The discovery of one young disabled YouTube blogger lead Rebecca Shewell to do some channel hopping and find who else is pulling in the punters.
One day at work as a teacher in a secondary school I noticed during form time that nearly half of my Year 8 students were reading the same book: Girl Online by Zoe Sugg.
Being intrigued by the glorious face beaming out of me from so many book covers, I went away and looked her up and found that she is hugely influential. I discovered hundreds of her online tutorials on YouTube: some about how to apply make-up, some about how to tie your hair, some about her battle with anxiety and panic attacks. I was astounded. Not by how she spoke about lipstick or hair, but about how she spoke about her difficulties; her condition. Here was a hugely influential young woman, with millions of YouTube followers worldwide, speaking openly about mental health and disability. It’s not every day that this happens. Or is it?
Vlogging on YouTube is now huge. It influences people across the world in their millions. I have witnessed the inconceivable influence of Zoella first-hand; where rarely a day goes past at school where I don’t hear mention of her name. So, what does this mean for YouTube and disability?
When I looked deeper what I found was quite extraordinary: a vast array of incredible individuals, all living with conditions and disabilities, talking about their experiences in an exciting way, and all of whom had thousands of followers on their channels.
I came across the Mandeville sisters, who use their channel as a medium to talk about everything from fashion, to film, to disability. Grace Mandeville has one arm and neither she, nor her sister, is afraid to talk about it. Amongst their vlogs discussing fashion and prosthetics and how “people’s look on disability is changing”, Grace also talks to her fans through her condition, how she uses her arm and how she and others may feel about different types of prosthetics. She has featured in a photo shoot for The New York Times with The Alternative Limb Project, alongside amputee Victoria Modesta, and has had prosthetic arms designed for her that don’t look like a “normal” arm, which she says make her feel like a “warrior”.
From the Mandeville sisters, to Fashioneyesta, a visually impaired beauty vlogger, who not only focuses on fashion, but tackles negative comments on her site, head on. Receiving comments such as: “How can you be blind if you like to take an interest in fashion”, she reacts powerfully in her videos by advocating her channel as a “place that you can be who you want to be…it doesn’t matter if you are disabled”, and by stating: “If you are looking for somebody who conforms to the stereotype of what a blind person should look like or be like or act like, I’m sorry but you’ve gone to the wrong channel…”. Not only this, but she has used her channel as a medium to tackle the negativity towards those with invisible disabilities.
The list of disabled vloggers goes on. I found Autumn Asphodel talking about her struggles with Dissociative Identity Disorder, even featuring a video introducing her viewers to her multiple personas.
I found Bunny Hopkins, who uses her channel to talk about her experiences living with Ehlers-Danlos Synodrome.
I found Annie Elainey, a wheelchair user, who talks openly about her experiences and tackles misconceptions regarding her disability.
The thing that struck me most about all of these individuals was that I was learning from them. I’ll admit that I had never heard of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, or The Alternative Limb Project. I was shocked when Fashioneyesta discussed how somebody had told her: ‘‘If you believe in God, you will get your sight back”, and how this made her feel. I was mortified when I heard that Annie Elainey received comments such as “Bless you or I’ll pray for you”, which, she reflects, implies that her “whole existence is worth pitying”. I was outraged when she presented hate-mail stuck on the cars of those with invisible conditions, who had parked in disabled bays.
That I learned something from each of these people and that I came across things I had never come across before, even with my own condition, really had an impact on me. It shows that these vloggers are making people, in their hundreds of thousands, think about disability in new and different ways. YouTube, it seems, is acting as a space to start meaningful conversations about disability, where people talk freely about their experiences of living with a disability, tackle abuse and misconception and educate the world about the reality and normality of living with a condition.