When she was 4 years old, Molly Burke was declared legally blind and was also informed that she would one day lose her vision completely. She was diagnosed with a rare, genetic eye disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa and by age 14, she could no longer see contours or colors.
Now, 27-year-old Burke is a public speaker, author of It's Not What It Looks Like, advocate, and successful YouTuber with almost two million subscribers. On the video platform, she's carved out a necessary, inclusive space to show viewers what it's actually like to be a young woman who also happens to be blind.
On July 2, Burke posted the video "I Bought My First Home!!" and thus began her series about renovating a condo with design firm Dwell Living to meet her specific needs. Since that time, we caught up with the creator to talk about her home renovation process, accessible design, misconceptions, and more.
Hunker: What were some personal factors that contributed to you buying a condo?
MB: There were a lot of factors, but the biggest one was financial ... In Canada, 80% of blind people are unemployed and in America, I believe it's 75%. So I grew up with the fear that I won't ever be able to financially support myself and that I will be reliant on disability [benefits] — and there is absolutely no shame in that. For those who do have to rely on disability, it isn't their fault, it isn't for lack of trying, it isn't due to laziness. It is due to the fact that society is not built for people like us, and the fact that there's unfortunately a lot of discrimination towards our community.
My goal in life was just to financially support myself and I felt like a good way to do that was to invest in a property. I wanted to rent until I could afford a down payment, so that if I'm ever out of a job ... I would at least be able to sell a property and use that money to rent again if I ever needed to. That's the part of my blindness that really drove me to want to purchase a property.
Hunker: How was the home-buying process different for you?
MB: The biggest factor was location. I needed to be walking distance away from everything I was going to be frequently utilizing — a grocery store, Starbucks, restaurants ... I didn't want to feel cut off. And it's funny, I think a lot of people feel safer in the suburbs ... I'm the opposite. When I'm in the suburbs walking my dog on the street and it's empty, who's [going to be there if I need help]? ... I [also] feel safer in a condo building with security measures in place.
Hunker: What was your overall plan when you first started working on home renovations and making that process more accessible with Dwell Living?
MB: This is something I've never done before and it's something that the Dwell Living team has never done before — specifically creating a home to be accessible to a blind person ... I'm no expert and nobody told me what to do to make it more accessible. I'm just basing everything off of what I know works for me.
I said to [Dwell Living] that it would be great if we could make tactile models of some sort. I asked them if it would be okay for me to go in and touch some properties they had done ... and I'm bringing my mom and dad to every single meeting with me ... because at the end of the day, I can feel the fabrics and tile samples and woods, but I can't see them and I do care about aesthetics. I want my place to be beautiful, not only for me but for resale. So I'm having my parents there to guide the visual part of the decision making and help describe things to me.
Hunker: In one of your videos, you mention that people don't have to go out and buy expensive tools to make situations more accessible. Can you tell us more about this?
MB: I think a big deterrent for people around making things accessible is this idea of how expensive it's going to be. Dwell Living went out of their way to go to a 3D-printing place to get original models, and they weren't nearly as good as the other one that was just [a glue outline from a glue gun] on paper. I think people overcomplicate accessibility by not asking disabled people. That's why I want to do this series because when I was looking at the information out there about building homes accessible to the blind, what I found was laughable and clearly written by able-bodied people trying to be woke.
The plan for this renovation is to make a luxury home for resale, so this is an expensive renovation ... but all of those expensive choices have cheaper alternatives. For example, we're going to be doing a lot with lighting to outline spaces and shapes ... We're doing the most expensive version of that [feature] where we're actually building it into the space, but you can go on Amazon and get sticker-back LED strips for $20 ... There are ways to make accessibility inexpensive.
Hunker: It's also important to see both sides because a lot of people might not think that accessibility can be luxury.
MB: The luxury part was important to me because I do think people often think of accessibility as ugly and very utilitarian. It's simply there to serve a purpose. It's not there to be beautiful. And that is so far from the truth ... You do not have to choose between aesthetic and functionality ... Another reason it was important to me to build this as a luxury home was to show that disabled people deserve to have luxury as well.
Hunker: You mentioned that lighting is important for you — in what other ways do you plan to decorate to fit your specific needs?
MB: I've only ever been able to incorporate tactility with fabrics and different textures of wood in my furniture ... but because I'm actually building the space from the ground up, I'm getting to incorporate tactility in every aspect of this home ... We're looking at textured wallpaper, different textures of tiles ... Every single inch of this home will be incredibly textural.
One thing that's important to mention is, at the end of the day, I'm designing this space to be accessible to meet my needs ... I'm not meeting the needs of all disabled people ... I'm not even going to necessarily meet the needs of somebody with more vision than me. I'm meeting my needs for my vision and my version of blindness ... For example, the door handles that I love are knobs. Knobs are not as accessible to those who might have dexterity issues — lever handles would be. I plan to discuss that, but the choices I'm making are for me in my home ... There are [also] things that will translate to other disabilities ... For all of my handles in the kitchen, I'm looking at something more gnarled with a textured grip that would be good for somebody who has dexterity issues or clammy palms due to a condition.
I'm just trying to think of all these little details, coming from the lens of somebody who is not a professional and is working with a team that doesn't specialize in accessible or universal [home] design. We're both coming at this from a perspective of total newbies and we're just doing our best.
Hunker: Is there anything specific you've had to think about when designing the space for your current and future guide dog?
MB: It's so hard with spaces that are small. It's difficult to tell when you look at the empty condo tour, but it's 1,100 square feet ... and that's hard when you have a large guide dog who's almost 100 pounds ... When I went to look at different spaces, I became obsessed with a built-in dog nook, so I'm hoping that in my kitchen we can have a built-in dog-feeding zone ... As a blind person renting who doesn't have a nook built in for that, it's always difficult to find a random floor space for bowls, and then I have to remember to not kick them.
Hunker: For other people with disabilities, do you have any advice on how they can go about finding a team of people who can help them create an accessible space?
MB: I was really upfront when I approached the Dwell Living team about what I was looking for and what I was expecting, and I wanted to know if that was something they could do. The Dwell Living team is extremely successful — they're lucky enough to be at a stage in their business where they get to pick and choose what projects they work on ... Approaching them with this, they weren't desperate to get another job booked. They were only going to take this on if they actually thought they could do something with it and were excited by the challenge ... I didn't just jump into this with them and they didn't just jump into it with me.
I think it's important to find a team that, number one, isn't desperate for work because anybody who needs a job will say whatever they need to get work ... and to find a team that goes out of their way to research and brainstorm ... Every single consultation I've had, it's been three or four hours and they're not charging extra for that. They're giving me that time to explain things to me so that I'm making informed decisions ... They also physically brought a bathtub into their showroom to see if it felt safe for me to step in and out of.
Hunker: When it comes to what you've read about designing spaces for blind people, what do you want to set the record straight on?
MB: I'm not going to say that this is not necessarily for any blind person, but it is certainly not necessary for the vast majority of us ... It was a statement [in an online article] that was something like, 'In the bathroom, you should make sure to have metal support bars at the toilet and the shower, so that the blind person can toilet and shower themselves without the assistant's help.' I don't know anybody who is just blind — who doesn't have other disabilities — who requires support bars ... Support bars are generally for people with varying mobility issues. I was very disappointed that blind people were being framed in a way that we [all] need help toileting and showering ourselves ... It just gives a very different view of our capabilities.
Another thing that was said — which, if you've ever seen my home tours, you would know is not the route I take — is that [blind people] should have the bare minimum amount of furniture possible so that they have less to bump into. Again, if this is our personal home, we've memorized our way around our home ... We also want to have comfortable homes that are inviting for guests. We don't require you to strip everything back so that we have less to walk into.
Those things make us seem less capable and less aware of our surroundings than we really are.