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Molly Burke: Influencing Accessibility

By Eva Dougherty ’21

In our discussions on Project Bloom, we’ve seen how the conversation around accessibility looks on our campus and beyond. Personally, before taking this class, these discussions were only brought to my attention because of one person- an influencer I followed on social media.

The concept of an influencer is a growing and changing trend in our society that honestly doesn’t have one solid definition. As college students, it’s likely that in this day in age, we all follow at least one person who we consider to be an influencer. We typically see influencers as people who set the trends, who we look to and say “I want to look/dress/live like them.” 

Think about the influencers that you follow or know of. What do they look like? Do their perspectives differ from your own? Are any of these people disabled?  Influencers in the disabled community are few, but people like Molly Burke are telling their stories with power.

Molly Burke is a blind YouTuber and motivational speaker who advocates for universal design and tells her story of blindness, how she navigates the world and hopes to inspire others. She breaks the stereotype of the disabled person who cannot function in the world or succeed doing something they love. She has made it her mission to be someone who those in the blind community can look up to and see someone who got through the toughest moments and is thriving. Her wider audience of 2 million subscribers are those outside of the blind community and her goal is to educate people about blindness and issues of accessibility. In one of her videos, she says, “Ignorance is the biggest problem, so we have to combat it with education.” 

When Molly was 14 years old, she completely lost her sight as a result of a retinal disease. She and her family were originally gung ho on finding a cure. In a video with a fellow YouTuber she said, “When I was growing up, I really subscribed to the medical model of disability, the idea that a cure is the only way you’ll be successful, happy, and fit into society.” The medical model of disability, as Molly mentioned, is the idea that disability is an abnormality that needs to be fixed. Molly disagrees with it now by saying that she would not want her sight back even if she had the option to. She has worked so hard to overcome and to adapt to her life as she lives it now, so although many people would see her getting her sight back as a “cure”, Molly sees being blind as a part of who she is, and she loves that. In this video, she said, “It took a long time to accept who I am. Now that I’ve done that, I don’t want to change.” 

In their study of accessibility, Aimi Hamraie discusses the “normate template”, which is the idea that the world was designed for the average body, and if you do not fit this template, you are not considered when a product or space is being designed. Molly has adapted to the world around her and promotes the message that she and others like her who do not fit the “normate template” can overcome and not just function in this world, but thrive. She recognizes that although she’s perfectly capable of adapting, the world shouldn’t just expect that people with disabilities will adapt. In this speech she gave at Western University about belonging, Molly says, “I live in a world that wasn’t built for me. But what if it was?”

Molly’s videos tell her story of resilience and overcoming, but unlike many influencers, she doesn’t hide the toughest moments of her experience. She has shared videos of how she has been mistreated, discriminated against, and not included because something is not accessible to her. She is not afraid to call out companies that are not accessible, like how she constantly gets denied by Uber drivers because of her guide dog, or can’t shop on the Vans website because it does not have accessibility features.

Within the conversation of accessibility, it is important to think about people like Molly who have a large following as a resource for education for the average person who otherwise doesn’t encounter barriers to access. With the impact that influencers have on our culture, influencers like Molly can contribute to this discussion in a big way. I encourage you to take a look at the influencers you follow and consider following people who will expand your viewpoint and allow you to see the world a little differently.

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