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Spotlight on Stella Young: Disability Advocate

Stella Young was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disorder that made her bones fragile and easily breakable. She spent most of her life in a wheelchair. She was also a witty Australian comedian, a journalist, and a fierce disability advocate. She died in December 2014, at age 32, but spent her life changing society’s perception of disabled people.

“I am not your inspiration”

Young’s mission, which she advocated for again and again, was to show how disabled people are truly no different from the non-disabled. In her April 2014 TEDxSydney talk, titled “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much,” Young examined society’s tendency to automatically categorize disabled people as ‘inspirations.’ She admitted that the label is often meant as a compliment, but that today’s society believes that “disability makes you exceptional and it honestly doesn’t.” Young shared a personal anecdote from her teen years, when a neighbor tried to nominate her for a local achievement award. It was a nice sentiment, Young admits, but the “one glaring problem” was that she hadn’t actually achieved anything out of the ordinary. “I don’t want to live in a world,” Young declared, “where we have such low expectations of disabled people that we are congratulated for getting out of bed and remembering our own names in the morning.” It is not the physical disability that can be the most challenging, she argued, but rather society’s perceptions and reactions to disability that presents the biggest hurdle to overcome.

Pointed humor

Young also performed as a stand-up comedian, and created a one-woman show that she used as a platform to satirize and pick apart beliefs about disabled people. She premiered her show, called “Tales from the Crip,” at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2014, and used her biting wit to pointedly examine societal notions and prejudices about disabled people. Young was named “Best Newcomer” at the comedy festival after her show finished a successful run. The show’s description read, “Stella Young is a cripple. Some people call her ‘special needs’ but she learned from a young age that ‘special’ is a code word for ‘crap.’ And oh Lord, please don’t call her ‘handy-capable’ or she may accidentally run over your big toe.”

Beyond disability

Young made it her duty to challenge society to see disabled people in a new light—in a normal light, where disabled people are faced with challenges the same way non-disabled people are. In an article she wrote about dancing in public and the “able-bodied gaze,” Young explained how many people assume disabled people “don’t do things with the same motivations as non-disabled people, as though Normal People Things would not be important or meaningful to me.” Despite society’s “othering” of disabled people, Young steadfastly declared, “It’s my body, and I’ll bloody well dance if I want to.”

How can Young’s advocacy and bold messages apply to the hard of hearing community? If you view hearing loss as a disability, try to think of it in her terms—rather than something that disables, hearing loss is just a physical challenge to face head-on. Think of hearing loss as similar to having poor eyesight, or being overweight: there are ways to manage and largely overcome these physical limitations. In her article, Young wrote that it took her years to understand and accept that “my body is not defective, wrong, or less than.” In fact, “it moves and feels and responds […] in exactly the same way those bodies which are given leave to claim such privileges.” Having a disability does not make you other, less than, an inspiration, or exceptional, and it was Stella Young’s mission to convince everyone in society of that fact.

By: Elena McPhillips

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