Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Interview with TEDxSydney speaker Stella Young, comedian and disability advocate

Having a disability does not make you inspirational. This is the key message from Stella Young’s TED talk on Inspiration Porn and the Objectification of Disability at the Sydney Opera House held a couple of weeks ago.

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's TED talk was very engaging. She really wants to live in a world where: having a disability is not the exception but the norm; a girl watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not referred as achieving anything because she is doing it sitting down; there is not such low expectations of disabled people; disabled people are valued for genuine achievement; and a Year 11 kid is not a bit surprised his teacher is a wheelchair user.

I was fortunate to interview Stella Young after her TED talk.

#1 Tell me how comedy started for you and who/what inspired you?

I think that as a disabled person who has a very visible difference, there's an element of my whole life that has been quite performative. Whenever I'm in public, people will want to engage with me and ask me questions and there's a feeling of having to be ‘on’ all the time. When I was in my early 20s I kind of started to get annoyed about that, so I decided that if people were going to stare at me all the time, I was going to spend at least some of that time on a stage with a microphone in my hand. They can stare, but they also have to listen.

I entered Raw Comedy, which is an amateur comedy competition run through Melbourne International Comedy Festival, about 5 years ago. I was initially inspired by my friend George, who is also a wheelchair user and had previously competed in the competition. He was pretty convinced I'd do well and so I eventually gave in and entered. I ended up getting to the state finals that year.

#2 When did you know it was what you wanted to do?

I don't think there was one moment when I knew it was what I wanted to do. I have those moments often and they come at odd times. What I really love doing in my comedy is changing people's minds about what they think they know about disability. As a society, we have some strange behaviours when it comes to difference and they're so entrenched that people don't really question them. One of my favourite parts of performing is coming out on stage and telling the able-bodied people in the audience how brave and inspirational they are for being out and about. That's something us disabled people hear all the time, but no-one thinks it's ridiculous until you turn the tables and patronise non-disabled people for no reason at all. It's really effective.

#3 What would you be doing if you weren't a comedian?

I'd probably spend a lot more time knitting. And yelling at strangers in the street. Comedy is a good way for me to vent my frustrations about inequality.

#4 Who are your top picks to see at the Sydney Comedy Festival?

Anne Edmonds, Felicity Ward, Joel Creasy, Lady Sings it Better, Ronny Chieng and Nath Valvo.

#5 What are you most passionate about?

Well, there's a lot of things, but I think my top passion is achieving social change through media representation. In particular, I want to see disabled people on television, in magazines, on the radio. There are voices that need to be heard and stories that need to be told. We've been locked out for far too long.

 #6 What do you think the 3 most pressing issues that need to be addressed in Australia?

Our appalling treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, astronomical rates of violence against women with disabilities and the low standards of education for young disabled people.

Thank you, Stella for opening our minds and questioning what we think about people with disabilities.

Watch Stella Young' TEDxSydney Talk

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