A fiery Australian journalist, unfiltered comedian, and tireless activist, Stella Young a 2014 International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) alumna quickly became a leader in the global disability community. She sparked international attention through her April 2014 TEDx Talk: I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much, through which she educated and enlightened her audience about the misconceptions, objectification, and discriminatory treatment of people with disabilities.
Before her untimely death one year ago today, Stella said during a radio interview about her IVLP project: “I had the best experience, maybe it was the best experience of my life.”
Stella’s three-week IVLP project, which took place in July 2014, explored disability rights and advocacy in the United States. This program was funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and was proudly administered by Cultural Vistas.
During her program, Stella visited five cities in total, including Washington, D.C., New York City, Austin, Texas, and both Eugene and Portland, Oregon. Each city presented her with a number of advocacy, media, and service delivery organizations such as Mobility International USA, National Public Radio, ReelAbilities, and the National Council on Disabilities, as well as a variety of cultural activities, including a baseball game and a Broadway show.
While she had many stories from her trip to share, she recalled that one moment stood out as possibly “the best experience of [her] life” -her visit to Bar 96 in Austin, Texas. Stella immediately jumped on Twitter and shared her experience:
— Bar 96 (@bar96austin) July 27, 2014
At more length, Stella later recounted the experience during an interview with Liz Wright on her radio show, Are you looking at me?:
“I had the best experience, maybe it was the best experience of my life, I’m not sure… I went to a bar in Texas, in Austin. Down on Rainey street called Bar 96. A friend of mine, Richard McKenzie, he’s a fellow comedian, he told me to go there ’cause his mate manages it and his mate wasn’t there that day but it didn’t matter because Ange and I were not walking any further. We were so hot and so bothered that we just like sat down. [We] had to have a couple non-alcoholic drinks first to hydrate. And then I went to the bathroom, and then I went to the bar and I just said to the guy behind the bar and “I’ll have two gin & tonics, thanks. And, also, the lock on the accessible stall in the women’s toilets is too high for a wheel chair user to reach, it’s super super high it would be like a regular person’s eye level.” And he was like “oh, thanks. I’ll take a look at that.” And by the time I got back to the table and settled in, this guy walked back past us with a power drill and said “fixed that right up.” And we were like “what… what?” So, none of this having to put in a complaint to the manager. Even his response was really interesting because he didn’t say “oh, that happened before I worked here” or “oh well that’s my bosses responsibility” or “we just rent the property,” or any of the number of excuses that you would get fed in Australia. He was just like “oh, I’ll have a look at that,” and he did! …it was absolutely amazing! Like, that does not happen here. It was so great.”
We realize it was just a lock, but it represents so much more than that. Simple accommodations and attentiveness can have a huge impact on a person with a disability, and in this case, make a huge difference in the way that international visitors experience their time in the United States.
International exchanges, like the IVLP, involve changing norms and entrenched misperceptions through one interaction at a time, and this bar incident is a great example of how an American bar staff rose to the occasion and shaped the experience of an Australian disability rights advocate. To me, this is the core of what it means to be a citizen diplomat.
Sadly, Stella unexpectedly passed away in December of last year at the age of 32.
After learning of Stella’s death, and reminiscing about her time with us, our team at Cultural Vistas decided to arrange a gathering in her memory. Inspired by her experience at Bar 96, we held a happy hour and hung a plaque honoring her memory and the experience she had there.
During this gathering we invited those whom Stella had met while in Austin, including representatives from GlobalAustin, VSA Texas, ChannelAustin, and Malvern Books. With a total turnout of around 25 people in attendance, we hung a red and white polka-dot plaque telling the story of Stella’s experience at Bar 96, we shared stories of meeting Stella and ideas on how we can keep the momentum of her work moving forward.
In the end, I think we can all agree that the world lost Stella too soon, but she left an indelible mark on us all with both her spirit and her endeavors. She will be greatly missed and long remembered by all of her new friends across the United States.
If you ever find yourself in Austin, I encourage you to stop by Bar 96 – see the Stella Young memorial plaque, have a gin & tonic (because that’s what Stella drank) and think about the little things you can do to honor Stella’s legacy and keep her work moving forward.