“Life as a disabled person is difficult, we do have to overcome some things – but they are not the things you think they are, they are not to do with our bodies.
The real struggle is about a world that objectifies us and exceptionalises us.
This is the injustice.” Stella Young, 2014
It was in the final years of her life that Stella Young was to indelibly nail down what was bugging her in a way that, finally, could not be misunderstood. In a now-famous TEDX talk delivered in June 2014 she explained showed how images and stories of disabled people living their lives are misconstrued as somehow intrinsically heroic. She teased the Sydney audience “I’m sitting here in this wheelchair and you are probably kind of expecting me to inspire you,” she says to laughter.
But then, she says, “I am not here to inspire you. I am here to tell you that we have been lied to. We have been sold the lie that disability is a bad thing. Capital B. Capital T. To live with disability it makes you exceptional.
It’s not a bad thing and it doesn’t make you exceptional. “
She goes on by showing on the screen behind her images of disabled people doing what other people do – swimming with one leg and captioned with the trite ‘The Only Disability in Life is a Bad Attitude, or a girl running an egg and spoon race ‘Before you quit, try’, or a boy with a basketball in a wheelchair captioned ‘Your excuse is invalid’.
“These are what I call Inspiration Porn. Why Porn? – It objectifies one group of people for the benefit of another group of people.
We are objectifying disabled people for the benefit of non-disabled people.”
“Inspiration Porn” was lightning in a bottle. It at once captured the disability community’s sense of frustration and helped explain to nonplussed but well-meaning people outside the community why feel-good ads and stories of Paralympians’ triumph sometimes made them feel queasy. In two words the phrase distils decades of activism, polemic and academic insight.
And while the Sydney audience on that day, and the millions who have watched it on TEDX’s platform or YouTube since, digested that insight – profound as it is economical, she added as a coda:
“The purpose of these images is to motivate you. They say to you ‘No matter how bad I have it, it’s not as bad as that person’ But what if you are that person?”
Born in 1982 with osteogenesis imperfecta (“dodgy bones” as she liked to describe it), Young was raised the oldest daughter of a butcher and a hairdresser in the Victorian town of Stawell. In Young’s telling her parents did not go out of their way to make Stella feel special or different. Their expectations of her were the same as for her two sisters – do well at school, go out and get a job and a life. However, it seems they did have one message for her that she internalised, the same one that found expression on that June night at TEDX. When she was eight, she later explained in an ABC radio interview, the Brownies (Girl Guides for youngsters) put in a ramp so that she could participate. The leader of the troupe wanted to put a photo of Stella and the ramp in the local paper. Her parents refused on the grounds that a ramp for wheelchairs should not be news. They were not going to let the Brownie’s use Stella to make them look good. Later, when she was older, a community group wanted to give Stella an achievement medal. Her parents refused, on the grounds that she hadn’t actually achieved anything yet. As she later says in one of her stand up performances, “People want to shake my hand for getting up in the morning and not forgetting my name.”
Young’s friend and collaborator Graeme Innes describes this phenomenon as “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
Even given that lead-up, it’s with trepidation that a biographer would call Stella remarkable. (Young once threatened to climb across a studio desk and slap the presenter for introducing her as ‘brave’.). We are on safer ground when talking about her remarkable career. By 2014 Young was probably the most recognisable face of disability advocacy in the country with multiple appearances on TV programmes like the ABC’s Q and A, The Drum. Channel 10s the Project and SBS’s Insight. There were articles by Stella in the nation’s broadsheets and invitations to consult on government policy.
Before that, there were degrees in journalism and teaching, a stint as an education officer with Melbourne Museum. Hosting ‘No Limits” on Victorian Community TV, There is her comedy work, possibly reaching its zenith with a solo performance at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival with Tales from the Crip.
And then, there was she herself called her dream job – becoming the editor of Ramp Up in 2010. As she tells it, six friends from different parts of her life all saw the ad and told her to apply. While there she went on to refine her own arguments and open the door for many others to make theirs.
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 Mentor