A fortnight after the death of Australian comedian and campaigner Stella Young, her friend Liz Carr tells us about her short life but considerable legacy.
It’s been two weeks since I heard the news that my friend Stella Young, the funny, fearless and ferociously-outspoken Australian crip comedian, writer, broadcaster and activist had died – suddenly, unexpectedly and devastatingly.
Her death has hit us hard – her crip comrades, her fellow comedians, the politicians and policy makers she challenged, the journalists she worked alongside, the audiences who watched her TV appearances and, of course, the many family and friends who loved her bones – her easily-broken bones. In Stella’s tell-it-like-it-is way, she often said that with her condition, she could break a bone just by breaking wind.
In the 32 years of her life, she had been a qualified high school teacher, she taught children about bugs and dinosaurs at the Melbourne Museum, was a presenter on the community TV disability programme No Limits, editor of the ABC’s disability news and views website, Ramp Up, she was the Melbourne Comedy Festival’s Best Newcomer 2014 and was on the verge of writing a book and touring the world with her award-winning show, Tales from the Crip.
Stella had a passion for social justice, was unashamedly atheist, proudly feminist, undeniably hilarious and phenomenally skilled at communication. Whether using a microphone, the pen, keyboard or 147 characters, she used her words masterfully to cut through the crap and make so many issues accessible, real and funny. Like the social model of disability which suggests it’s the barriers that disable us rather than our bodies. This idea transformed Stella’s life and she became almost evangelical about spreading the word. It was this passion for education, her social media savvy and her ability to nail even the most complex of concepts in just one perfectly formed sentence that made her a force to be reckoned with.
Her 2014 TED talk, ‘I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much’ has already had over 1.5 million hits and has introduced the term ‘inspiration porn’ into our vocabulary. The worldwide web listened rapt as she explained why disabled people are not inspirational simply for getting up in the morning or remembering our own names. Hitting out at those ‘inspirational’ internet memes usually of disabled people doing ordinary, everyday things overlaid with text like ‘the only disability is a bad attitude’. As Stella put it, “no amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp…”
And then there were her legendary Facebook statuses, that detailed her successes and her cringe-worthy failures. Like the time she went out, a confident 30-something, successful woman wheeling about town, flirting with the local barista only to realise that yesterdays dirty knickers were flapping unceremoniously from the frame of her wheelchair. A typical Stella-ism.
When I heard she’d died, I imagined her posting a Facebook status about her own demise saying how “fucking typical” it is that just as she’s on the brink of worldwide domination (yes, she was that ambitious and that talented) she’d been suddenly stopped in her wheel tracks. Oh yes, Stella loved to swear and she loved to spin a good yarn – both verbally and in her spectacular knitting skills.
And how do you pay tribute to the stellar Stella Young? Her crafty friends have organised ‘yarn bomb a wheelchair ramp’ event. Fellow Aussie comedian Felicity Ward suggested ensuring every Melbourne Comedy Festival venue is wheelchair accessible – a fitting tribute to 2014 best newcomer. Her activist friends have suggested everyone should take action in whatever way possible and more formally, on Friday 15th December, Melbourne Town Hall was stuffed full of people wanting to collectively celebrate Stella’s life.
Not only was her memorial live streamed on the ABC 24-news channel and projected onto a massive screen in the city’s Federation Square but also, in an action usually reserved for only the most major events, the live footage was not geoblocked – you could watch her memorial wherever you were in the world.
If only Stella could have been there it would have been perfect. She would have loved all this fuss and she’d have loved that after the formality, everyone spilled out onto Federation Square to dance to the cheesiest of 80s tunes because Stella loved to dance because in her own words, “it heals my spirit and fills me with joy”.
And it is Stella’s own words which will be her greatest legacy. Her words which will live on, continuing to encourage us to expect more and to believe change is possible. Like her letter to the 16-year-old Stella where she introduced her teenage self to the Laura Hershey poem You Get Proud by Practising – a motto which later in life she had tattooed onto her arm to remind her to practise being proud every day of her too-short life. Or the now heart-breaking letter to her 80 year-old-self where she promises her octogenarian self, “to grab every opportunity with both hands, to say yes as often as I can, to take risks, to scare myself stupid, and to have a shitload of fun”.
The death of this powerhouse in polka dot shoes has left a huge crip-shaped void in many of our lives. If there is any solace, it must be that Stella is still very much alive here on the internet where her words, wisdom and wit will remain forever.
Stella’s family have asked for those wishing to pay tribute to donate to Domestic Violence Victoria
Liz Carr is an actress, comedian and campaigner for the Disability community. She lives in London.