Australian writer, comedian and disability activist Stella Young gave a fantastic talk at TEDxSydney in April 2014. If you have not yet seen it, take 10 minutes to give it a watch. Sadly, Stella passed away later in 2014 at the age of 32.
“I wasn’t doing anything that could be considered an achievement if you took disability out of the equation.”
At the age of 15, members of Stella’s local community wanted to nominate her for a community achievement award. Stella uses the story to illustrate how society perceives disabled people and their abilities. She recalls that her parents told the member of their community that the idea was nice; the only problem was that Stella hadn’t really achieved anything beyond living the life of a normal teenager.
Later in life, Stella achieved much as a comedian, writer and disability activist. She was an editor for ABC’s Ramp Up, the network’s disability news and opinion website, and was described as a sharp, incisive, challenging and provocative writer and broadcaster. She was a two-time finalist in Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s Raw Comedy competition, and she was a member of various boards and committees in the disability sector. She also hosted Australia’s first disability culture program, No Limits, for eight seasons.
“When people in wheelchairs come to school they usually say, like, inspirational stuff. It’s usually in the big hall.”
Another of Stella’s stories involved teaching a class at a Melbourne high school and being asked by a student when she was doing her inspirational speech. She then realised that the boy had only ever experienced disabled people as objects of inspiration, and critiques the notion that living with disability makes you exceptional. Perhaps this boy would have benefited from having a disabled GP or teacher, as that would have gone a long way towards normalising disability for him.
“Disability doesn’t make you exceptional but questioning what you think you know about it does.”
Stella goes on to criticise what she calls “inspiration porn” – when disabled people are objectified either in person or through social media so that non-disabled people can feel better about themselves or gain perspective in a difficult circumstance. She states that people with disabilities are simply using their body to the best of its capacity, in the same way as non-disabled people.
Stella argued that society disabled her far more than her diagnosis does when she is objectified because of her disability and hoped for a society that would value genuine achievement for disabled people.