On Thursday night, the Disabled Students Association (DSA) hosted a talk on Relationships and Disability with YouTube personalities Hannah Aylward and Shane Burcaw. Their YouTube channel, Squirmy and Grubs, has garnered over 842,000 subscribers and over 147 million views. Burcaw is the author of three books, and the couple is working together on a fourth.
In their videos, Aylward and Burcaw showcase their interabled relationship, specifically aspects related to Burcaw’s disability. Burcaw has spinal muscular atrophy, which causes skeletal muscle weakness. His condition requires him to use an electric wheelchair. Aylward provides day-to-day care.
DSA decided to reach out to Aylward and Burcaw in large part because co-leader Thais Carrillo ’23 is a subscriber and fan of Squirmy and Grubs.
“I’ve enjoyed watching them myself and with my partner. So it was really me wanting to hear them talk more and talk in this setting and share why I love them so much with the rest of the campus community,” Carrillo said in a Zoom interview with the Orient.
“Their chemistry is just off the charts and they’re so fun to watch. I don’t even watch a ton of YouTube, but I started watching them once we got them on board. And they’re just so fun to watch and I love all their videos,” DSA co-leader Matt Hikida ’22 said in a Zoom interview with the Orient.
One of the goals of the talk is to get the larger Bowdoin community thinking and talking more about disability.
“I’d really like students to hear various stories about things that they haven’t maybe heard of before, or thought of before, and really highlight the joy and humor that exists in relationships where one or both or all parties might be disabled,” Carrillo said. “I think they’re very approachable, and so I think it will be good for the campus to hear them.”
Hikida also hopes that the talk will also change campus perceptions of disability, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I feel like, especially during the pandemic, disability has been seen in a really negative light. And I feel like it’s just been talked about as this bad, scary thing that makes you more susceptible to COVID[-19] or makes you less available to online learning,” Hikida said. “I’m excited to have Squirmy and Grubs come … and educate the general Bowdoin population on what it means to be disabled.”
Aylward and Burcaw began by discussing Burcaw’s life growing up. They told a story about how Burcaw broke his wheelchair when he tried to help his younger brother, Andrew, dunk a basketball when they were kids.
“I know that this is a silly example, but it does show how throughout my life, me and my brother, my family, we’ve always found ways to involve me in whatever we were doing,” Burcaw said.
The couple then talked about their relationship, starting with how they met and eventually got married, and then getting into aspects of their relationship as it relates to disability. They mentioned that one of the most frequently asked questions they get is if it is a burden for Aylward to take care of Burcaw.
“Basically, what we tell people is that caregiving is so built into our day-to-day schedule—not just our relationship, but our day-to-day lives—that we don’t really think about it,” Aylward said. “Caregiving isn’t this big thing that we think about all the time.”
After discussing questions they receive and common misconceptions of their relationship, they moved on to talking about their YouTube channel. In particular, they spent time reading a collection of some of the most outlandish comments they have received on their videos.
A common theme amongst the comments was that they questioned why Aylward would want to be in a relationship with someone disabled, like Burcaw. Some explicitly suggested that their relationship was fraudulent.
“I hope other people took away from the talk that disabled people are also people. And I think that’s something that sounds so obvious,” Hikida said. “But I think it’s something that gets lost a lot. And obviously from the comments, these are thoughts that people have. I hope that Bowdoin people take away from the talk that with ableism, there’s someone on the [receiving end]. And some of those people are like Shane and Hannah, who are really awesome and do really great work, and some of those people are Bowdoin students.”
The couple continued to talk about their relationship, and they ended by answering questions from the audience. Burcaw also left the audience, both those disabled and abled, with advice on how to create change.
“Make your voice heard—and I say this one directly to disabled people. We need more representation out there,” Burcaw said. “I’m not saying [to] make a YouTube channel, but do what you can to share your story and inform the people in your life about what your real lived experience is like.”