Broadcasting the Authentic Perspective of Blindness: A Conversation with a Blind YouTuber Who Is Advancing a Positive Image

MARK RICCOBONO: It's been a pleasure.

Okay. We have one more presentation this evening, and this is a conversation I think you'll enjoy. This is broadcasting the authentic perspective of blindness, a conversation with a blind YouTuber who is advancing a positive image.

I am not going to introduce her, but I am going to introduce the person that's going to lead this conversation. I first heard our presenter this evening at a kind of a Federation gathering. It was our hosting of the 2016 general assembly of the world blind union. And I have watched Molly Burke's work develop over the last four years or so. And when I thought about inviting her to talk about how to engage and build a social media presence that presents images of blindness and the messaging that's consistent with the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind, I thought it would be better to have one of our members engage with her. And so I've invited this evening Mary Fernandez. As you know, Mary is a member who has been helping to share our messaging in many ways, including working with our young professionals. She has led our participation in building youth engagement efforts for the world blind union through the North American Caribbean region. She's been appointed to do that, and has been leading those conversations. You know her from the many things that she has done in this organization, and you heard in the presidential report she recently graduated from Duke with her MBA. And she is going to be now a consultant with Cisco. I told her she'll never forget my birthday, because that's her start date at Cisco. So congratulations, Mary, and I'm looking forward to this conversation that you're going to facilitate. So here is Mary Fernandez!

(Confident by Demi Lovato playing).

MARY FERNANDEZ: Good evening, fellow Federationists, and thank you so much, President Riccobono, for that kind introduction, also for the amazing intro song. What's wrong with being a little confident, indeed?

I'm delighted today to be speaking with someone that I'm sure most of you have heard of. Molly Burke was born with a rare degenerative eye disease, and at the age of 4 she was diagnosed. She lost most of her vision by the time that she was a teenager. Molly has been using YouTube to share her story and share a positive attitude and vision of blindness. So it's my pleasure and delight to be with Molly today. Before we get started, I'd love to provide full access, and I know that Molly is into fashion, I'm into fashion. So very quickly, I'm wearing a silvery shirt, I have short curly hair, caramel skin color and bright lips and a smoky eye going on, and long earrings

MARK RICCOBONO: Wait a minute, what about your shoes?


MARY FERNANDEZ: (Laughing) you can't see them, but I'm wearing gorgeous Michael Kors really high heels. Molly, thank you so much for being with us this evening

MOLLY BURKE: Thank you, you're rocking a way better outfit right now than I am, Mary, I'm being put to shame. Rock your Friday night look, I love it

MARY FERNANDEZ: What are you wearing?

MOLLY BURKE: I'm literally wearing a hoodie and sweatpants.


Because I'm literally wearing my best quarantine look.

MARY FERNANDEZ: I love it. I remember earlier this week we talked about how you got started with public speaking and how when you were five someone gave you a mic and you never stopped. Talk about what got you into YouTube and what keeps you going now?

MOLLY BURKE: I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa when I was 5 years old, and I was put in touch with the foundation fighting blindness and they asked me to speak at an event and I was 5 years old and I had no idea what I was doing and they told me to say a line, but when they handed me the mic, I was like, this is what I was made to do. I wanted to be an actress. That was my dream growing up. I loved performing. But when I lost the majority of my vision at 14, I looked at the entertainment industry and didn't see myself. So I really believed I had to give up on that dream. Luckily, on my journey to recovery, I was able to realize that dream and realize I could still achieve the dream of working in the entertainment industry, I just have to do it in a different way. And honestly, the way I do it now adds way more value and has more meaning than someone sighted just going into the industry

MARY FERNANDEZ: What we love about having you be part of the community is that authentic representation of blindness. And what's so appealing is that you're just living your life, and that's the thing we really believe at the NFB, that we live the life that we want. And you're basically documenting that. So I wanted to ask you a bit about how you maintain that authentic Molly Burke, the person, and the Molly Burke, the brand. Because you're a big deal, and everyone knows you on YouTube. So how do you maintain those?

MOLLY BURKE: Thank you so much, first off. Um, you know, I think I made it easy on myself because my goal was always just to be myself, to be authentic, to share my story, my real journey with people. So it takes off the pressure. I never have to figure out who I'm supposed to be, because I'm just being myself always. You know, sometimes the things that I think and the way that I feel doesn't make everybody happy. But that's not what I'm here to do. I'm here to share my authentic self and hopefully make a positive impact doing that

MARY FERNANDEZ: Thank you so much for doing that, because I think sometimes we feel like we have to put on a perfect life on social media. Maintaining who you really are is really important. I want to go back to something you said at the beginning around representation and how in pop culture and media you weren't seeing anyone like you. Why was it important for you to openly and clearly own your blindness on YouTube when you launched? And what message do you think that has given the world, and how does it continue to evolve?

MOLLY BURKE: You know, on my journey to recovery, after going blind, I dealt with a lot of depression, I was suicidal, I was being bullied. On the road to recovery, I learned to stop viewing blindness as a negative and view it as an asset. I could take something that society views as a negative about me and view it as a positive. When I started the channel, the goal was really to break down the negative thoughts that society has about disability. Because I was really born and raised in the medical model of disability, and thankfully had an incredible disability mentor who shifted me to the social model of disability, which was the most incredible thing I could have found in the journey. I wanted to bring that perspective to society, because so much of able bodied society only hears about the medical model of disability, that it's something we should treat and cure and decrease in people, rather than something we should embrace and try to change society to include people of all disabilities. It was something that I was scared about because I knew the only representation we did have I believe is not representative to the blind experience, or at least did not represent my experience. A lot of the stereotypes I faced in my life was due to the inaccuracy of the way we were being portrayed in media. So I wanted to combat all of that, but I was so scared. I was so scared to share anything that made me seem blind. You know? I would edit out any moment where I wasn't looking straight at the camera, if I was looking a little bit off, or any moment I held up the product but the label was backwards or upside down. I was like, oh, I'm going to look so stupid, society is going to view us that way, that we're incapable and unaware. Then I started to realize it was unfair to myself and our community to only show a very perfect perspective what it means to be blind. It also makes those things into negatives by not sharing them. By showing it and just laughing at it, embracing it as a piece of who I am and something silly that happens, it takes the negative out with it

MARY FERNANDEZ: I think those instances are particularly important, because, one, they just show that we are above all human, and all humans make mistakes, and we all do crazy things that look crazy (laughing) all the time. But yet, it's this ableist idea that, like, your story or who you are, one, represents all blind people, which it doesn't. But also, B, that, like, if you make a mistake, it's attributed to your blindness, not to your humanity.

MOLLY BURKE: Exactly. And I completely agree with what you say. I cannot represent all blind people. I'm Molly, and I'm blind, and I've grown up really immersed in this community, but I can never properly accurately represent everybody, every voice, every lived experience of blindness. And I always try to make that really really clear, because I know I do have a lot of able bodied followers who are fully learning about blindness simply through my content. I want to make sure they understand that, you know, I cannot be looked to as THE story of blindness. And I really encourage every blind person who is also as passionate about representation, about breaking barriers and misconceptions, who is as passionate about education as I am, to use their voice and social media truly is an amazing platform to do so

MARY FERNANDEZ: That's a perfect segue into what I want to touch next, which is social media and leveraging it to elevate our voices and to change perspectives. So what advice or thoughts would you have to share with our NFB members, many of us are activists -- we're all activists that are here, and we have intersecting identities and are passionate about social justice and changing the world. How do we best leverage social media and our stories to do that some --?

MOLLY BURKE: Yeah, intersectionality is huge. We all identify as more than just being blind, but you might never meet another blind Black gay man, but they do exist, and the internet is a great place to build those communities because you're reaching far and wide. Any niche interest or hobby you have, you can find that on the internet and build a community around it. I certainly never expected my community to grow as large as it has. It's been incredibly rewarding to see. But it's the perfect space to do it. I started out purely traveling full-time as a motivational speaker. And I ultimately realized, as much as I enjoy performing on stages and going to events, I'll never be able to reach as many people through that as need to hear my story, or as need to feel connected. And the internet is a space where three years later you can still type that right combination of words and find a video that I made about a topic you might be interested in or resonates with your journey. That's what's been amazing, seeing people all over the world reaching out that they're from a really small rural town in Chile and they don't know anyone else who is blind and now they feel less alone and more connected to a community and seeing my fans and building their own communities with each other. So it's really a special place, the online community

MARY FERNANDEZ: If someone is trying to break into it, what advice would you give if they're trying to share their story?

MOLLY BURKE: There's a lot of practical advice I can give. I don't know if that's helpful for people. The most practical advice I can give is ultimately, at the end of the day, you're feeding an algorithm. So if you're not going to be posting consistently, people won't be fed your content through the algorithm. So strategically, posting consistently is important. But I would say building community and connections. When I started on YouTube six years ago, there was literally less than five disabled creators -- not blind creators, disabled period. It was a very limited space, and you were competes against very well established communities. But even though one of us was in England, one was in Canada, one was in the U.S., and we were super spread out, we connected with each other, gave each other shoutouts, reached out to social media conferences and said, hey, you should have people talking about accessibility at your conference on the internet. And we banded together and forged this path ahead. It's incredible to see now how many people with disabilities are authentically sharing their story and message and making a full-time living doing so. It's incredible

MARY FERNANDEZ: I love that. Molly, I wanted to go more into your philosophy about blindness. It's pretty clear that you're just living your life. But I wanted to ask, has there been a time or instance, a specific example, that you've seen your message or story has specifically created a change in perhaps a place or time or space when it wouldn't have happened otherwise?

MOLLY BURKE: I really for a long time felt like all I could talk about on social media, my role on social media, was to like be the blind advocate, and only ever talk about my blindness. And I got to a point where I realized I'm sitting here trying to tell people how normal I am, but all I'm talking about is the thing that makes me different from society.


MOLLY BURKE: And I gave myself permission to, like, make content about makeup, because I love makeup, and about fashion, because I love fashion. And about all of these things where I didn't even need to say once in that video that I'm blind. And by allowing people to watch a 20-minute video where they forgot that I am blind, I was actually able to make potentially an even bigger impact on the way they view blindness and disability as a whole. The amount of people who have reached out saying that they've either chosen to get into the field of working in disability or who have created friendships with disabled people in their community because of seeing my videos and their mind being changed about what it really means to be disabled has been incredible. Or people coming up to me saying "I didn't realize that my school had no braille signage until you said it, now I went to my principal and we have braille signage everywhere" these are small individual differences to people's lives. But I know ultimately it will help create a larger change

MARY FERNANDEZ: Great. Before we finish, I want to touch on something very important, which is all the negativity we get online when we start sharing our stories and the fact that we'll always make mistakes because we're documenting, in a lot of ways, our growth. Tell me, how have you found healthy ways of dealing with any negative feedback or criticism or trolling that has come your way? And what are some healthy methods or things that we can do in order to deal with those things?

MOLLY BURKE: Yeah, that is definitely a part of it. When you go online, ultimately the beauty of it is that anybody can access that information. But that also becomes the challenge, is that anybody can access it. And the biggest thing that I've faced when I started my channel was people believing that I was faking blind, because I didn't fit this one stereotype that they had seen of blindness in Daredevil or whatever other space they've consumed something about blindness. But I saw that as a challenge. I didn't let it tear me down and make me feel bad, but to fuel my fire to tell my story because my story is important and matters and the ways I needed to make a difference further still. I feel like it's the same way, I was bullied from grades 1 through 12, my whole way through school. But I let it tear me down a lot at first. But I got to a place in my journey where instead of letting it tear me down, I learned to validate myself and not seek validation from others. To learn to love and be confident and happy in who I am and not impress other people. That's how I approach my content. Like I said, not everyone is going to be happy. Not every blind person feels that I represent them. Which is totally fair. Some blind people look at my content and feel like it resonates with their journey, but not all blind people. A lot of blind people say I don't like that you made this video because I don't feel like it's accurate. I say, I understand why you feel that way, but it's accurate to me. That's why I made it. So ultimately I'm not even going to make content that makes everyone in this community happy. But you have to ultimately do what you think is right and correct and important and let the negativity fuel you forward

MARY FERNANDEZ: Yeah, I'm one of those people that believes that if you're not offended somebody somewhere, you're probably doing something wrong.


MOLLY BURKE: I love it.

MARY FERNANDEZ: So that's just my personal thought. But also just this idea of figuring out what it is that you stand for, figure out what your truth is, because our truth, our individual truths, resonate with somebody somewhere, and that's what ultimately we're trying to do when we share our stories. .

Molly, we have about two minutes left. Are there any final thoughts or things that you want to share with us?

MOLLY BURKE: As I said earlier, we need as many voices as we can. And so I really do encourage people, if they've ever been interested or curious, give it a shot. Post online. Because it's an amazing community of people out there now. Like I said, it's grown so much further than what it was six years ago when I began. And just be yourself. It's scary, it's hard sometimes, but it is so rewarding. I'm so grateful. I'm so grateful to the community around me and the fact that I've been able to make a career out of this. I really believe that the fact that we can change people's perspectives, change people's lives and build our own representation for ourselves and not wait for somebody else in Hollywood to see us and believe in us, how much more empowering can it get?

MARY FERNANDEZ: Yeah, and that's the beauty of the age that we live in. It's the curse and the beauty that we no longer have to wait for somebody else to tell our stories. We have so many tools and access to be enabled to spread it across the world on our own. With that thought, thank you so much for your time. It's been amazing to get to know you this last week as we've prepared. And I'll be tuning in. Just really quick anecdote: I didn't know about Molly Burke until I started personal training. And my trainer, she's like, obsessed with you!


MOLLY BURKE: Tell her I say hi! (Laughing)

MARY FERNANDEZ: I will. She was like, I need to show you this video! Okay, yeah, now I've heard about Molly Burke. So that's how I found out about it. It's been great to get to know you, the real you thank you!

MARK RICCOBONO: Thank you Mary, thank you Molly. We hope that you will become an active member of this community and the National Federation of the Blind and help our members continue to tell their stories. And Mary, I know you didn't have to pack as many shoes this year for the convention, but I'm glad you're staying authentic with who you are and on style as always. Thank you both for being with us. We'll have one more set of door prizes before we close out this evening's session!