Be seen and be heard – YouTubers with disabilities take center stage
Be seen and be heard – YouTubers with disabilities take center stage
Vlogs, pranks, challenges or social experiments: YouTube offers all of this and often all in just one account. Yet no matter the video format, there are many different types of YouTubers – including more and more people with disabilities. Generally, no channel can be without a video describing the vlogger’s own illness/disability and a FAQ session that answers audience questions. But the vloggers offer so much more than that.
The fact of the matter is, they help people with disabilities to get noticed, they are role models and they encourage other people with their videos.
One great example of this is the Normalo TV channel that reveals what makes people with disabilities laugh or cry and showcases what they are able to do. Udo Sist and Gerald Behnke from Potsdam make it their mission to show people with disabilities just as they are. Needless to say, they add a sensor of humor to the mix.
Hamburg native Erdin Ciplak also wants to contribute his part to the subject of inclusion. His channel BlindLife gives us a glimpse into his life as a person with a visual impairment that leaves him with two percent vision acuity. The man from the Elbe River shares information about the (technical) resources that help him to find his bearings in unknown terrain or he tests the tactile guidance strips of his town. His video logs aim to build bridges and break down barriers. And that’s also the mission of many of his "colleagues": they want to fight stigmas imposed by other people and/or society in general.
Darleen, for example, was so bothered by the prejudices she encountered from people without disabilities that it prompted her to take action. "I was annoyed by the many prejudices. Although I am perfectly happy with my life, people typically instantly feel sorry for me. Since I am someone who doesn’t just accept things, I looked for a platform that allows me to reach a lot of people." And that’s how her channel Behindert aber glücklich (English: Disabled but Happy) was born. She regularly shares anecdotes about her life with dysmelia in her vlogs. "I have always viewed my disability as a best friend. Sometimes she can be pretty exhausting, but she is also the reason behind many great moments and memories."
That’s why her channel features anecdotes about trips to the supermarket and the beach with prosthetics. At the same time, Darleen also publishes info videos on her channel, focusing on "Life with a Disability". The 22-year-old does such a great job, she received an award for her YouTube channel earlier this year. Her video "Liebe Dysmelie / Ein offener Brief an meine Behinderung" (English: Dear Dysmelie/ An Open Letter to My Disability) garnered the Youlius Award in the vlog category. "You don’t get the Youlius because you have the biggest community or get the most likes but because a judging panel sees potential in your channel. And since my fellow competitors were so strong, I am now even more motivated to work on my videos and hopefully end some prejudices and stereotypes in our world. Plus, I have also met many wonderful people thanks to Youlius."
In Germany, Kübra Sekin is among the Internet celebrities when it comes to vlogs. The woman from Bochum reaches several thousand viewers on the Aktion Mensch Channel. In doing so, the 27-year-old would like to dismantle prejudices: "First and foremost, it would be wonderful if fears of contact with disabled people were alleviated by my Vlogs. I also want people to see that my everyday life, except for the barriers I encounter, is not unusual." So she takes viewers along on a "train trip in a wheelchair", to the university or a theater rehearsal. And all the while, she says what comes to her mind right then and there.
Unlike Kübra Sekin or Darleen, Leeroy Matata ended up on YouTube by chance. "That actually wasn’t my idea. My friends encouraged me to do it and so I made two or three videos. The response was amazing and so I stuck with it." The U23 national wheelchair basketball player has juvenile osteoporosis and has been in a wheelchair since he was four years old. On YouTube, he is mostly known for his "idiot tests" and street surveys. But he also reveals personal details about his life on his channel and uncovers the prejudices he faces due to his disability. Now and then this is also reflected in the comments below his videos. "I read a lot of comments every day and most of them are kind and friendly, which in turn makes me happy. Unfortunately, I also get racist and discriminatory comments." That being said, the man from Bonn is not perturbed by these comments and adds, "Thanks to people being protected by the anonymity on the Internet, this type of scenario comes with being active online. I don’t have a problem with it, but everyone who considers creating YouTube videos should be aware of this fact. There are always haters or small-time internet gangsters out there."
In contrast, Darleen has experienced quite the opposite when it comes to comments. "I rarely get any negative feedback. I often think that people are afraid to criticize me because of my disability. That’s a shame because constructive criticism still is the best way to help you improve." In addition to the positive feedback she receives, Kübra is always open for this kind of criticism: "For example, I keep asking what my viewers still want to see of me or which topics interest them." But the two female vloggers mostly gets encouragement: "Other people with disabilities often tell me that my videos encourage them and give them strength. That’s a wonderful feeling!", says Darleen. That’s something Leeroy Matata can also attest to: "Most comments are very motivating and positive."
The man with the big fan base recently found out about the impact an eleven-minute video can have. "In a video right before Christmas, I talked to homeless people and let them talk. I was shocked to hear that these people are being insulted, humiliated or even injured on a daily basis. Thanks to the video, the family of one homeless man got in touch with me. At the time, the family thought he was missing or even dead. We then looked for him together and were lucky to find him. Their reunion was one of the best moments of my life."
This example also illustrates the impact social media in general and YouTube in particular has on our lives today. "I can avoid personal contact for the most part, but hardly anyone can ignore YouTube, Facebook et cetera", says Darleen. Needless to say, this also helps to eliminate prejudices and to make yourself heard. Having said that, these young video celebrities don’t considers themselves activists. Kübra, for example, asks: "Can I claim this from myself? I use MY own experiences and personal views to draw attention to the lives of people with disabilities. I'm just one of many! I open a door, so to speak, and the outcome is up to everyone. What I do is very close to myself and I try to strike a balance between myself and the grievances for many other people with disabilities. Whether I succeed or not, I cannot answer. Being an activist means taking a lot of responsibility and in my work I only have responsibility for myself, which is sometimes difficult enough! Maybe I'm an intermediary."
All of them focus on emphasizing that they lead a normal life. For example, Leeroy Matata says that every person has strengths and weaknesses, whether he or she is tall or small, sits in a wheelchair or not. "If there are problems, it usually stems from lack of knowledge and/or reservations. But that’s exactly the point where social media can help make people aware of these problems." However, the wheelchair basketball player doesn’t want to be preachy and this is actually not the primary focus of his channel. "I simply want to entertain people and if I am successful, I have set the wheels in motion to change people’s mindset."
Like Leeroy, others also don’t want to primarily promote tolerance and participation, but prefer to make funny videos. That’s why you can find your typical challenge and prank videos on the channels of Luca Kumm or Welat Ekingen, who is part of the PrankTV MS channel.
At the international level, the American Christina Stephens or AmputeeOT as she is known on YouTube, has already attracted attention in 2013 in a video where she built herself a prosthetic foot using Lego pieces, making her an internet sensation. The deaf occupational therapist still runs her own channel and posts about deafness in the U.S. or prosthetics and things you can do with them. And just like the German YouTubers, she does it all with a lot of wit and a touch of self-deprecating humor.
Keenan Cahill a person of short stature, also achieved YouTube fame thanks to his lip dub videos of recent hits. The American loves to be in front of the camera and performs songs by Katy Perry, Ariana Grande or DJ David Guetta. Keenan even had visits from artists 50 Cent and Jennifer Aniston on his channel.
Robyn Lambird a.k.a. ATREXLIFE follows a different approach with her channel. The woman from Australia has cerebral palsy. She is not just a wheelchair racer but also a model who vlogs about fashion and lifestyle on her channel. Meanwhile, the rights of people with disabilities are also a recurring theme on her channel.
Whether they see themselves as activists or just want to entertain others – social media enables them to interact with their followers and create a more realistic image of people with disabilities. In doing so, they do their part to promote inclusion. Kübra also sees this opportunity as given, but also says: "You can hear us more than before. That is good progress, but far from enough."
They may not be activists as such, but no matter which channel you watch, all of these examples show that the prejudice of thinking people with disabilities need to be pitied is unjustified. They have a lust for life, a great sense of humor and they are charming. And they are seen and heard. And this alone is a change that should not be underestimated, which may eventually bear lasting fruit in society as well.