YouTuber Molly Burke combats blindness with her online presence

Leah Hardgrove | Staff Writer

Since its launch in 2005, YouTube has greatly changed the entertainment industry, giving a platform to any and all creators. Creative individuals who don’t necessarily fit into traditional media now have the opportunity to express themselves and raise awareness for their passions. Molly Burke is a fashion blogger, amassing over 1 million subscribers to her YouTube channel with makeup tutorial videos and lifestyle and fashion vlogs. She has built a career in visual media, despite the fact she’s blind.

Burke lost her vision at age 14 due to retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease. Before her vision loss she loved fashion and makeup, and her new condition wasn’t going to change that. Instead of relying on traditional magazines and fashion shows, she adapted to watching beauty gurus on YouTube. In an interview with Flare Magazine, she said, “I turned to YouTubers. I would watch and listen to their fashion hauls, outfits of the day, makeup tutorials and their videos on the ‘must-have products in your makeup bag.’ All that kind of stuff that was really starting to grow on YouTube’s beauty community. They were my guides to figuring out beauty and fashion [after] I couldn’t actually see it.” Makeup tutorials describe how to do things verbally, making them perfect for someone with a visual disability.

Burke has kept her life the way she wants it to be; she still puts her makeup on, now relying on touch to see what kind of formula she’s using and to feel the contours of her face. She has studied body shape and skin tone to know what clothes she wants to buy, also relying on salespeople’s and friends’ advice. Instead of using a cane and wearing sunglasses, she’s guided by her dog Gallop who wears a harness instead of the traditional service animal vest.

Aside from being a YouTuber, she’s a motivational speaker; she told Mashable magazine her goal is to become “Ellen for blind people,” to break down the mainstream divide between able-bodied and disabled people in media like Ellen DeGeneres did for the LGBTQIA* community. In 2016, Burke shared her views on accessibility in society with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at Canada’s first Youth Accessibility Forum. Following her conversations, the Canadian government asked her to speak on behalf of disabled youth at the United Nations. Most recently, she became the newest international spokesperson for Dove Beauty. Burke works to remind women that beauty isn’t just how you look, it’s about how you feel, an important message no matter what vision ability you have.

Burke has shaped her life to be a positive role model for kids struggling with disabilities. She’s documented living on her own for the first time. She’s planning to create an ongoing series with other YouTubers where she learns how to cook. Basic tasks like cooking might seem simple to the average viewer, but for the disabled community, who can struggle with certain daily tasks, this series will motivate people to not feel defeated by their disabilities, as well as raise awareness to create a more conscientious culture.

“I see [my YouTube channel] as an outlet to educate, break stereotypes and push boundaries. To build community out of the group that is so easily isolated in society,” Burke said to Mashable. When struggling with something like a disability or mental health, it’s easy to feel alone, especially if the people around you don’t share your struggles. YouTube allows individuals from all over to post their feelings and experiences so others like them can relate and feel validated. YouTube also isn’t as distant from the viewer as Hollywood and other traditional forms of entertainment; most of the time, it’s a person sitting in front of a camera just talking. It’s easier to feel a personal connection on the platform, even more so with the popularity of social media. “So many people are sharing really vulnerable parts of their lives and trying to help other people,” Burke’s mom said in her own interview with Mashable, “It’s phenomenal.”

When fighting for accessibility, Burke knew YouTube was the way to do it, saying in a video, “I learned a long time ago that traditional media wasn’t going to invite me in their doors, and YouTube didn’t have to invite me. I could just do it.” Burke also rejects the way blind people are portrayed in traditional media, citing shows like “Pretty Little Liars.” “Every time there’s a disabled person, [the plot] hinges on their disability, like that’s their whole schtick. It would be amazing to see a movie or TV show where there’s a disabled character and their storyline has nothing to do with their disability,” quoted Mashable. Proper representation is the first step in making society more accessible for everyone, regardless of ability.

The world isn’t built to be accessible, but Burke hopes to change that how she can with her work. Molly Burke hasn’t let her blindness define her, and YouTube has given her the chance to spread that message to a greater community.