This May, Richard Corbett will find out if his YouTube channel, Wheels2Walking, has won the Shorty Award for the top Health and Wellness influencer of 2019. Unfamiliar with the Shorty Awards? Corbett will likely forgive you. Until recently, Corbett, 31, an incomplete L2 paraplegic, wouldn’t have known the Shorty is the most prominent award for annual social media and digital achievements either. Less than three years ago, he didn’t have a single social media account. In fact, he didn’t want to exist online in any capacity — he wanted to be invisible.
With only one barely-used Facebook account between them, Cole Sydnor and Charisma Jamison were basically invisible on social media when they created a YouTube channel two and a half years ago. Today their channel has over 230,000 subscribers and millions of combined views, but back then they simply aspired to educate friends and family about the ins and out of Sydnor’s life as a C5-6 quadriplegic.
Shane Burcaw, 27, started blogging on a lark, looking to share his humorous take on living with spinal muscular atrophy. He hoped his honest prose would launch him into a career as a writer — four books later, it’s safe to say it has — but he likely never could have imagined it would also lead him to his future wife or that the two of them would be nominated for the 2020 Shorty Award “Best YouTube Ensemble.”
opens in a new window
Together, these three stories provide insight into the unique and unpredictable ways our community is embracing social media to entertain, educate and, yes, pay the bills. Beyond the fake news, targeted advertising and questionable tracking, social media has shown a genuine ability to unite by allowing people to share and discuss questions, issues and their daily lives. You’d be hard pressed to find a community that has benefitted from this more than ours.
If you were injured 20 years ago and wanted to see what other people with similar injuries were up to, or how someone with a similar disability did something, your main options were NEW MOBILITY and Rutgers’ CareCure forum. Today, a quick search of YouTube returns hundreds, if not thousands, of videos, ranging from homemade to professional, documenting every which way to do pretty much anything with a disability.
Whether it’s Corbett’s in-your-face approach, Sydnor and Jamison’s personal appeal or Burcaw’s humor and wit, each of these content creators has figured out how to increase awareness and elevate conversations around disability in ways they find rewarding and fun to create.
Where to Watch and Follow
Sample YouTube Video: How to Fly Independently in a Wheelchair, opens in a new windowyoutu.be/PasQHVplqs0
Website: opens in a new windowWheels2Walking.com
Podcast Link: opens in a new windowWheels2Walking.com/podcast
A Story Worth Sharing
The seven years between Corbett’s injury in 2010 and when he joined social media were a bit of a roller coaster. “I had a number of things I was really ashamed of, having a spinal cord injury being one of them,” he says. “I went through a really tough addiction to opiates. I didn’t want anyone to know me online, I wanted to be a ghost.”
That began to change in 2017 when his nephew came to visit for a couple of weeks. The two of them made a few videos about their adventures to show his mom what they were up to. Corbett posted the videos online and came away with an unexpected response.
“It was fun,” he says. “After my nephew left, I stayed on. I got addicted to the scroll and enjoyed looking around at what people were doing. At that time, I only had Instagram, but I started filming myself doing workout videos.”
Initially, Corbett kept his wheelchair out of the videos and held back on sharing his personal story. “It was a good ego pump,” Corbett says. Between jobs, Corbett had been looking for a creative endeavor he could take charge of. A production artist by trade, he quickly picked up video editing by watching other professional video makers that didn’t have disabilities.
“At first, I wasn’t sure what story to tell, so I just started filming everything that I did differently because of the disability,” he says. “So, anything from going to concerts to grocery shopping. Just the basics.” The response shocked him. “Even early on, my videos got a few thousand views. People with and without disabilities were saying how helpful it was and that they were cool to watch. I just thought, ‘This is wild and unexpected!’”
opens in a new window
The surprising response and the accompanying circumstances led Corbett to a decision he could not have imagined just months earlier. “I wasn’t busy and feeling bored creatively, so I figured, let me try doing this for real,” he says.
For Corbett, doing things “for real” meant looking at the project like a startup, and understanding that the business and marketing elements were as important as the video production. “I contacted a friend of mine who helps people set up the backend of things — the website, the email list, photography and branding for Wheels2Walking to make it a full thing,” he explains.
As much as he enjoyed the buildup, Corbett found himself overwhelmed and frustrated with the realities of how long quality video production took on his own. He set out to find someone to help shoot and edit the kind of videos he needed when he was first injured: “Real nitty-gritty and descriptive stuff to explain the gravity of decisions and consequences in a way that is usable with resources and suggestions to help alleviate the kind of struggles I had to learn the hard way,” he says.
Corbett found the perfect person to help him realize that vision in Andrew Deitsch. The two met when Corbett was a guest on Deitsch’s podcast. “It was during that first interview I had with Andrew that I opened up publicly about my disability, my past, my addiction,” he says. “It’s a story I hadn’t told before, and it was a huge step for me. All of a sudden, I felt like, ‘I do have a unique angle to share with the world and now I have a way to do it that people seem to dig.’”
“I wanted Andrew to come on as my Wheels2Walking partner because he’s talented and helped me find my inspiration. I knew he wanted a podcast studio, and I had an extra room, so our collaboration started basically as a bribe,” adds Corbett with a chuckle.
The two have now committed the bulk of their professional lives to the project. Beyond their successful YouTube channel, they have a Wheels2Walking podcast that they live stream on video, as well as a number of popular social media accounts.
From the start, the two pooled their knowledge and educated themselves on social media best practices, and these decisions were validated by the rapid growth of viewers and subscribers. “We thought about hashtags and best ways of cross promoting. Something from YouTube would go viral on Facebook weeks later, and people would come over to Instagram,” says Corbett. “Suddenly, we had videos getting 1.7 million views.”
Where to Watch and Follow
Cole and Charisma
YouTube: Roll with Cole and Charisma
Sample Video: Quadriplegic’s Night Routine,
opens in a new windowyoutu.be/heocaJ_GV7E
Turning Love into Likes
Sydnor and Jamison didn’t care much about online visibility when the two began noticing one another across the rehab gym where she worked and he worked out. Despite some subtly flirtatious moments between reps, it was a mutual follow on their seldom used individual Instagram accounts and some strategic photo “likes” that prompted Sydnor to, as he puts it, “Slide into Charisma’s DMs [direct messages].” So technically, the pair didn’t meet on the Internet. But online is where they found a way to connect, not only with each other, but with fans from across the world who have enjoyed the intimate and educational Roll With Cole and Charisma social media content they produce about living as a couple affected by spinal cord injury.
Less than a year into their relationship, Jamison suggested that she and Sydnor start a collaborative YouTube channel. “I brought up the idea of starting a vlog one day randomly in the car, and really, I think he kind of just said yes to make me happy,” says Jamison of the man who is now her fiancé. “The reason it crossed my mind was because people kept asking me, ‘How does your relationship work?’”
“It made me think. I hadn’t really been able to look up much to answer some of the questions my friends and family were asking me now about spinal cord injury for myself initially, either. There is a lot of curiosity about how Cole does certain things and what is possible for us as a couple. So, it started out as a way to answer and educate by showing people we knew some perspective on our life together.”
opens in a new window
Friends and family grew to a few hundred people, then to a following that blew up to thousands over a relatively short amount of time. “We continued, because we felt like it was helping people realize something important,” says Sydnor. “People valued us sharing about the activities we did and how we can travel. We were having fun working together as a team, and it challenged us in a way that felt rewarding and adventurous.”
What started off as a hobby and a fun project began to evolve after they posted a video that showed Sydnor walking in an exoskeleton. Allowing their audience an eye-level view of their first standing hug paid off. The view count shot up to 10,000 views, and then more than 100,000, within a couple of days. “It was wild, but it felt good and brought in a ton of subscribers. We actually hit the thresholds enough at that point to monetize our channel,” says Jamison.
As the channel’s viewership grew, so did the team’s commitment. “It made us start putting more time into things,” says Sydnor. “We started planning so that we could elevate our idea development and execution to take our education potential to the next level. We reinvested with better equipment and time spent editing. I think that has helped to bring in more people, because they know we’ve taken our time. In return, they invest their time and stick with us as engaged fans.”
Where to Watch and Follow
Hannah Aylward and Shane Burcaw
YouTube: Squirmy and Grubs
Sample Video: Why We Turned Down Dr. Phil, opens in a new windowyoutu.be/prjdlTVT5uk
IG: @shaneburcaw and @hannahayl
Website: opens in a new windowlaughingatmynightmare.com
Blog: opens in a new windowlaughingatmynightmare.tumblr.com/
Engaged and Engaging
When Burcaw started his blog nine years ago, he hoped some of his ridiculous stories and vignettes about life with spinal muscular atrophy might resonate with others, and even early on, it was clear they did. He quickly built a large, growing fanbase and attracted literary agents and publishers. Among those fans was Hannah Aylward, 24, a self-professed introvert and social media neophyte.
In 2016, long before anyone knew her as Squirmy — a nickname Burcaw later gave her for her restless sleeping style — Aylward sent him a late-night email, kicking off a year-long internet romance that led to the two moving in together and her dubbing him Grubs because of his sweaty hands. They introduced the public to Squirmy and Grubs in 2018 by rolling out their branded YouTube and Instagram accounts.
Today, the future husband and wife reach a growing community of fans together, casually engaging viewers with their easy chemistry, abundant smiles and a shared plucky sense of humor. With charm and wit, the pair finds creative ways to inform strangers about subjects that run the gamut from intimate facts about Burcaw’s condition, to revelations about the frequent insensitivities the couple encounters from strangers, to simple posts about what made them smile that week. “The biggest driving force in our work is a desire to correct the damaging misconceptions that exist about disability. The size of our platform places us in a position to influence the way society thinks,” says Burcaw. “Beyond our message and purpose, we get to film our adventures every day and call it a career. Plus, making our videos is also just a lot of fun.”
opens in a new window
Both Burcaw and Aylward feel humbled by their fans’ support and the increased credibility it has given them to speak up about accessibility and inclusion. The couple has enjoyed numerous opportunities to travel and speak about their work and disability. In 2019, a production team from the Today Show flew out to Minneapolis and filmed them for a day, allowing them to share their story with a nationwide network TV audience.
Return on Investment
Thanks to their 550,000-plus subscribers on YouTube, Burcaw and Aylward are drawing a steady income from YouTube AdSense. Still, it’s not something they feel comfortable enough with to rely on as a forever plan. They also receive income from other sources, including Patreon, a membership platform where subscribers can directly support creators financially, often in return for unique benefits. “Diversifying our income has been super important, so that if AdSense revenues are low one month, we have speaking engagements, brand deals, Patreon and book royalties to rely on,” says Burcaw.
YouTube AdSense has been a strong revenue source for Sydnor and Jamison, but they feel the fluctuations and know that the money is not guaranteed. “On strong months, we start thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, we’d be able to buy a 2000 square foot home!’” says Jamison. “But then, the next month, the money is not there and we go stock up on ramen.”
Sponsorships have helped even out the couple’s income, but they are selective about with whom they partner. “We try to focus on sponsorships that align with what we are actually able to use and that benefit us uniquely as an inter-abled couple,” says Sydnor. “If it helps improve a quad or caregiver’s life and makes sense from all sides, we feel good about promoting something to our viewers.”
With a wedding later this year and a desire to grow their impact through freelance and other projects beyond YouTube, the couple feels the heat. Luckily, they like a good challenge. They are thrilled with cool gigs that have stemmed from their social media presence, like a TedX talk they did this fall and a current collaboration where they are helping produce content with a local hospital.
Corbett and Deitsch are also relying on AdSense and Patreon, and also looking to expand with partnerships that align with their core values. They are still in the red in regards to Wheels2Walking, but Corbett sees gains and is comfortable with the deficit. “That’s how startups usually work,” he says. “You gotta put in a huge chunk in the beginning and work, work, work for a couple of years until you are profitable.”
A Full-Time Job
Making a living by posting videos of your daily life may seem like a dream job, or at least a fun endeavor, and while everyone in this story makes a point of saying they are enjoying the pursuit, they were all adamant about the same thing: it’s no cakewalk. “We love having a channel, but it does take up a significant amount of our time,” says Burcaw.
Aylward explains, “I think our biggest low is just the overall struggle to constantly create. Having a YouTube channel is like an exciting dream 95% of the time, but there’s a very real mental and emotional side effect that comes with sharing our life so much.”
Managing social media and writing projects is a full-time job for the couple. They aim to upload one video every other day, which requires at least three to four hours filming or editing. Beyond that, around five hours per day is spent answering emails for backend planning from potential partners and engagement clients. The growth of their following has corresponded with a growing number of invites to events and appearances. “We can get worn out,” says Burcaw. “There are times when we just don’t feel like having the camera pointed at us, but you have to push through those moments to be successful.”
Learning to push through the grind is something Sydnor and Jamison can identify with. “Creating content that reaches and helps other’s understanding has been a fulfilling privilege, but it’s definitely a full-time thing for us now,” says Jamison.
Early on, Sydnor and Jamison hadn’t nailed down set hours, so they ended up working every day of the week and sometimes staying up till 2 a.m. to complete a project. “It wasn’t really healthy for us or our creativity, so we now force ourselves to work only from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday,” notes Sydnor. He now does the edits on Tuesdays and Thursdays only, is enjoying it more, and has realized he has a knack for it.
Corbett and Deitsch have also discovered the benefits of a regimented schedule. As things stand, the team has designated shoot days, podcast days and regular planning meetings. Working more than full-time on things, Corbett finishes up at the gym around 11 a.m., gets to business soon after, and works until 8 or 9 p.m. On Fridays, he makes a point to end the day by 6 p.m. and to spend the weekend with his girlfriend, unplugged from social media and his work altogether as much as possible.
As the editor and behind-the-scenes guy, Deitsch does a lot of the time-intensive heavy lifting, which Corbett admits is a godsend. “It’s sick what he does, and so crazy good because he’s in it for the equity too. We both know that we are building something for a legacy that will pay off for both of us in the future,” says Corbett.
For Corbett, the future is in community. “I want to change the dialogue, and I can use the platform of Wheels2Walking to better unite people with disabilities and work around some of the dead-end quarreling amongst ourselves just because we are all different,” he says. “I’d like to be a voice that helps rally people and says, ‘Hey, wait, let’s talk about some things we have in common and unify on some of the big issues and make some improvements in things like accessibility, healthcare and getting the equipment we need.’”
He and Deitsch are excited about expanding their offerings and trying new things in their videos. “One of my favorite things to do is collaborate, so I want to meet up with others as I travel,” says Corbett. “I love learning new things about the ways other people with disabilities live, plus we get to mutually influence and introduce each other to our networks.”
Along with planning their wedding and hanging out with their new pup, Burcaw and Aylward are looking forward to continuing the growth of their YouTube channel and their social media audience. The pair are also hugely excited to be collaborating on a book, Burcaw’s fourth published work and Aylward’s first. “We are interviewing 30 inter-abled couples and profiling their love stories. It’s a huge project, but we are honored to be the ones writing it,” says Aylward.
In a similar vein, the future Sydnors are anticipating an exciting future together, both personally and professionally. They are looking at expanding beyond their social media roots to engage in more live community engagement. Having seen the potential impact of their storytelling, they want to use their skills to help others share their experiences. Still, their YouTube fans are huge in their lives and they will continue to share their experiences and raise awareness.
As Sydnor explains, “People are curious about spinal cord injury, relationships, caregiving and unique lives, and that’s OK. At the core of everything we do, is love. We want to do anything we can to support and show someone that it doesn’t matter what your circumstances are, that love is possible. That it comes in all different forms, and that’s how it should be. It’s beautiful.”
The Troll Toll
The level of entrepreneurial hustle needed to sustain social media is not the only downside of being visible. As anyone who has been on the Internet knows, negative backlash lurks within every active comment section. People with disabilities can be targets for ableist vitriol or hateful words from an angry keyboard bully.
Shane Burcaw and Hannah Aylward have learned to twist the negative comments their Squirmy and Grubs content generates to their advantage. “We get hundreds of rude and hateful comments every single day that we try our best to ignore, but it’s hard. Over time, it’s just become motivation. Clearly, there is still a lot of ignorance about disability and relationships out there, so we use the comments as fuel to remind us to keep sharing our story and change the narrative on uninformed ideas,” shares Aylward.
As a part-time crutch user, and low-level para, Wheels2Walking creator Richard Corbett notices the negativity he gets comes from a crowd that may surprise some: other wheelchair users. “I get a lot of hate,” he says “Often, it comes from other chair users who have different mobility than I do. Half of that I like, because it’s criticism that I can use and learn from about things I may be getting wrong, but the other half of the hate is just hate.”
As someone giving information and opinions from his perspective about sometimes controversial disability related subjects, Corbett finds accolades and a generally supportive tone from his nondisabled audience, but gets a mixed bag of fans and flak from other people with disabilities — wheelchair users specifically. “Half of them are all in, but the other half loves to loathe me. I get called lazy because I’m semi-ambulatory, but use my wheelchair a lot,” he explains. “Or, I get called the fake and not even paralyzed. People get hypercritical of my abilities.”
“I kind of like that people talk trash because it sparks a conversation. Sometimes I reply, and other times I don’t. You can’t feed the trolls. The cool part is, my community often steps up and goes to battle for me. I like that because, you know, maybe they were me five years ago. I can’t be mad because I was upset and lashing out at one point in my life.”
Cole Sydnor, 24, and Charisma Jamison, 26, are the creators of Roll with Cole and face an additional type of negativity: racism. “We didn’t expect that one, since it’s not anything we have ever faced in our day-to-day with being an interracial couple, but it’s been bad,” says Sydnor.
So bad, in fact, that the couple were forced to block certain ugly racial phrases and words so that they were no longer visible to them or anyone else. “That helped a lot, but before it was easy for us to get down from a comment. Feeling hurt gave us opportunities to confide in each other and confront things that may not have been said otherwise. We’ve been able to reinforce that no one knows us better than we know ourselves,” says Jamison.
“It’s been a weird realization about the racial tension in the nation,” says Sydnor. “I think a lot of times when people see our channel, they don’t even notice the wheelchair, because they can’t see past the fact that we have two different skin tones. I like to think when they do, they see that interracial or inter-abled, it doesn’t need to be a big deal.”
!function(f,b,e,v,n,t,s)(window, document,'script','https://connect.facebook.net/en_US/fbevents.js'); fbq('init', '3039672892940587'); fbq('track', 'PageView');