Stella Young was a national broadcaster, teacher, advocate for human rights and very funny. She died at 32 from a suspected aneurysm. Her TEDx talk : I’m not your inspiration, was a speech about objectifying people with disabilities.
Objectification is all around us, and it could well be the source of some of the deepest experiences of alienation and de-humanising. It is the reason pornography is an epidemic. It is the reason child abuse is in our courts day after day. Young said it best, when she called inspirational posters of people with disabilities doing ordinary things like throwing a ball or swimming in the ocean was objectifying and was really inspirational porn, and no amount of changing attitudes towards people with disabilities was going to bring a ramp to a building!
I have had some amazing teachers in the anti-objectifying movement, some of them did it in wheelchairs, para Olympian, administrator, grant maker and mum Libby Kosmala and arts patron and administrator, adviser to architects, builders and developers, dad and grandfather, Richard Llewellyn. I learned such a lot about building access and building codes from Richard, the quality of toilets, access to public spaces and turning up to all the conversations. One of my first encounters with Richard was when I drove him to a meeting, and after using a very cool hoist attached to the government car, we got to the meeting in the city and had to park around the back of the building, I them had to move rubbish and rubbish bins to access the only entrance of the building a wheelchair could get in. He was a very senior public servant, and the only one who turned up to the meeting through the tradesman’s entrance. I was in my early twenties and that day I got a great lesson in what access really means. It is practical not attitudinal, it is the subject not the object in a sentence. We worked on all sorts of access issues over many years and I refused to talk about access as a disability issue – access is access, equity is equity. (I used to have a cartoon of a battalion of daleks, those mythical invasion beings created by Terry Nation, from Dr Who arriving at a planet where every building is equipped with a set of stairs. Confronted by this phenomena the daleks recognize the stairs undoes their plans to take over the planet.)
Access all areas, to end objectification will require more than stairs being removed, we need ramps to the hearts and minds. Ironically Stella Young’s ABC show was called Ramp Up. She died not long after the show was axed by the ABC, and I have often wondered if it might have broken her heart and been a cause of her early and unexpected death. An attitude code can’t be legislated for (as MLK taught us) but we can get the buildings right, the books with braille, voice activated instructions and new technologies are happening every day. Young’s preference was for use of the term disabled people (people not enabled), while Lllewellyn’s preference was people with disabilities (people before disability) – both work for me and reflects the generational difference between the two advocates. By the time Stella was working in a classroom, broadcasting and entertaining us with her sharp and dry wit, many of the barriers Richard had in his lifetime were no longer there. But there certainly weren’t and aren’t all gone and inspirational porn is not a new frontier, but is one of the last.
It is not only disabled people who experience this, the poor self-made achiever is sometimes held up for having achieved when equity is a right for everyone. The refugee who has made good is seen as the exceptional individual who has overcome a challenge. Surely this is another form of objectification – the human right issue of safety, participation, asylum shouldn’t be down to an individual’s capacity to deal with smugglers, high seas, war, torture – these are all human rights. And what about the person who overcomes through their own efforts and a few odd and possibly random events to make their millions or rise to the highest levels of education and attainment being held up as special – surely the human rights to a roof over your head, food and an education – are for everyone.
Get out the building code for your heart and work out what needs to be changed in the system that is getting in the way of access and equity. Turning people into objects, numbs us and dumbs us down. Objectification is a dis-ease and inoculation starts with a big dose of access and equity.