On the 30th of June 2014, outside the Southbank offices of the ABC, a small and poignant protest took place. About 20 people, some of them in wheelchairs, were demanding the ABC rethink its decision not to take over the funding of Ramp Up, an online platform for disability news and opinion, after government funding expired. Among them, was Carly Findlay.
“It was a bit tricky, because I worked for the government at the time,” laughs Findlay, “and my boss said be careful. But I did speak on the news about it. I spoke about my experience as a writer and the importance of that in my life.”
If anyone has internalised the importance of having a ‘voice’ for the disabled, it’s Carly Findlay. Since starting her eponymous blog in 2009, she has become one of the leading public faces of what she calls “appearance activism”. In addition to regular musings on her blog and Facebook or photos on Instagram, you can find Carly reviewing film, or writing in the Guardian on pushing back on trolls, or appreciating the photography of Rick Guidotti on the women’s website Mamamia. Memorably, she wrote for Ramp Up on the casual license her appearance offers for ‘empathetic’ strangers to intrude on her personal space. She has appeared on SBS’s The Feed, on the ABC’s You Can’t Ask That and ABC radio (including a memorable encounter with a hostile John Faine, which knocked much of the gloss off his hard won reputation), she has performed her spoken word at festivals. She gives speeches and participates in conferences. She occasionally models. And, on the day I speak to her, her first book “Say Hello”, just went to print. (“It’s really exciting!” she confides).
The theme of Findlay’s discourse in all these places and platforms is, in part, talking or writing in a dispassionate, matter of fact way about her condition, Ichthyosis – the way it makes her skin look red and sore, the way she manages it – paraffin moisturiser, the way it affects her body – it is often painful. But the bulk of her writing is holding a mirror up, not to herself, but to the rest of the world and its reactions. There were the not one but three taxis that refused to carry her (she wrote about it and lodged formal complaints), the woman who insisted that her own laser face treatment had made her look just like Findlay (it didn’t), the internet trolls on Reddit who posted a litany of disgusting and disquieting insults (to which she calmly replied with details of her condition and its implications- causing many, surprisingly, to find their inner better angels), the inescapable conviction that she would never be promoted at her work – even as she made greater and greater impact in the world of disability rights.
She is, as she says of herself, “a resilient person”. And as you read of her daily confrontations with microaggressions to naked, in-your-face hostility, it’s hard not to agree. But Findlay also draws strength from her openness: “The more you tell your story, the more courage you get,” she told an interviewer in 2017.
While Findlay did not write many articles for Ramp Up – she had a lot going on – she was deeply disappointed by the news of its closure. “I thought it (Ramp Up) was hugely important. There were issues written about that came to light, like the campaigning for the NDIS, or talking about the issue of young people in nursing homes, or when Stella wrote about the power of her dancing. You know, they were all really important and they also showed a really very different kind of experience of disability, where it wasn’t just wheelchairs, it was more than that, we’ve had disability affect us in many ways and it affects our bodies, but it also affects us socially, and that really shone through in the articles.”
Findlay recalls meeting editor Young for lunch on Melbourne Cup day 2010, a month before Ramp Up’s launch. She remembers the excitement, as Stella laid out the vision, of the prospect of a platform telling lots of different stories from different points of view. And also, there was the sweet prospect for an aspiring writer of the kudos that came with writing for ABC. “Writing for them was quite a prestigious thing, and, you know, to put that on the resume and be given a chance to communicate with an audience that size was nice.”
Findlay credits Ramp Up as a marker of a broader receptivity in the wider community to hear stories from the perspective of those living with disability. “I was proud to write for Ramp Up,” she says. “It mattered to so many people – both readers and writers.”
She points to the comments section, now archived deep in the bowels of the ABC and no longer accessible, as an important element of Ramp Up’s success as a mediator of views on disability. “It was nice to exchange comments with other disabled people in the comments section – that doesn’t happen a lot nowadays, well, not without things turning nasty. Ramp Up really brought people together.”
In the years that followed, Findlay’s career as an appearance activist has seen her take the conversation to a larger and larger audience, including a memorable turn on the ABC’s You Can’t Ask That, the show where anonymous audience members email in questions to people who are considered marginalised. Some questions are confronting. “Are you ugly?”, “Can you have surgery?” She handled it with her usual embarrassment free candour. But perhaps it was one of the other guests on the show who summed up the sentiment best. Talking about her refusal to have yet another operation, Ellie says, “I feel like it’s just for the benefit of other people and not for me. I think society needs to change their attitude instead of me trying to change to fit in with them.”
With the death of Young, the disability community lost one of the most prominent agents of that change. Findlay recalls the day Stella died. It was her, Findlay’s, birthday. She was at work at the Australian Charities and not for profits Commission (ACNC), a place where Stella’s work was well known. Congratulatory messages were coming into her phone, but among them was a strange message about Stella. “I went to a news site and it confirmed she was dead. I was managing social media for the ACNC at the time and suddenly so many charities were speaking about Stella, about her work – I was seeing nothing but tributes. I ended going home about three as the media was just too overwhelming.”
In Findlay’s recent work as an advocate and activist, there is an element of the inclusive ethos that characterised Ramp Up in play. “I try with my work to bring people together, and amplify other’s voices,” she says.
Ramp Up closed on the 30th of June 2014. In this series of articles, Warwick Forster traces the history of Ramp Up through the voices of those who wrote for it. Next: The Apprentice.