Remembering 'fiercely funny' disability activist Stella Young
Australian comedian Stella Young, who has died suddenly at 32, has campaigned for disability rights locally since her teens. But it was her 2014 Ted talk on "inspiration porn" that got the world thinking.
Disabled people with a high profile have often gained their fame through doing activities that the general public imagines they shouldn't be able to do, like being a Paralympic athlete or being into extreme activities like mountain climbing. These high-profile people can also earn money from motivational speaking designed to inspire a mainstream audience. But many disabled people feel that although they get the most airtime, the high-profile ones aren't representative of how they live.
Comedian, writer and activist Stella Young gained a profile but bridged the gap because she was respected by the general public and disabled people alike. Less than a metre tall, Young used a powered wheelchair because of her condition osteogenesis imperfecta, which causes bones to break easily.
A household name in her native Australia, Young campaigned hard for a disability benefits scheme which recognised disabled people have more expensive lives, like the UK's Disability Living Allowance (DLA). She edited the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's disability website, Ramp Up, until it closed in the summer. She was also a regular contributor to current affairs programmes, where she unapologetically pushed the disability rights agenda with tenacity and wit.
She started her campaigning work at 14 years old, auditing shops for accessibility in the small Victoria town where she lived. Some 18 years later, in April 2014, her Ted talk, "I'm not your inspiration, thank you very much" got more than a million views and started a conversation that rages on even now as the year draws to a close.
In it, Young systematically took apart familiar motivational material and delighted her non-disabled Sydney audience by introducing them to what she called "inspiration porn".
She talked about pictures of disabled people that she had seen being shared online with captions such as "your excuse is invalid" and "don't quit, try". She didn't have time for them and said they objectify disabled people for the benefit of non-disabled people. She said: "The purpose of these images is to inspire you, to motivate you, so that we can look at them and think, 'Well, however bad my life is, it could be worse. I could be that person.'"
Later in that Ted Talk, she turned her attention to the well-known cliche, "The only disability in life is a bad attitude". She said: "No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. No amount of standing in the middle of a bookshelf and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books into Braille."
In November she told Ouch: "I'm constantly being reminded that nobody really expects anything of me," and said that low expectations feed into poor education and low employment for disabled people. "You aren't going to look for what they can bring to the table because you underestimate what they can offer."
Although Young's humour could sometimes be considered biting, she respected the opposite view and thrived on healthy debate. "What I always seek to do with what I put out into the world," she told Ouch, "is to make people think about it a little bit more."
Tributes have poured in for Young from Australian politicians, members of the general public and international disabled commentators and activists.
Silent Witness actor and campaigner, Liz Car, called her "fiercely funny". Well-known US disability advocate Lawrence Carter-Long tweeted that Young was "strong and ballsy" and "lived a rich, messy life" - referring to how she often said she was a complex woman, not a one-dimensional caricature.
Proving this point, Young wrote about her love of knitting for Ouch in 2011, and this summer, she blogged for ABC Ramp Up about her weekly urge to dance. You can watch her Ted talk online here.
Dancing like everyone's watching, by Stella Young