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A Bonza Stella … or a Stella Bonza?!
20 / 06 / 2014
This month’s Bonza Sheila is comedian, disability advocate and Editor of ABC’s Ramp Up website, Stella Young. Sheila’s Editor Sarah Capper chats to her about activism, comedy and inspiration.
Sarah Capper (SC): You grew up in Stawell, Western Victoria. What’s the best and worst things about growing up in a country town?
Stella Young (SY): The best thing is the freedom you get to experience during childhood. My sisters and I would run around all over the place and my parents would be pretty confident that no harm would come to us. In a close knit community, you feel very safe. The worst bits come to the fore when you’re a teenager. When there’s nothing to do, when you’re bored with knowing the same people you’ve known your whole life. When you’re ready for adventure. On the whole, though, I’m really glad I had a country upbringing. It gave me the confidence to step… ok, wheel… out into the big wide world.
SC: You have been very involved in advocacy work for people with disabilities – on ministerial advisory groups, and with organisations like Women with Disabilities Victoria. I am wondering if there was a catalyst – or at what point you wanted to give voice to this area?
SY: A lot of disabled people I know talk about their “coming out” stories. I’ve got one of those. When I was in my later years of high school my parents used to let me catch the train to Melbourne and hang out with a friend who had the same genetic condition as me. She was 10 years older than me, and we used to do all kinds of fun things when I visited her. The things I liked doing with her were the “normal” things. When we’d hang out with her non-disabled friends and go to cafes and restaurants and concerts. But sometimes she’d drag me to “disability events” which I thought were the worst, most daggy things in the world. I didn’t want to hang out with these people I saw as completely different to me. Sure, I had a disability but I wasn’t like them. I didn’t belong with them.
Then one weekend she took me to an International Day of People with Disability BBQ in a beer garden in Northcote. I looked around and it was full of women with disabilities. I was immediately uncomfortable, as usual. But something happened to me that day. In my teenage sulkiness, sitting and listening and not contributing anything much at all, I heard these women talking about things that I’d experienced too, that I’d thought about too. It was then that I realised their stories were important, because they were OUR stories. That was the day I “came out” as a disabled woman.
SC: That’s brilliant. You recently had your own Melbourne Comedy Festival show ‘Tales from the Crip’. In a Fairfax preview of the show you explained that “most of that material is from the stupid things people say to me in response to disability”. I sometimes refer to writing as a “form of therapy” – and so I am wondering whether it was a cathartic experience getting some of this stuff off your chest?
SY: It’s a cathartic experience turning things that could very easily be upsetting into stories that make people laugh. The staring, the comments, the microagressions I face in everyday life are common experiences for disabled people. I really love being on stage in front of a mixed audience of disabled and non-disabled people and telling those stories. It’s very clear in my show that there’s a cool crowd and a not so cool crowd. For once, us crips are the cool ones.
SC: I love the use of comedy for political purposes – I believe it can be a great agent of change. You’re also a journalist, having edited the ABC’s Ramp Up website as well as regularly appearing in the media. Clearly, whether it be writing comedy or appearing on ABC’s Q&A program, you’re a skilled communicator. I get that every purpose is different, but I’m wondering in connecting with audiences, what’s the main message you’d like to ideally deliver?
SY: I guess I like to challenge what people think they know about disability. People take one look at me and think they know things about my life based on stereotypes – they might assume I don’t have a partner, or a job. They might think I don’t live independently, or stay out late, or dance until the wee small hours of the morning. Of course, living my life the way I want to live it is far more important than making a point, but I do think that needs to happen too. You don’t know what disability is all about just because you know one disabled person, or hurt your knee at netball and used a chair for two weeks. This experience is rich and diverse, and I want people to understand that.
SC: Your TED talk from Sydney of this year has gone viral (for want of a better word). It’s been shared widely – I saw it recently getting a plug on Amy Poehler’s ‘Smart Girls’ social media page. In your TED speech you explain that you are not an “inspiration” – and that society needs to stop motivating mainstream audiences through what you call “disability porn”, ie. making others feel good because their struggles are not as bad as people with disabilities, or praising people with disabilities just for their existence. Tell us a bit about how you have found the reaction to your speech?
SY: Well, firstly, I probably should clarify that my speech was about “inspiration porn”. “Disability porn” is a whole other discussion, which may or may not be appropriate for the Bonza Sheila audience!
SC: Sorry, my bad, that’s what I meant!
SY: I have, as with a lot of my work, found the reactions quite mixed. What I’ve discovered since I first started talking about this stuff a couple of years ago, is that non-disabled audiences can be fiercely defensive of their right to be “good people”. To be a good person in society means to think of others less fortunate than yourself and help them in any way you can. The thing is, I challenge whether or not disability makes you “less fortunate”. I don’t think it does, but as a society we’re conditioned to think that way. I don’t exclude disabled people from that either. We all buy into the bullshit, and when I ask people to question it, some of them don’t like it.
SC: I have to ask – who or what inspires Stella Young?
SY: My friends, my family. Anyone living a life that’s true to what they believe. I’m particularly inspired by a lot of women in comedy, who work hard and withstand the bullshit and the hostility we face.
SC: What advice would you give to your 18 year old self?
SY: I wrote a letter to my 16 year old self last year. I’d probably still need that advice at 18.
SC: If you could host a dinner party with any women from history, who would they be?
SY: Harriet McBryde Johnstone
Elenor Roosevelt – I’m sure she’d agree with me that her husband’s internalised ableism was a bit gross, but understandable for the time
Laura Hershey – so I could show her her own words – “you get proud by practicing” tattooed on my right inner forearm
SC: That’s a cool quote. So what’s next for Stella Young?
SY: I’m off to the US to find an answer to that question! There are a lot of things I want to do. Obviously I have a passion for using media for the purposes of social change, but I’m also very interested in youth mentoring for young people with disabilities. I’m a firm believer in that old saying “you can’t be what you can’t see”. That was certainly true for me, and meeting the friend I mentioned earlier – the one who dragged me off to daggy BBQs – was absolutely vital to my empowerment as a disabled woman.
Oh, and I’m going to become a celebrant. Just for fun.
SC: Stella Young, thank you, you may not wish to be seen as an inspiration, but hopefully we can agree that you are indeed a Bonza Sheila. Thank you muchly for sharing a bit of your insight with us.
Stella Young is a comedian, disability advocate and Editor of ABC’s Ramp Up website, the online space for news, discussion and opinion about disability in Australia. Stella has been 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. Stella was a two-time state finalist in the Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s Raw Comedy competition; and has hosted eight seasons of Australia’s first disability culture program No Limits. With a strong interest in issues facing women and young people with disabilities, Stella has worked with the Youth Disability Advocacy Service to establish the LiveAccess project, advocating for better access to live music venues. She holds 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. If she could get away with it, she’d spend a very large percentage of her spare time knitting.