that Oda experiences his response as a confirmation of her self.


Seeing disability and being seen as a disabled person are interconnected experiences. The crucial point for the teacher is to understand how the student experiences being seen, and act tactfully on this understanding. Tact and tactful means to be in touch, fully in touch (van Manen 1991, p. 126). Being in touch or having contact with the student is the basic condition for a personal and normative encounter between teacher and student. A look that touches or affects the student in a positive manner is always part of a pedagogical relation. But a distant, indifferent, objectifying look is without relation and pedagogically largely meaningless or ambiguous. The important point is that, in our look we also betray our relation to disability. So the student’s experience of the teacher’s look depends also on how the student experiences the relation between them, as well as how the teacher sees disability.


The look as such always has the double significance of “seeing” and “not seeing.” In everyday life we may see the other without noticing or reflecting, and we may see the other more or less thoughtfully. The challenge of teaching is to know when to see and when to pass over seeing something (and thereby bringing it to notice). Would it not have been nice for Synne if she could have experienced the teacher’s glance as “not taking notice” of her doing something that she was not supposed to do? Or better even, the teacher’s glance could have been experienced as encouragingly surprised, “Good for you Synne! You are washing the big bowl.”


The pedagogical relation lets the student experience the look as enabling and encouraging, knowing whether to see the disability or not. Herein lies the pedagogical paradox of special education. To students with disability, any look so easily activates the self-consciousness of his or her disability. The student wants and needs to be seen, but at the same time not to be seen in certain (disabled or disabling) ways. How then should the teacher see and not see? How may the look posses a certain “blindness” that comes from seeing pedagogically? Pedagogical seeing is protectively blind to infirmity and disability, and constantly strives to strengthen and enable the student. The pedagogical look passes over what should be acknowledged and recognized but not called attention to.


*The anecdote and the basic idea for its interpretation are freely cited from professor Maarten Soeder, Uppsala University, Sweden, from a presentation at the University College of Bergen, fall 2001.




Carling, Finn (1962). And yet we are Human. London: Chatto &Windus
Murphy, Robert, F., Scheer, Jessica., Murphy, Yolanda and Mack, Richard. (1988). Physical disability and social limitations. A study in the rituals of adversity. In: Social Science and Medicine 26 (2) p.235-242.
Sartre, Jean Paul (1956). Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. New York: Philosophical Library.
Van Manen, Max (1992) The Tact of Teaching. Ontario: The Althouse Press