Thinking about Stella Young and Re-thinking Disability

I had seen her face floating around somewhere on the internet before but I never found out exactly who Stella Young was until her passing late last year.

I soon discovered that Stella was a former high school teacher, writer, journalist, stand up comedian and a fierce disability activist. Though she made it clear at TEDxSydney 2014 that she didn’t want to be seen as an “inspiration” for others, she was definitely someone who stood out from the crowd.

Stella once described herself as being like a mosquito – small but persistent. Indeed, she was a small lady since she was born with osteogenesis imperfecta but, even more so, she was incredibly persistent. She just didn’t back down!

She had opinions and she didn’t hide them. In fact, she had no qualms whatsoever in challenging other people on their opinions. When it came to issues on life, and more specifically on the issue of ‘quality of life’, Stella was ready to take you on.

In Stella’s opinion, the way people viewed her (and others with disabilities) could often be more crippling than the disability itself. She insisted that disability was not synonymous with low quality of life.

SO… this is what Stella Young had to say to her audience at TEDxSydney in 2014:

Having a disability is not a Bad Thing … having a disability doesn’t make you exceptional but questioning what you know about it does.

Ok Stella – challenge accepted!

While I never thought that having a disability meant that you couldn’t live a happy and full life, I know I’ve underestimated the impact of stigmas.

After speaking to a friend who has a sister with disabilities, I remember feeling frustrated by the dismay she expressed because her sister wouldn’t ever be able to achieve top marks at school, and because she walked differently to others because of her cerebral palsy. My friend was afraid her sister would be left behind in a society which, she believed, would not accept her.

I have family friends who are disabled; they’ve grown up, found jobs and are pretty independent. An old workmate and friend of mine has cerebral palsy and I never thought she was different from anyone else at work. I seriously didn’t think my friend had to be so down and out about her sister.

Not everyone has to be a genius to contribute to society, and people get teased at school regardless of whether they have a disability or not. Kids can be cruel and that meanness is often indiscriminate.

But the reality is there is a lot of work to do to make the world we live in more inclusive of disabled people. In education, the workforce, sport, arts and entertainment, etc.

Stella once 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.”

My friend’s sister was left behind at school because she wasn’t given the practical and social support she needed to achieve as a student.

After thinking about Stella Young and my friend’s sister, I think this stigma of low expectations is what needs to be targeted first and foremost if the rights and dignity of people with disabilities are to be achieved. Before policies can change, attitudes need to change first.

It’s sad to think that the worth of individual people (and their perceived worth to society) can be reduced down to how “able” their bodies are.

People fear that having an imperfect body automatically means having an imperfect (low quality) life, but Stella proved that having the “perfect” body isn’t the be all and end all.

She said she lived a full and happy life and wanted other people with disabilities to have that too. And she fought bloody hard for their rights too.

Cheers to you Stella!

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