I saw Stella Young perform last Wednesday night at the closing function for the Don’t Dis my Ability campaign. Her opening lines were something like-
“Now before we start tonight, I just want to thank all the able-bodied people in the room. I’m so pleased that your friends have brought you out tonight, and that you are here. You are just so – what’s the word – so inspirational.”
From then on, for the next twenty minutes, she had the crowd in the palm of her hand – laughing, cheering, and applauding. Her stories of ordinary life as a person with a disability were funny, poignant, but always contained a powerful message – “It’s not our disability that’s the problem, its the way you view it, and the barriers that you put in our way.”
I didn’t even bother to talk to her last Wednesday night. There was a big crowd of people, and I thought I’d just catch up on twitter or the phone some time soon. And now she’s gone – at 32 way before her time.
I would have loved her to write my eulogy. I never expected or wanted to write hers. “You can’t bugger off now: we need you.”
How do I describe Stella Young. Feisty, smart, quick mind, sharp wit, great communicator – speaker and writer – and passionate disability advocate. Good friend, who would call me out publicly as the Disability Discrimination Commissioner if I wasn’t speaking strongly enough, or acting quickly enough, but have a drink or a coffee with me as a friend, and strategise on how to progress disability issues.
If you haven’t seen her Tedtalk, go and watch it now! If you haven’t seen the “room for change” five-minute films made as part of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Twenty Years Twenty Stories films, search it on Youtube and watch it now. If you haven’t read her powerful articles on Rampup and ABC The Drum dealing with disability, violence against women, do yourself a favour, go and read them now. If you haven’t followed her on Twitter, go and look @stellajyoung
Stella didn’t achieve the National Disability Insurance Scheme implementation on her own – but she made a significant contribution. Stella would be the first to admit that she could not have run Rampup on her own – she needed all those of us with disabilities who contributed articles. Stella wasn’t the only one to use social media to achieve positive change for people with disabilities – but she led the charge. Stella has not ensured that every music venue and bar in Melbourne has an accessible toilet not stacked with cleaning materials – but she has, with her force and charm, taken many along that path.
Stella had so much more to do. She was energetic, passionate and committed. But not only did she communicate so effectively, using humour to pass on her message, but she worked hard to ensure that the voices of other people with disability would not be silent.
This woman, who said that she could break a bone just by breaking wind, will be sadly missed. Her legacy will be that all who are disability advocates will campaign harder to achieve the change she sought. Heaven must have been short of a few laughs to take her so soon.
This article was first published in The Guardian.