A Voice of Disability Lost

I was saddened to read on Monday morning of the passing of Stella Young. She was a woman I never had the chance to meet, but I learned of her when a couple people sent me a link to the video of the TED Talk she gave earlier this year, "I'm not your inspiration, thank you very much." The similarities between her talk and my book lead some people to suggest that the two of us were kindred spirits of some kind.

Ms. Young reached an audience the size of which I continue to only hope to capture. At the time I saw her video she didn't seem to be active on social media so I never had the opportunity to communicate with her in any way. All I really know of her is that she delivered her message with a brand of humor that delighted her crowd and no doubt many of the thousands who watched the video on YouTube, myself included.

The thing that struck me upon reading about her passing was her age--she was just 32 years old, according to reports. While it always seems especially sad to hear of someone dying young, I felt a loss specifically as a member of the "disability community."

I put those words in quotes because I think the idea of people with disabilities being one community is problematic in many ways. It's a subject for another day and time. That said, Ms. Young's message was one that I connected with, and it's disappointing to know that one of the voices which was being heard on disability issues is now gone.

Those of us who connected with her message will miss the chance to hear her speak on those issues as she aged. We will not get the chance to hear her share more of her experiences, sharpening her storytelling skills and likely continuing to make us laugh at our own struggles.

Most of what she said in her TED talk tackled the perceptions others have about people with disabilities. I think my favorite part was her story about teaching a class and being interrupted by a student wanting to know when her speech started. As she tells the story with a humor I couldn't match, the student was assuming she was there to give some type of motivational talk instead of teaching a class. (Check out the video on YouTube.)

My guess is that most of the live audience for her TED Talk was able-bodied. As important as it is to get her message and those like it to able-bodied people, I think people with disabilities need to hear these stories even more. It doesn't take much to hear people from the Jewish community, African-American community, and so on, talking about the need to tell and hear their own stories. But you rarely hear of the concept for people with disabilities.

Knowing that someone else was out there delivering the same basic message bolstered my confidence in the book I self-published. In the same way, her stories about growing up, teaching, and more, may help people with disabilities, young and old, understand that others have gone through the same things they may be experiencing and help them keep moving forward.

The number of negative comments and "thumbs down" votes on the YouTube video of her talk should only remind people of how important it is for stories like those Ms. Young told to be heard. While internet comments sections are generally a wasteland of anonymous people spouting negativity simply for the sake of doing so, it may still be surprising to some that a message about people with disabilities striving to do more than act as inspirational trinkets for able-bodied people is still not understood by many.

Ms. Young delivered her stories with humor. Others tell their own stories with drama, or romance, possibly even horror, and maybe even rage. When told as well as Ms. Young offered her stories, such tales can do as much as anything to help people with disabilities have our experiences better understood--especially by other people with disabilities.

I'm sorry to know that Ms. Young won't get the chance to tell more of her stories. The ones she left behind were more than worth hearing. They're worth remembering.