I wrote this tribute for Writers Victoria. My thoughts are with Stella's family and close friends. Her death has impacted the disability community immensely. I have had a few days to collect my thoughts, but 1000 words just aren't enough to express what Stella did for disability advocacy. We need intelligent, relevant, humorous and topical disability media and discourse to continue. It's up to all of us to ensure that.
I found out about Stella’s death just after 10.00 am on Monday - my birthday. I called out to my colleagues "Stella Young has died." As a colleague consoled me, I told her what a great year Stella has had - won best newcomer at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, gave a TedX talk, caught the attention of Amy Poehler, travelled overseas to talk disability, performed at the Fringe Festival - and talked about all the things she was due to do. In that moment, I realised just how much she packed into her year - into her life. She can’t be dead, I thought. She’s still got so much more to do
But she is - and it seems she’s touched most people I know. Death in the age of social media is a difficult thing. It's overwhelming - with love and with sadness - to see so many tributes flow for a friend, a public person, a leader and a spokesperson. My social media feeds - both personal and work-related - are filled with collective grief and memories
And it’s beautiful. The tributes to Stella have come in from such a diverse range of people - comedians, writers, politicians, the disability community and the able-bods. Her sharp mind and quick wit has seen her take disability issues mainstream. And she didn’t sugar coat it - she spoke about real issues that people with disabilities face, not the "inspiration porn" that she despised.
In the past year, I’ve read pieces from her on the murder of people with disability, disability simulation, work and wages, Oscar Pistorious, euthanasia and dying with dignity, Yooralla, and her journey to rainbow paddle pop hair. She made us think. She created change.
I first saw Stella on No Limits, 10 years ago now. I loved her outspokenness and think I even wrote her some fan mail. I later went on to present on the same show. The next time we were in contact was in 2010 - she invited me to write for ABC Ramp Up, just before she took up the role as editor. I wrote three pieces for Ramp Up and am so thankful she gave me a chance to write for my beloved broadcaster - the ABC. Ramp Up was an integral part of Australian media, giving people with disability an amplified voice - and a small income.
While Stella and I have different disabilities, we share the common bond of having a visible difference and the gobsmackingly rude comments from gawkers. In our first email exchange, she told me "When I first started at the Museum I had a lady approach me and say "It's a pity they couldn't have done something to make you look a bit more normal" and then just walk off. It's pretty unbelievable". I so related.
Stella nailed every single article she wrote. It’s not often that I can say that about a writer. I hung on to every word. Our shared experiences gave us a similar perspective. She wrote a lot about the intrusiveness of strangers’ questions about disability. When many people tell me I should expect the intrusiveness of questions and comments, Stella’s stories about these experiences validated that I - that we - don’t have to put up with this. I shared Stella’s anecdotes with others, reminding them that people don’t have to know why we look the way we do.
Stella wrote: "It doesn't matter how we got like this. Really. Are you asking because you want to know or because you need to? If you're just sitting next to one of us on the train, or taking our order at a cafe, you don't actually need to know. If we've actually met and had a conversation beyond "Do you want honey with your chai?" then perhaps it gets a little more relevant. It might come up in conversation, and when it does, we'll be happy to tell you. It's just not a very good opening line."
Stella taught the world that it is ok to identify with having a disability, that we can be proud. She unapologetically demanded equality and accessibility for herself and the entire disability community. In her letter to her 80 year old self (which I had the privilege of seeing her perform at Women of Letters) she wrote: "By the time I get to you, I'll have written things that change the way people think about disability. I'll have been part of a strong, beautiful, proud movement of disabled people in Australia. I'll have said and written things that pissed people off, disabled and non-disabled people. You will never, ever stop challenging the things you think are unfair."
She also showed us that comedy is a leveller, and that most encounters with a stupid person can be turned into writing fodder or a comedy skit. She educated the masses about disability through her humour - recalling experiences of discrimination and rudeness that made audiences gasp and laugh, and think about their own attitudes and behaviour towards disability.
The last time I saw Stella Young was in October, when we performed at the Melbourne Fringe Festival together. She was hilarious, talking about the time she fell into carrots at Coles, and making me blush with stories of her Mum's knowledge of sexual positions. She grabbed my hand before I walked on stage, wishing me luck. After the show, we went out for a drink - she gave me some advice for writing my memoir, as she was in the process of writing hers. (I hope we can read what she has written one day.)
Stella introduced herself to my Mum, and Mum was chuffed she finally got to meet Stella (she talked about it for days, even confirming their friendship on Facebook). The first thing she said to my Mum was "you must be so proud of Carly". I am honoured that one of my mentors - a leader I admire - spoke so fondly of me. And I was so pleased that my Mum was able to have a wine and a chat with one of the other most influential women in my life.
Stella, my mentor, my editor and my friend, you changed the world. I am so proud of you. Shine brightly. Thank you for giving us permission to be proud of our bodies, for encouraging us to speak up about injustices and for showing us that we can laugh at our own disability quirks. Thank you for all you’ve done.