At its worst, to be blind on the internet is to be told that you are a liar. “Every time I say I’m visually impaired,” says Casey Greer . “someone will try to shut me down, saying, ‘Well then how did you type this comment?!’ It feels silly that in 2019, I always have to explain that blind people use and love the internet just as much as anybody else.” The antidote? YouTube’s thriving community of blind creators, of which Greer is part.
These creators have become voices for a poorly understood and often overlooked group of people, who, apparently unbeknownst to many sighted people, share digital space with them every single day. If you are sighted, Visual Impairment YouTube answers questions you likely never thought to ask: How do blind people keep houseplants ? Do blind people understand concepts like “translucent” or “reflective” ? How do they use Instagram ? And how do their Tinder matches react when they find out they’re blind? In offering a window into their lives, not only have these YouTubers become de facto educators for the general public, they’ve become rallying points for the broader visually impaired community—a place to share stories and tips about navigating the world, online and off.
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On first examination, YouTube doesn’t seem like the most natural fit for visually impaired people. Along with Instagram, it’s the social platform that relies least on things that can easily be spoken aloud by your screen reader. But for some blind YouTubers, like Tommy Edison , that’s exactly why they got into the game. “I went to see Tropic Thunder and all the resolution was visual,” Edison says. “I’d spent two hours with these characters and in the end, I had no idea what the heck had happened to them.” He turned that frustrating experience into a YouTube channel: the Blind Film Critic .
Edison's troubles didn’t necessarily end there, though. “As far as I know, I was the first blind person on YouTube, and in 2011 when I started, it wasn’t very accessible at all,” he says. “I couldn’t even find the buttons to pause or play a video. Forget about reading comments.” Screen readers, which audibly describe visual text, can only work if developers fill in the fields to tell them what to say—otherwise you end up with silence, or (and this really drives Edison “right around the bend”) buttons that just say, “Button.” 2011 YouTube was a largely silent experience for Edison, and glitchy because those fields were often misaligned. Since then, YouTube has not only recalibrated those problem areas and provided tutorials on using YouTube with a screen reader, but also enabled keyboard shortcuts that automatically take blind users to key features like the search bar. “Now I can [read comments] for hours,” Edison says.
For others, though, video is a more accessible format than you might think. The majority of blind people have some residual vision, and legally blind filmmaker James Rath has been using cameras to help him see the world since childhood. “When I was eight, I discovered in my parents’ basement that cameras are a glorified magnifying device,” Rath says. “My retinas are too weak to read, but if I zoom in enough, checking the composition of a shot is totally possible. I’ve had a YouTube account since I was nine.”
Greer, too, remembers bringing a camera to the zoo so she could zoom in to make out the animals, and has been on Youtube since she was 16. And, as all are quick to point out, there’s a lot about YouTube that’s accidentally accessible: Unboxing videos, reviews, and storytimes are all basically podcasts with talking heads. (The reverse is also true: blind YouTuber Molly Burke has amassed almost two million subscribers by doing regular YouTuber stuff like jumping out of planes , dying her hair , and introducing her dog to a pig .)
These creators are trying to do more than translate experience for the sighted—they employ a host of technical tricks to give their entire audience the best possible experience.
Still, these creators are trying to do more than translate experience for the sighted—they employ a host of technical tricks to give their entire audience the best possible experience. “Contrast is huge for people with low vision,” says Sam Seavey, frontman for the channel TheBlindLife . “You’ll never see me in front of a bookcase. I purposely have a large blank wall behind me. And, much to my wife’s chagrin, I’ll get a really good camera and upload in 4k.” They’re also careful to explain everything they’re doing in great detail. According to Rath, allowing people to upload audio description tracks the same way YouTube allows users to upload captions in other languages is the platform’s biggest missed opportunity to help its visually impaired users.
Of course, being truly helpful and inclusive goes beyond tweaking a video’s look and feel. “I want to be the foremost channel on YouTube for assistive technology for the visually impaired,” Seavey says “I’m very proud that the majority of my audience is visually impaired, and I’ve always geared my channel toward people who are new.” Seavey knows exactly what it’s like to be “new”: His vision has degenerated over the course of his adult life, ending a career working in restaurants and leaving him isolated and unemployed—until he came to YouTube. “If my videos can teach them how to brush their teeth and use a screen reader and which magnifier apps are best, I’m helping out,” Seavey says.Living with disability is a learned skill, and these YouTubers are the teachers.
That instruction is as philosophical as it is practical. “To be brutally honest, people don’t see us," Edison says. "To be able to show a chunk of the world who I am and what I’m capable of is amazing for a lot of different people, including me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a message that says something like, ‘I have a two-year-old blind child and we were scared to death about what his life would be like, but your videos made us feel so much more comfortable.’ Those are the ones that make me cry.” For the creators and their audiences—visually impaired and sighted alike—these channels not only expand their world, but normalize it, too. “It’s such a simple thing, but it’s great for people to see that we’re really not that different,” Greer says.
As Seavey says, this is the best point in history to be living with visual impairment, and in large part that’s because of technology. These YouTubers are not only helping their peers make the best of that incredible new asset, they’re also making sure their community is considered as tech continues to develop. “The way I look at it, accessibility isn’t just for people with disabilities," says Rath. "Being able to do things without looking at them lets you multitask and be more productive, and I think it’s important for everyone to understand those benefits now." Besides, he points out, anyone's circumstances can change: "You may end up joining our community at any time, whether you want to or not.” And thanks to these YouTubers, those new members will have more support than ever.
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