Stella Young did not want to inspire you.
The Australian comedian and disability activist died at age 32 on Saturday night, according to a family statement to ABC News. Her death was unexpected and painless, the family said.
Young was born with a genetic disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta, which caused her bones to easily break. She used a wheelchair for much of her life.
“When people say you’re an inspiration, they mean it as a compliment,” she said during a Sydney TED Talk this year. “We’ve been sold this lie that disability makes you exceptional and it honestly doesn’t. … 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.”
Young was a well-known figure in Australia, where she advocated for greater access for people with disabilities and served as the editor of ABC’s Ramp Up Web site. “The issues in my life come not from the fact that I break my bones occasionally, they come from the fact that I can’t get into the vast majority of public buildings I want to get into,” she said on Australian television this year. “The assumption that my life has involved suffering is a prejudiced assumption,” Young added.
She also performed as a comedian, and used her humor as way to deconstruct notions about the disabled. Her one-woman show she performed during this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival was called “Tales from the Crip.” Crip was a term she embraced, she explained, in the same way some gay rights activists have embraced the term “queer.”
“Stella Young is a cripple,” her show description reads. “Some people call her ‘special needs’ but she learned from a young age that ‘special’ is a code word for ‘crap.’ And oh Lord, please don’t call her ‘handy-capable’ or she may accidentally run over your big toe.”
During her TED Talk, she blasted the quote, “the only disability in life is a bad attitude,” and also the prevalence of “inspiration porn” — images of disabled people doing everyday things.
“No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp,” she quipped during her talk.
After news of her death broke, people took to Twitter to post pictures of their wheelchairs, walking sticks and other items in her honor with the hashtag #putoutyourwheels:
Young often spoke about how life in her body was not all that different from the lives lived by others without osteogenesis imperfecta; it was the way the world responded to her disability that made it challenging.
“I dance as a political statement, because disabled bodies are inherently political, but I mostly dance for all the same reasons anyone else does: because it heals my spirit and fills me with joy,” she once wrote.
In a letter she wrote to her 80-year-old self and published just last month, Young wrote: “Listen, Stell. I can’t tell you for certain that you and I will ever meet. Perhaps that thing I always say flippantly, usually with a third glass of wine in my hand – that I’m here for a good time not a long time – perhaps that’s true,” Young wrote. “But on my path to reach you, I promise 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 s— load of fun.”