Molly Burke grew up viewing the internet the way the rest of us millennials did — as a refuge, as a virtual community that confused our parents and as a comfort.
“When I lost the majority of my vision at 14, I lost all of my friends,” Burke told In The Know. “I no longer had girlfriends to go shopping at the mall with or have sleepovers and gossip about boys. And I just thought, I miss that sense of normalcy. And so I found it on the internet.”
Beauty YouTube started to pick up around 2007, and Burke latched onto the front-facing, monologue video format that made beauty and fashion influencers like Michelle Phan, Zoella and Burke’s personal favorites Blair Fowler and Bethany Mota so popular.
“They were around the same age as me, and they were talking about the things that I would have been talking about with friends in real life, if I still had them,” Burke said. “I would listen to these videos and it was my version of swatching lipsticks on my hand or seeing in-store windows or flipping through magazines.”
When Burke was 4, she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare eye disease that causes a breakdown and loss of cells in the retina. Ten years later, she lost her vision completely.
“I’ve always loved beauty and fashion,” she said. “Of course, losing your vision changes how you do things — it doesn’t change who you are.”
Burke’s relationship with fashion and beauty changed only in how she experienced it.
“I haven’t been able to see makeup and fashion for a very long time and it’s weird to me that I ever thought of it as just a visual thing,” she said. “No matter what part of your journey you’re on with self-love and self-acceptance, you deserve to do something.”
She said that new friends at her high school would come to her for fashion and makeup advice because of her YouTube knowledge, and she would joke, “You know you’re calling your blind friend for makeup and fashion advice, right?”
For years, in the back of her mind, Burke always knew starting her own channel would be a dream come true. It was only when she was 20 and back living with her parents after being diagnosed with PTSD that she finally decided to set up a camera. Burke’s boyfriend at the time volunteered to edit the first video and upload it to YouTube.
“What those girls were able to do for me and they weren’t even disabled, [I thought] what could seeing a disabled person who’s like you do for a disabled young person?” she said.
Eight years later, Burke has almost 2 million YouTube subscribers, 1.2 million TikTok viewers and 800,000 Instagram followers and is a public speaker, model and brand accessibility consultant.
“I wanted to be able to build that sense of community and, like, a safe space for people who felt underrepresented and who felt alone,” she said. “I wanted to build a community like those beauty and fashion girls had done for me.”
According to the Braille Institute, Burke is the “unquestioned” most-popular blind YouTuber. She is part of a small group of leaders on the platform who are dismantling stigmas about the disability and building support for visually impaired followers by answering questions and sharing their daily lives.
As recently as 2011, YouTube wasn’t as accessible for visually impaired users as it is now. Tommy Edison, who started the channel Blind Film Critic in 2011, told the Washington Post that YouTube was initially “a largely silent experience” for him.
The Association for Computing Machinery published a 2021 study in which blind and visually impaired participants said that they regularly watched online videos for entertainment, education and maintaining social connections. But a major piece of criteria for picking which videos they watched was accessibility.
YouTube is the second-most-popular search platform, the second-most-used phone app and it regularly reaches 81% of internet users under the age of 25. At the same time, YouTube does not require or provide alternative text descriptions or audio descriptions, which sets up major barriers for blind and visually impaired internet users.
Engineers have gotten better at incorporating screen readers — tools that allows people with visual impairments to interact with digital content through either audio or touch — in backend coding, but YouTube is still not entirely flawless. Burke, for example, said she gets frustrated when platforms or programs update, because it can take her a while to relearn the setup.
Like any YouTuber with a larger following like Burke’s, it’s not abnormal to have a team that works on various aspects of the video-making process.
“It’s very common in my industry that people have editors, it’s pretty standard,” she said. “I don’t feel like [I have editors] simply because I’m disabled. I do it because I know that somebody can do it better than me.”
Burke’s videos are accessible and have always been accessible. When she had a smaller channel with around 5,000 followers, she said someone reached out to her with a comment that aligned with exactly why she started YouTube in the first place that she’s never forgotten.
The commenter “lived in a really small town in a poorer country and they were like, ‘I thought I was the only one. I’ve never met a blind person. I’ve never heard of another blind person, I thought it was just me,'” Burke said. They “grew up in a country with very few resources for disabled people, and then to have found my video and to realize that there’s actually a whole community [like them] around the world … I can’t imagine.”
Molly’s recommendations for more YouTubers to follow:
Brenna Huckaby: Two-time Paralympic gold medalist snowboarder, cancer survivor, mom, model
Footless Jo: Amputee, mental health advocate
Squirmy and Grubs: Married couple chronicles their life navigating disability
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