By most accounts, E.G. Whitlam quietly practised the lack of belief in cosmic order that Stella Young, an out-and-proud atheist, was ardent to declare. On his 80th birthday, an occasion Stella, who died Saturday evening, recently imagined, he told guests: “As you know, I plan for the ages, not just for this life.”

The strength of Whitlam’s ethical approach, which happened to be post-Christian, made him a leader now so easily remembered as great. He strategised far beyond himself and into a national afterlife. This “spirituality”, such as it was, made him so much more than most: he was a servant of the century and not, like most of us, a handmaid to the self.

Stella Young, whom I knew both privately and politically, freed herself long ago from this everyday enslavement. She saw and spoke beyond her own experience and made the understanding of systemic rule and change her business. She was a teenager when she began to know what she later told us as no other national voice has: disability is not made by bad bodies. It is made by bad societies.

I worked with Stella in the production of disability media for a few months, and it would be lax of me not to mention that we, both stubborn and irascible writers, had terrible arguments about the right way to fix journalism’s wrongs. Everyone who knew this luminous bruiser regrets her passing in his or her own way, but my personal regret comes from those days when I stuck to my guns with an egoistic force that prevented me from building on the language of disability she had begun to develop. Stella’s thoughts, always written with care and profound concern for how well they would be understood, derived from the “social model” of disability. They can be read — and will be by many in the coming days and years. But to look at their origin is important.

Stella introduced me to the 1975 statement made by UK organisation the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS):

“In our view it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society.”

Frankly, I was annoyed that these thoughts hadn’t occurred to me before.

But they’d occurred to Stella, a social constructivist and Etsy-loving fashionplate, and she offered them without pause or apology but with the kind of poise that only rigorous thinking produces. She would not be seen or treated as surplus to the needs of a society with delusions of its own efficiency, and she extended this battle on behalf of anyone who had been forced, never born, into the idea of uselessness.

Disability was her most visible concern, but Stella was, explicitly and implicitly, engaged with all the “freaks”. She read, spoke and acted on queer theory, feminism and Aboriginal self-determination and trawled with a commitment most of us will never muster through the details of the economic viability of the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Her engagement with the important idea that “disability”, in all its social forms, was not a natural idea was total. It would unfold over coffee in a discussion about the ethics of publicly calling out prejudice, and it would happen on her iPad as she pored, alone, over the minutiae of difficult legislation whose authors, I suspect, were never as devoted to its realisation as she was.

And now this voice who uttered with care and depth and such effective patience what we urgently needed to hear is gone. As her friend and collaborator Shakira Hussein said to me yesterday: “This feels like such an injustice.” Of course, Shakira and Stella both know that Stella’s death in itself cannot be considered an injustice of the sort each woman has devoted her professional and personal life to fighting; it’s just a sad and terrible thing. But what is unjust, save for all the injustices that Stella spent her short life describing, is that we do not produce more confident and clear voices like this one.

Like it or not, and Stella the servant of history would not, it still takes an exceptional person to describe with such popular precision the way we make people and bodies excess to our social needs. Her goal was to make this heightened understanding of commonplace injustice itself commonplace. But she was not commonplace.

And the truest way to honour her memory is not to elevate her, exceptional as she was. It is to continue the thinking she popularised and transform it into action.

Whitlam had a lot more time than Young, but neither of them felt they had any time to waste in developing a conventionally spiritual framework. So if there’s any transubstantiation to occur here, let it be of her memory into policy and understanding.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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