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Author's Name: Martha G
Date: Mon 24 Aug 2020

Stella Young's I am Not Your Inspiration


"I want to live in a world where we don't have such low expectations of disabled people that we are congratulated for getting out of bed and remembering our own names in the morning. I want to live in a world where we value genuine achievement for disabled people." - Stella Young

In her Ted Talk, recorded in Sydney in 2014, Stella Young addresses a crowd of people waiting to be inspired by her, "I am sitting on this stage looking like I do in this wheelchair, and you are probably kind of expecting me to inspire you. Right? Well, ladies and gentlemen, I'm afraid I'm going to disappoint you dramatically. I am not here to inspire you."

Instead she opens with a story from her youth of her parents being approached by a member of the community who wanted to nominate Stella for a community achievement award. Her parents had to politely decline the offer, stating that Stella hadn't actually achieved anything more than being a regular teenager just like everyone else, but in a wheelchair.

At this point the audience laughs, perhaps questioning their own expectations of people with disabilities. Have we been conditioned to assume a motivational speech every time we see a disabled person?

Stella Young

Stella then goes on to talk about BT - disabilities as a Bad Thing. This, Stella says, is the ultimate lie "I am here to tell you that we have been lied to about disability. Yeah, we've been sold the lie that disability is a Bad Thing, capital B, Capital T. It's a bad thing, and to live with a disability makes you exceptional. It's not a bad thing, and it doesn't make you exceptional."

She shares how the propagation of this lie has morphed into "inspirational porn", Stella continues "I use the term porn deliberately, because they objectify one group of people for the benefit of another group of people. So in this case, we're objectifying disabled people for the benefit of non-disabled people. The purpose of these images is to inspire you, to motivate you, so that we can look at them and think, "Well, however bad my life is, it could be worse. I could be that person"."

The issue with the lie about disabled people is that it actually makes things harder. Stella refers to this in her talk as the social model of disability which recognises that the barriers for disabled people are the societal standards and ways in which they are excluded from society, not the medical condition itself. For example, if a person in a wheelchair wants to enter a building and there are stairs and no ramp, the social model sees a problem with the building, not with the person. It is the way the building was designed that is the barrier rather than being wheelchair bound. When we objectify the disabled and turn them into inspirations to fuel our own lives, when we share statements like "The only disability in life is a bad attitude", we fail to acknowledge the societal barriers that exclude people. 

Example of 'inspiration porn' of amputee swimmer and captioned, the only disability in life is a bad attitude.From Stella's presentation, an example of inspirational porn.

As an organisation Making Waves Foundation is based on the recognition that everyone has value and that a diverse and inclusive society is a stronger one. We see this in action every time we go sailing with people of varying abilities contributing to the goals of the team. When our racing team, filled with disabled and non-disabled crew members, competes, they compete to win. The pat on the head, participation trophy is not what we exist for.

Stella's vision of a world where disabled people are not objectified and typecast for the benefit of non-disabled people, a world where "disability is not the exception, but the norm", where people aren't surprised that their teacher is in a wheelchair, is a vision we aspire to. 

Just 8 months after her Ted Talk, Stella Young passed away at the age of 32. Her passion, her activism and her experience continues to shape the way we design a better world, one that allows people of any ability to live to their fullest capacity.

View Stella's Ted Talk above or visit the Tedx website to watch the video and for transcripts.

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