The International Day of Persons with Disabilities is this Sunday, December 3. For more information on the annual observance day, head here.
When she was 14, Molly Burke spent her weekends watching YouTube video after YouTube video while other girls in her grade attended sleepovers at each other's houses. At first, she was attracted to the sorts of silly, viral videos YouTube is known for — ones of cats doing funny things and pandas sneezing. The videos were a welcome respite from the turmoil in her daily life. Burke, in eighth grade at the time, was dealing with bullying at school and struggled with depression. She had gone from being "the pretty, popular girl, to having no friends." And, although she had been told by doctors that it would eventually happen, Burke went blind.
As a child, Burke was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa, which causes deterioration of the cells in the retina. Her vision began degrading continuously over the years leading up to 14, when she lost sight completely. YouTube became an escape, a place where she could still enjoy some of the things she liked before going blind: Makeup and fashion.
Burke discovered creators like Blair Fowler (JuicyStar07), Megan Parken (Meganheartsmakeup), and Bethany Mota, who helped her relearn how to love things that are, by nature, very visual. YouTube videos tend to be very descriptive: In a makeup tutorial you’ll hear about the exact shade of blush an artist is working with, the shape of the brush she’s using to apply it, and how she swipes it on her cheeks just so. Fashion videos go into similar detail, describing the feel of a certain kind of fabric and how to wrap it around your body or style it into different looks.
"By listening to their videos, I would hear them do outfit of the day and fashion hauls and I would learn what was in style, what was trendy," Burke told Refinery29. "I couldn't look in magazines or store windows, so those became my magazines."
When she decided to start her channel three years ago, Burke planned to focus on the themes that had brought her joy on the site, doing beauty hauls of her own. But she quickly learned that other videos, ones focused on answering questions around her disability, were a necessity. Her first video on the topic was a guide dog Q&A, in which she responded to viewer questions about things like how someone gets a guide dog and how the dogs are trained.
Burke is now 23 years old, and her Youtube channel has a sizable following of 207,701 subscribers. If you didn't know anything about her before watching one of her videos, you probably wouldn't guess that she's blind. Burke looks directly into the camera, with beautiful, wide brown eyes that are neither chalky nor gray — she doesn't wear dark sunglasses. She speaks with hand gestures and body language that seem completely natural, much of which she attributes to muscle memory and practice ahead of time (prior to filming beauty tutorials, she’ll pick up and put down brushes and palettes over and over again until she learns where everything goes). All of these things defy stereotypes perpetuated in media portrayals of blind people. "I don't look, I don't act, I don't do what people expect of a blind person," Burke says.
As a result, uneducated viewers claimed she was faking it, and watched her videos searching for clues that she was lying — a way to “catch her in the act.” If she left a comment on someone else's video, adding, when necessary for context, that she was blind, it would set off a chain of hundreds of comments from other viewers. Commenters would watch her videos, and then proceed to conclude that she didn't look blind to them. Burke had experienced reactions like these previously.
"When I was losing my vision in grade eight, I faced a lot of ‘she’s faking it’ even from teachers, which was extremely difficult because, for me, I’m going through the most painful thing in my life and people are taking away from that by claiming it’s not even happening," Burke said. "The first time since grade eight that I faced that was when I started making videos online."
"I couldn't look in magazines or store windows, so [YouTube videos] became my magazines."
Like many vloggers, the majority of Burke's videos are shot with her in a seated position, talking into the camera. Viewers don't see her hand searching for a chair or her stumbling into a table, indicators in real life that she is, in fact, blind. On Twitter, Burke documents all of what she calls her “blind girl moments” with the hashtag #blindgirlproblems. To address the misconceptions and stereotypes she faced in online comment sections, Burke began creating matter-of-fact, myth-busting videos that cover everything from dating as a blind person to why some blind people keep their eyes open. There's "Molly's Top 5: Reasons Why People On YouTube Think I'm Not Blind," "Smell Challenge: Guessing The Colors Of Scented Markers," and "How I Use Technology As A Blind Person".
That last one was a particular point of curiosity among commenters, and Burke was eager to set the record straight: "It's almost 2018 — technology is really advanced," she explains. Although her mom helps her set up and focus the camera when she films her videos, Burke uses the same products to leave comments and post her videos that many other 23-year-olds use. Her iPhone, MacBook Pro, and iPad all have VoiceOver, software that reads and describes what's onscreen: Burke can simply drag her finger over an app or message on her iPhone to hear what it is read aloud. There are also ways to use YouTube with a screen reader, as well as keyboard shortcuts. Other sites, such as Facebook, have increased accessibility efforts of their own.
Burke also addresses less technical issues in her videos. In one video from 2016, she talks about her struggle with PTSD. Prior to starting her YouTube channel, Burke had a successful public speaking career, being flown around the world to talk about issues relating to bullying, mental health, and accessibility. In February 2014, she walked full speed ahead off a five-foot stage during a soundcheck, almost breaking her neck and leaving her in a neck brace for six weeks.
When she tried to step on a stage afterwards her feet would freeze — her body felt as though it was falling again, and she was riddled with stress and anxiety. She has since built up the courage to go back onstage, but her video addressing the experience is prefaced with a disclaimer: "Sorry if this video was all over the place, there was a lot more I could have and should have said, so I may do a followup video someday. I wish I had explained myself better, but emotions took over and I wanted to leave this video as raw and real as possible."
It isn’t uncommon to watch videos dealing with difficult topics and personal confessions on YouTube. The silly, viral videos and music covers might draw young people in, but for many, it’s the bond they form with creators through the screen that makes them stay. Burke is a trailblazer on the platform, creating a different image of what it means to be blind for those who don’t deal with vision loss, as well as those who do. She strives to show her followers that just because someone is blind, this doesn’t change who they are or restrict their dreams.
“I always say that I do what I do because I want to be the role model that I didn’t have,” Burke says. “When I was 14 and struggling, I so badly needed someone and I didn’t have that role model to look up to. If I had, it would have made all the difference.”
Compared to gaming, beauty, and fitness, the disability community of YouTube creators is still small. However, although YouTube doesn't release official statistics, Burke says she's seen it grow from just a handful of creators to a solid subsection in recent years, as people like her who started off watching videos realized that they could make their own impactful ones, too. The importance of continuing this growth can't be underscored enough. Burke, for her part, is hoping to continue dismantling stereotypes while working towards her own dreams of someday becoming a household name actress.
"Every disability is different," Burke says. "Blindness isn’t we all see black. Deafness isn’t they all hear nothing. Every single deaf person, every single blind person, every single person in a wheelchair, we’ve all had different experiences. Which is why it’s so important we have as many creators with disabilities as we can sharing their own personal experiences. My goal as somebody who was grassroots with this subsection of YouTube is to become a gaming or a beauty or a fitness genre – to be as big as that one day."
If you are experiencing depression and need support, please call the National Depressive/Manic-Depressive Association Hotline at 1-800-826-3632 or the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090.