Meet the YouTubers raising awareness about their disabilities online
A hero or a victim. Disabled people have been portrayed as one or the other in the Korean mainstream media — someone who struggles with or “overcomes” their disability.
Some people have stepped up in the YouTube sphere in hopes to show that people with disabilities are neither. Rather, they are simply ordinary people leading ordinary lives. The JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, recently interviewed three YouTubers with disabilities.
Lee Yu-jeong, who runs her channel Wonderland Jeong with about 12,000 subscribers, has osteogenesis imperfecta (OI), a disorder that makes her bones so brittle that even a small impact can break them. This requires Lee to use a wheelchair to move around.
Whenever Lee encountered people who misunderstood her disability during her school days, she felt the need to create better awareness. She wrote columns speaking out against discrimination and ran campaigns to try and rid social barriers, but her efforts were not enough to make a meaningful impact on the general public.
Lee came to the conclusion that YouTube — where anyone can share their stories regardless of their age, profession or disability status — was the right platform for her.
“I thought if people could actually hear stories from disabled people themselves, it could change their perceptions,” she said. “So I challenged myself to start a YouTube.”
Q. Your video on “call taxis for the disabled” left an impression.
A. Since I’m in a wheelchair, I’ve always been interested in barrier-free mobility rights. I wanted to shed light on the fact that it’s difficult for disabled people to actually call and use the special “call taxis” offered to them. But I wanted to keep it fun, so I took the format of a conversation in the scenario of me trying to book a call taxi. I wanted to highlight what real difficulties disabled people face in the process, in a sort of a black comedy. I felt very proud when viewers commented, “I had never thought about this” or “I realized that I have misconceptions.”
Your video “Wheelchair Heart Signal” about disabled people’s dating lives also saw positive reactions.
Dating reality shows like “Heart Signal” (2017-20) and “Single's Inferno” (2021-22) have been popular. But not a single participant on those shows had a disability. It made me start questioning why. Disabled people want to find love too, and many of them are actual couples. So I thought since I want to see dating shows featuring disabled people, why don’t I make one myself? It doesn’t have a grand message, I simply wanted to show a participant in a wheelchair on a date as something natural. I want this to be a stepping stone for disabled people to become normalized on mainstream dating shows. For my next project, I’m thinking about my version of the reality show “I Live Alone” (2013-), showing disabled people leading independent lives alone.
During the three years you’ve been on YouTube, do you feel that people’s perceptions have changed?
I think a few disabled content creators showing themselves just the way they are changed a lot of perceptions that hadn’t changed for decades. Seeing the lives of disabled people first-hand seems more effective than any type of education. I hope more disabled creators come out and can be one day recognized without even being described as “disabled.”
Twenty-two-year-old Oh Ji-hyun is left with intellectual disabilities after she suffered from frequent fevers and seizures as an infant.
She now runs the YouTube channel Avopeach with her 25-year-old sister Jung-hyun. Ji-hyun’s intellectual disability means she has some difficulty with numbers, but her social skills and communication skills are considered totally normal. Ji-hyun is also a talented singer and is currently active as a soprano in a vocal ensemble.
Jung-hyun said for 20 years, she actually wanted to hide the fact that she has a sister with disabilities. It wasn't until they both became adults that Jung-hyun decided to show her sister off to the world through YouTube.
Avopeach originally started as Jung-hyun’s personal channel.
Jung-hyun: I started the channel to record my daily life in the early stage of the Covid-19 pandemic. I was filming myself put on makeup, and then I realized Ji-hyun had never put on makeup properly before. I wanted to do her makeup for her and also proudly open up the fact that my sister is intellectually challenged. My parents were against it, but I persuaded them that opening up about her disability will help her become more confident. The reactions [to Ji-hyun’s first makeup video] were positive, so we transitioned into a channel dedicated to improving perceptions about intellectual disabilities.
The makeup video also transformed Jung-hyun’s life. Jung-hyun, who was majoring in Mandarin and international trade, had previously thought of her younger sister’s disability as something she had to “take care of.” After running the YouTube channel with Ji-hyun, she started properly studying the field. She obtained a license as a social worker and shifted her career path toward social work.
In your videos, you go to clubs and festivals with Ji-hyun.
Jung-hyun: I really enjoy going out and about, so hanging out at those places was such a natural part of everyday life for me. Ji-hyun actually envied that, but I never thought of taking her there myself. It was only after I started YouTube that I realized Ji-hyun and many other disabled people also want to mingle with non-disabled friends at such places, but it wasn’t so easy. But when she was actually there, she was having more fun than me.
Ji-hyun: When I first heard about clubs, I really wanted to try going there. It was awkward at first, but exciting. I’m so glad I can challenge myself to things I’d never tried before with my sister through YouTube.
You also lightheartedly discuss darker topics like bullying and sexual harassment.
Jung-hyun: I think it was only possible because Ji-hyun has overcome past hurt. Rather than always in a serious tone, we wanted to approach the topic in a fun way. Of course, it wasn’t easy, but we wanted to share our experience so that other people — disabled or not — could get some help. We want to keep showing that people with intellectual challenges lead everyday lives just like those of non-disabled people.
Ji-hyun: Disabilities are not something to give sympathy to or view as bad. I want people to see our videos and finish thinking, “disabilities aren’t a big deal.”
Thirty-year old Kim Han-sol’s YouTube channel OneshotHansol has an impressive 370,000 subscribers. Kim became visually impaired in his second year of high school due to a rare condition. At first, he started his YouTube channel because he wanted to change the stereotypes around people with disabilities. In a video titled ‘Can a blind person ride a bus?’ and its subway version, which both garnered over 2.6 million views, he highlights the reality of Korea’s current infrastructure in which disabled people are virtually unable to use public transportation alone.
“There are a lot of sounds coming from bus stops, but I don’t know when my bus is coming, or where the bus is actually going to stop so I can get on it,” he said. “Even if I barely manage to find the bus, it leaves before I can find the entrance.”
Did you expect you’d become a popular YouTuber?
Not at all. YouTube is a space with so many people and stories, so I didn’t expect people would give attention to me, a regular person who happens to have a visual impairment.
The first time I felt like I was actually making an impact through YouTube was when instant cup noodles started having Braille instructions on them. I made a video about visually impaired people being unable to distinguish different cup noodle products, and one comment said, “What company would put in the effort to write Braille? It’s not like it creates profit.” Nonetheless, companies actually started contacting me to write Braille on their products. It feels incredible that Braille is being used more and more in our everyday lives, partially due to my content.
It couldn’t have been easy disclosing aspects of your personal life.
I have an “acquired disability,” meaning I got it later in life. In high school, I wanted to hide it. I thought being different was something to be ashamed of. But after I entered society as an adult, I started wondering “Why should I be embarrassed about being different and try to hide it?” I decided to reach out to the world myself so that people could also open their hearts to me. Sometimes when I get rude hate comments, it is a bit stressful, but I usually try to shed light on those comments to point out that these are the wrong things to say.
What is your goal as a creator?
I want to consistently tell the story of people in the non-mainstream because I want to make a society in which each and every person is respected. I hope one creator, such as myself, can make a lasting impact.
BY OH YOO-JIN [email@example.com]