I first learned of Stella Young when I stumbled across the Australian Broadcasting Company’s disability news and opinion website Ramp Up. She was the editor and a contributor. I read her writing with interest as I had been an exchange student to Australia and had experienced living with a disability in that culture. I followed her on Twitter once Ramp Up was no longer funded to create new content.
Last week I read her letter to her 80-year-old self, nodding and saying, “EXACTLY!” as I read it, which often happened as I read her work. A mutual Facebook connection had shared the letter and I commented, indicating I planned to stalk Stella next year when I traveled to Australia – kidding only a little bit. Stella saw the post, and responded, mentioning me by name! Within twelve hours, we were “friends” and exchanging notes about my trip, discussing the possibility of meeting in March. I was overjoyed, and actually broke down in tears of gratitude in my office as yet one more unexpected and amazing event overwhelmed me. In just twelve months I had declared myself a writer, had my writing featured in national and international blogs, displayed my work in a photojournalism exhibit, accepted an invitation to speak at the 2015 Rotary District 9830 Conference in Australia and now I was connected to a woman I admired as a role model. Truly, this year has been tremendous.
Yesterday I returned home from a Christmas party full of happiness and holiday cheer. I opened Facebook and was shocked to learn Stella had died unexpectedly on Saturday. Heartbroken, I began to read countless tributes, stunned by the news. One of my favorites appeared today on The Age website and describes how Stella wanted to be remembered. I feel compelled to add my own voice, even though we had not formally met, because Stella meant something to me.
Stella was a passionate advocate, an intelligent comedienne, and an exceptional writer. She loved fashion, dancing with her friends and the feel of yarn in her hands as she knit. I write these sentences as if I knew her personally, like she was a close friend. I think Stella would have understood this. In her letter, Stella mentions her own tendency to refer to other “crip heroes” such as Harriet McBryde Johnson, as friends. Harriet’s memoir, Too Late to Die Young, was pivotal to many of us active in the struggle for disability rights and equality. I predict Stella’s writing will serve as required reading for future advocates in much the same manner.
Stella may be most recognized for her TEDx talk from earlier this year, “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much.” This speech, which you can (and should) watch for yourself, resonated with many of us who despise inspiration porn – those images objectifying disabled people by attempting to inspire and motivate those of you not fortunate enough to be disabled like me. You know those photos. They’re all over social media. One of the well-known images is of a boy running on carbon fiber prosthetics with the caption “What’s your excuse?” They may have different images and tag lines, but the thought behind them is essentially, “Your life could always be worse; you could be like this person.” Like Stella, I hate those photos.
Stella rallied against this objectification of disability using humor and honesty. She spoke frequently about how she was not disabled by her body or her disability, but rather by a society which did not include her. Disability has traditionally been viewed in medical terminology, as a deficit or flaw needing correction or mitigation. But many who live with disability, like Stella and me, do not view our disability as a source of shame. We feel entitled, and have pride in who we are. The late Laura Hershey wrote about disability pride in her poem You Get Proud by Practicing. Stella had this line tattooed on her arm as a reminder and a promise to keep practicing. Today I make a similar promise to Stella, Laura, Harriet and all of you.
I promise to keep practicing as well, every day, for as long as I have air in my lungs. I promise to continue to speak out when I witness injustice, to raise my voice for those who may not be able to do so. I promise to keep writing with honesty about my personal experience with disability, even though it scares me to expose my vulnerability. I promise to keep going because I want young wheelchair using women to know they have opportunities, to know their lives matter, to know they have to practice their pride too.
Even though you never wanted to be an inspiration Stella, you were an inspiration to me. Not because of your disability, but because you grabbed opportunities with optimism. You took risks and embraced fun. You lived a fierce life with dignity and love. The fact you happened to do it from a chair does not inspire me. The fact you did it with wit, strength and hope does. You would not want us to be sad, so I will do my best to remember you with a smile. Thank you for shining your light brightly enough for me to see it on the other side of the earth, and for reminding me to live each and every day without limits.