That All-Too-Common Compliment Is Actually An Insult In Disguise

There are tons of stories about exceptional people doing extraordinary, inspiring things that warm your heart and make you want to be a better person. But badass comedian Stella Young doesn't want to be that person for you.

UPDATE 12/8/2014: We're sad to report that yesterday Stella Young passed away peacefully in her sleep at the age of 32. In a letter she wrote to herself, imagining her life at 80 years old, she said:

"By the time I get to [80 years old] 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.

You will write some fiction, in which the central character is a disabled teenage girl. Because f--- knows that wasn't around when you were growing up and desperately searching for characters you could truly relate to. Somebody might, at some point, call you the crip incarnation of Judy Blume. Who knows?

By the time I get to you, I'll be so proud. The late Laura Hershey once wrote about disability pride, and how hard it is to achieve in a world that teaches us shame. She said, 'You get proud by practising'. Thanks to my family, my friends, my crip comrades and my community, I'm already really proud. But I promise to keep practising, every day.

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.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 shitload of fun."

She may not have reached 80, but in her 32 years she certainly made a difference in the lives of so many people.

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Stella Young: I grew up in a very small country town in Victoria. I had a very normal, low key kind of upbringing. I went to school, I hung out with my friends, I fought with my younger sisters. It was all very normal. And when I was 15, a member of my local community approached my parents and wanted to nominate me for a "Community Achievement Award". And my parents said, "That's very nice, but there's kind of one glaring problem with that; she hasn't actually achieved anything."

[audience laughs]

Yeah. And they were right! I went to school. I got good marks. I had a very low-key after school job in my mom's hairdressing salon and I spent a lot of time watching "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Dawson's Creek". Yeah. I know. What a contradiction. But they were right. I wasn't doing anything that was out of the ordinary. At all. I wasn't doing anything that would be considered an achievement if you took disability out of the equation.

Years later, I was on my second teaching round in a Melbourne high school and I was about 20 minutes into a year 11 legal studies class when this boy put up his hand and said, "Hey, miss! When are you going to start doing your speech?" And I said, "What speech?" You know, I had been talking to them about defamation law for a good 20 minutes. And he said, "You know, like your motivational speaking." "When people in wheelchairs come to school, they usually say inspirational stuff."

[audience laughs]

"It's usually in the big hall." And that's when it dawned on me. This kid had only ever experienced disabled people as objects of inspiration. We're not. To this kid, and it's not his fault, I mean, that's true for many of us. Disabled people are not our teachers, or our doctors, or our manicurists. We're not real people. We are there to inspire. In fact, you know, I'm sitting on this stage, looking like I do in this wheelchair, and you are probably kind of expecting me to inspire you.

[audience laughs]

Yeah. Well, ladies and gentlemen, I am afraid that I am going to disappoint you dramatically. I am not here to inspire you. I am here to tell you that we have been lied to about disability. Yeah, we've been sold the lie that disability is a bad thing. BT. It's a bad thing. And to live with disability makes you exceptional. It's not a bad thing, and it does not make you exceptional.

And in the past few years, we've been able to propagate this lie even further via social media. You know, you may have seen images like this one: "The only disability in life is a bad attitude." Or this one: "Your excuse is invalid" Indeed. Or this one: "Before you quit, try!" Yeah. These are just a couple of examples. but there are a lot of these images out there. You know, you might have seen the one of the little girl with no hands drawing a picture with a pencil held in her mouth. You might have seen a child running on carbon fiber prosthetic legs. And these images, there are lots of them out there, they are what we call "inspiration porn".

[audience laughs]

And I use the term "porn" deliberately, because they objectify one group of people for the benefit of another group of people. So, in this case, we're objectifying disabled people for the benefit of non-disabled people. The purpose of these images is to inspire you, to motivate you, so we can look at them and think, "Well, however bad my life is, it could be worse. I could be that person."

But what if you are that person? I've lost count of the number of times I've been approached by strangers wanting to tell me that they think I'm brave or inspirational. And this was long before my work had any kind of public profile. They were just kind of congratulating me for getting up in the morning and remembering my own name.

[audience laughs]

And it is objectifying. These images objectify disabled people for the benefit of non-disabled people. They are there so you can look at them and think that things aren't so bad for you, to put your worries into perspective. And life as a disabled person actually is somewhat difficult. We overcome some things. But the things that we are overcoming are not the things that you think they are. They are not things that have to do with our bodies.

I use the term "disabled people" quite deliberately because I subscribe to what is caled the "social model of disability", which tells us that we are more disabled by society we live in then by our bodies or our diagnoses. So, I have lived in this body a long time. I am quite fond of it. It does the things that I need it to do, and I have learned to use it to the best of its capacity just as you have. And that's the thing about the kids in those pictures as well. They are not doing anything out of the ordinary. They are just using their bodies to the best of their capacity. So, is it really fair to objectify them in the way that we do? To share those images?

When people say "You're an inspiration", they mean it as a compliment. And I know why it happens. It's because of the lie. It's because we've been sold this lie that disability makes you exceptional, and it honestly doesn't. And I know what you're thinking, you know, I'm up here batting out inspiration and you're thinking, "Geez, Stella, aren't you inspired sometimes by some things?" And the thing is, I am. I learn from other disabled people all the time. I'm learning not that I am luckier than them though. I'm learning that it's an ingenious idea to use a pair of BBQ tongs to get things that you've dropped.

[audience laughs]

I'm learning that nifty trick where you can charge your mobile phone battery from your chair battery. Genius. We are learning strength and endurance, not against our bodies and our diagnoses, but against a world that exceptionalizes and objectifies us. I really think that this lie that we've been sold about disability is the greatest injustice. It makes life hard for us. And that quote, "The only disability in life is a bad attitude" the reason that that's bullshit is because it's just not true, because in the social model of disability. No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it into a ramp. Never

[audience applauds]

You know, smiling at a television screen is not going to make closed captions appear for people who are deaf. No amount of standing in the middle of a bookshelf and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books into braille. It's just not going to happen.

I really want to live in a world where disability is not the exception, but the norm. I want to live in a world where a 15 year-old girl sitting in her bedroom watching "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" isn't referred to as achieving anything because she is sitting down. 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. I want to live in a world where we value genuine achievement for disabled people. And I want to live in a world where, a kid in year 11 in a Melbourne High School is not one bit surprised that his new teacher is a wheelchair user.

Disability doesn't make you exceptional. But, questioning what you think you know about it does. Thank you.

There may be small errors in this transcript.

This TED talk features comedian and disability activist Stella Young. For more of Stella's funny and honest insights, and to see where she's performing next, follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Jun 10, 2014

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