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TEDxSydney

Stella Young: I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much

April 26, 2014

Stella Young is a comedian and journalist who happens to go about her day in a wheelchair — a fact that doesn’t, she’d like to make clear, automatically turn her into a noble inspiration to all humanity. In this very funny talk, Young breaks down society's habit of turning disabled people into “inspiration porn.”

Stella Young - Comedian, journalist, activist
Writer, comedian and advocate Stella Young was the editor of Ramp Up, an online space for news, discussion and opinion about disability in Australia. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I grew up in a very small country town
00:11
in Victoria.
00:14
I had a very normal, low-key kind of upbringing.
00:15
I went to school, I hung out with my friends,
00:20
I fought with my younger sisters.
00:23
It was all very normal.
00:25
And when I was 15, a member of my local community
00:27
approached my parents
00:31
and wanted to nominate me
00:33
for a community achievement award.
00:34
And my parents said, "Hm, that's really nice,
00:37
but there's kind of one glaring problem with that.
00:40
She hasn't actually achieved anything." (Laughter)
00:44
And they were right, you know.
00:49
I went to school, I got good marks,
00:50
I had a very low-key after school job
00:53
in my mum's hairdressing salon,
00:56
and I spent a lot of time watching
00:57
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Dawson's Creek."
00:59
Yeah, I know. What a contradiction.
01:02
But they were right, you know.
01:06
I wasn't doing anything that was out of the ordinary
01:08
at all.
01:10
I wasn't doing anything that could
be considered an achievement
01:12
if you took disability out of the equation.
01:15
Years later, I was on my second teaching round
01:18
in a Melbourne high school,
01:22
and I was about 20 minutes into
a year 11 legal studies class
01:24
when this boy put up his hand and said,
01:29
"Hey miss, when are you going
to start doing your speech?"
01:31
And I said, "What speech?"
01:35
You know, I'd been talking them
01:37
about defamation law for a good 20 minutes.
01:38
And he said, "You know, like,
01:41
your motivational speaking.
01:43
You know, when people in
wheelchairs come to school,
01:45
they usually say, like, inspirational stuff?"
01:47
(Laughter)
01:52
"It's usually in the big hall."
01:54
And that's when it dawned on me:
01:58
This kid had only ever experienced disabled people
02:00
as objects of inspiration.
02:03
We are not, to this kid --
02:07
and it's not his fault, I mean,
02:09
that's true for many of us.
02:10
For lots of us, disabled people are not our teachers
02:12
or our doctors or our manicurists.
02:16
We're not real people. We are there to inspire.
02:19
And in fact, I am sitting on this stage
02:24
looking like I do in this wheelchair,
02:28
and you are probably kind of expecting me
02:31
to inspire you. Right? (Laughter)
02:34
Yeah.
02:38
Well, ladies and gentlemen, I'm afraid
02:41
I'm going to disappoint you dramatically.
02:43
I am not here to inspire you.
02:46
I am here to tell you that we have been lied to
02:48
about disability.
02:51
Yeah, we've been sold the lie
02:53
that disability is a Bad Thing, capital B, capital T.
02:55
It's a bad thing, and to live with a disability
03:00
makes you exceptional.
03:03
It's not a bad thing, and it doesn't
03:05
make you exceptional.
03:08
And in the past few years, we've been able
03:11
to propagate this lie even further
03:13
via social media.
03:15
You may have seen images like this one:
03:17
"The only disability in life is a bad attitude."
03:20
Or this one: "Your excuse is invalid." Indeed.
03:24
Or this one: "Before you quit, try!"
03:29
These are just a couple of examples,
03:35
but there are a lot of these images out there.
03:37
You know, you might have seen the one,
03:39
the little girl with no hands
03:40
drawing a picture with a pencil held in her mouth.
03:42
You might have seen a child running
03:46
on carbon fiber prosthetic legs.
03:47
And these images,
03:50
there are lots of them out there,
03:52
they are what we call inspiration porn.
03:53
(Laughter)
03:57
And I use the term porn deliberately,
03:59
because they objectify one group of people
04:02
for the benefit of another group of people.
04:05
So in this case, we're objectifying disabled people
04:08
for the benefit of nondisabled people.
04:10
The purpose of these images
04:13
is to inspire you, to motivate you,
04:15
so that we can look at them
04:19
and think, "Well, however bad my life is,
04:21
it could be worse.
04:24
I could be that person."
04:26
But what if you are that person?
04:30
I've lost count of the number of times that I've
04:33
been approached by strangers
04:35
wanting to tell me that they think I'm brave
04:38
or inspirational,
04:40
and this was long before my work
04:42
had any kind of public profile.
04:44
They were just kind of congratulating me
04:46
for managing to get up in the morning
04:48
and remember my own name. (Laughter)
04:49
And it is objectifying.
04:53
These images, those images
04:56
objectify disabled people
04:58
for the benefit of nondisabled people.
05:00
They are there so that you can look at them
05:03
and think that things aren't so bad for you,
05:05
to put your worries into perspective.
05:08
And life as a disabled person
05:12
is actually somewhat difficult.
05:15
We do overcome some things.
05:17
But the things that we're overcoming
05:19
are not the things that you think they are.
05:22
They are not things to do with our bodies.
05:24
I use the term "disabled people" quite deliberately,
05:27
because I subscribe to what's called
the social model of disability,
05:29
which tells us that we are more disabled
05:33
by the society that we live in
05:36
than by our bodies and our diagnoses.
05:40
So I have lived in this body a long time.
05:42
I'm quite fond of it.
05:46
It does the things that I need it to do,
05:49
and I've learned to use it to the best of its capacity
05:52
just as you have,
05:55
and that's the thing about those
kids in those pictures as well.
05:56
They're not doing anything out of the ordinary.
05:59
They are just using their bodies
06:02
to the best of their capacity.
06:05
So is it really fair to objectify them
06:07
in the way that we do,
06:11
to share those images?
06:12
People, when they say, "You're an inspiration,"
06:14
they mean it as a compliment.
06:19
And I know why it happens.
06:22
It's because of the lie, it's because we've been sold
06:24
this lie that disability makes you exceptional.
06:26
And it honestly doesn't.
06:30
And I know what you're thinking.
06:32
You know, I'm up here bagging out inspiration,
06:33
and you're thinking, "Jeez, Stella,
06:36
aren't you inspired sometimes by some things?"
06:38
And the thing is, I am.
06:42
I learn from other disabled people all the time.
06:44
I'm learning not that I am luckier than them, though.
06:47
I am learning that it's a genius idea
06:52
to use a pair of barbecue tongs
06:55
to pick up things that you dropped. (Laughter)
06:57
I'm learning that nifty trick where you can charge
07:02
your mobile phone battery from your chair battery.
07:05
Genius.
07:10
We are learning from each
others' strength and endurance,
07:11
not against our bodies and our diagnoses,
07:13
but against a world that exceptionalizes
07:16
and objectifies us.
07:19
I really think that this lie that we've been sold
07:21
about disability is the greatest injustice.
07:24
It makes life hard for us.
07:28
And that quote, "The only disability in life
07:32
is a bad attitude,"
07:36
the reason that that's bullshit
07:38
is because it's just not true,
07:41
because of the social model of disability.
07:43
No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs
07:46
has ever made it turn into a ramp.
07:50
Never. (Laughter) (Applause)
07:55
Smiling at a television screen
08:01
isn't going to make closed captions appear
08:03
for people who are deaf.
08:05
No amount of standing
in the middle of a bookshop
08:07
and radiating a positive attitude
08:09
is going to turn all those books into braille.
08:11
It's just not going to happen.
08:14
I really want to live in a world
08:18
where disability is not the exception, but the norm.
08:21
I want to live in a world where a 15-year-old girl
08:24
sitting in her bedroom
08:26
watching "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"
08:28
isn't referred to as achieving anything
08:30
because she's doing it sitting down.
08:33
I want to live in a world
08:35
where we don't have such low expectations
08:37
of disabled people
08:40
that we are congratulated for getting out of bed
08:41
and remembering our own names in the morning.
08:44
I want to live in a world where
we value genuine achievement
08:46
for disabled people,
08:50
and I want to live in a world
08:52
where a kid in year 11 in a Melbourne high school
08:53
is not one bit surprised
08:57
that his new teacher is a wheelchair user.
08:59
Disability doesn't make you exceptional,
09:02
but questioning what you
think you know about it does.
09:05
Thank you.
09:09
(Applause)
09:10

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Stella Young - Comedian, journalist, activist
Writer, comedian and advocate Stella Young was the editor of Ramp Up, an online space for news, discussion and opinion about disability in Australia.

Why you should listen

Born in Stawell in Western Victoria, Australia, Stella Young cut her activist teeth at the age of 14 by conducting an access audit of shops on the local main street. It didn’t take long -- it was a pretty short street.

She became active in the disability community in a variety of roles, including membership of the Victorian Disability Advisory Council, Ministerial Advisory Council for the Department of Victorian communities and Women With Disabilities Victoria. Young was a two-time state finalist in the Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s Raw Comedy competition; and hosted eight seasons of Australia’s first disability culture program, No Limits, aired on Channel 31 and community stations across the country.

With a strong interest in issues facing women and young people with disabilities, Young worked with the Youth Disability Advocacy Service to establish the LiveAccess project, advocating for better access to live music venues. She held a degree in journalism from Deakin University and a Diploma of Secondary Education from the University of Melbourne. Prior to joining the ABC, Stella worked in Public Programs at Melbourne Museum, where she taught kids about bugs, dinosaurs and other weird and wonderful things.

Young passed away at the age of 32 on December 8, 2014.

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