Last month we introduced you to Johnny Maynard, aka Crew9t, during our series on the most popular YouTube channels by amputees. In addition to being one of the earliest amputee YouTubers, Maynard has a pretty intense story: He lost his right leg below the knee in an industrial accident in 2010, at just 20 years old.

Since launching his channel a few months later, Maynard has attracted nearly 50,000 subscribers and amassed nearly 10 million total views. We wanted to know more about Maynard’s experience of finding an audience, establishing a voice, and building a community of amputees on social media. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

Why did you decide to start your YouTube channel?
When I was about 17, I started doing videos about World of Warcraft. This actually got me around 500 or 600 subscribers, which is pretty good for somebody who wasn’t even trying. Then I lost my leg, and I was having a lot of trouble with the mental side of being an amputee. I didn’t want people to see my prosthetic, and I definitely didn’t want people to see me without my prosthetic. And my therapist suggested that I should make a video explaining how my prosthetic worked, post it to my YouTube channel, and then have somebody I trust monitor the comments and delete anything negative. But if I got positive comments, it might boost my self-esteem and my perspective.

So I did, and so many people commented. All the comments were empathetic and compassionate, and that made me feel safe enough to put another video up. And then amputees started commenting and saying, “That video really helped me solve a problem, can you help me with this other thing?” And after that I started posting regularly. Any time I had a problem, I would post what I did to fix it, knowing that somebody out there was probably having the same problem. I did a video about how to go up and down stairs. It’s such a basic thing, but I was struggling with stairs. Another video was about how to put on jeans when your knee doesn’t really bend properly and your foot doesn’t bend.

What kind of person would have posted a negative comment? Did you actually get any?
I don’t think my therapist actually expected I would get any. It was mostly to reassure me that I wouldn’t have to see any of them, just in case it happened. Funny thing is, I do get negative comments every now and then. Whenever it happens, I’ll pin the comment at the top and give it attention, and my little army of subscribers will attack that comment and eventually the person will go away on their own.

Photo courtesy John Maynard

It sounds like your channel started out as a support mechanism for you, and ended up being a support community for other amputees. Did you affiliate with any support groups in your area?
At first I wasn’t connected with anybody in the amputee community. It was very hard for me to accept what had happened, so I didn’t want to hang out with other amputees. Then the Amputee Coalition offered me a scholarship to attend their annual conference. That’s where I started making amputee friends. We stayed in touch on Facebook, and if one of us was having a bad day we could message each other.

It was around this time that I actually began to realize that my YouTube channel wasn’t just for me anymore. It was starting to get noticed. I was at the Outlets here in Florida, and I ran into this other amputee there and we just started talking. He asked if I was new to being an amputee, and I said, “I’m about a year and a half in.” And he’s like, “There’s this guy on YouTube who’s about the same age as you, and I’m pretty sure he lost his leg around the same time as you. You should go check out his channel. His videos could really help you.” And I go, “What’s the channel?” and he’s like “It’s called Crew9t or something like that.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, I’ve been hearing a lot about him. I’ll go check it out.”

That’s when I realized that other people were really benefiting from the channel, and that it wasn’t just for me. It was for other people, too. But that realization brought a little bit of a weight with it. When you run a channel like mine, you put up this image in order to give hope and show that life doesn’t end after amputation and that things are still good. But there are days that are not good, where I don’t necessarily want to put my prosthetic on. I’m over it; I’m done. Don’t want to do it. So you have to be very conscious about what you put out there. You don’t want to create a false narrative, but you don’t want to slap people in the face with reality either.

But still, connecting with so many amputees through YouTube has been a blessing that I never thought was going to come from it.

Did your audience build up slowly, or was there any sort of viral moment that helped you break through?
YouTube was just taking off at the point I started out. Apparently a lot of people were going on there searching for information about being an amputee, and they were being directed to my channel. Amputee communities were sharing my videos with each other, because a lot of my videos in the beginning were very instructional.

But the real takeoff for me was when somebody in the comments asked how I lost my leg. So I posted a news clip about it, and people were like, “Oh that’s crazy, you actually lost your leg in a baler?” They were impressed with that. So I thought, why don’t I put up my 911 call so people can hear it? So I posted my 911 call, and I had no idea that that was going to be the video that really took off. But it just shot like wildfire. People were just fascinated with how calm I was. That video hit a million views within the first six months, and then news agencies started reporting on this accident, even though at that point it was about four years old or so. And then a television series called “World’s Most Shocking 911 Calls” did a show on my 911 call, and that pushed me up even more.

Then I started hearing that my video was being used in training seminars for paramedics, dispatchers and whatever. A friend of mine was in school to be a nurse, and I got a phone call from her in the middle of the day and she’s like, “Will you tell these people that you know me? We’re watching your 911 call, and I told everybody that you’re my friend, and they didn’t believe me.” So I’m like: “Um, hi people, I’m John Maynard.” And they were like, “You lost your leg in a baler?” So they had me come in to talk to the class. It’s crazy, the kind of things that happen.

What’s your day job? You’ve had a number of references in your videos about stuff that’s going on at work, without actually saying what do you do for a living.
I work at Publix grocery stores. I typically work from 1 a.m. to 10 a.m., and my job is to unload the trucks when they come in, reload all the pallets, and then break down the new pallets that just came in for the day. Publix has a very weird policy about employees using their name, their logo or anything in any videos on YouTube, so I was always afraid to mention that I work at Publix. And then my store manager — who I did not know followed me on YouTube — he’s like, “Why are you so vague about where you work?” And I said, “Well you know, we’re not supposed to —” and he was like, “No, first of all that policy is outdated, and secondly it’s just that they don’t want you to show your job duties. You can talk about working here, you just can’t talk in a negative manner.”

But yes, I was always very vague. People would ask in the comments, “Dude, where do you work? You’re so secretive. Do you work in the government? Are you in the CIA?” And the truth is, I work at a grocery store overnight.

Having been an amputee for almost 10 years, do you see an evolution in how amputees are perceived?
No question. I run 5Ks and 10Ks — not as well as I used to, but I still enjoy it — and the first 5K I ran after I lost my leg, people were like, “Oh wow, that’s so inspiring. I can’t believe you’re running a 5K.” I even got an award in that race for “most inspirational.” I had finished in 29 minutes, and I was like, “That’s not even a good time, I used to run 5Ks in 21 minutes.” But apparently people considered it incredible that I finished at all.

Flash forward eight years. I took fourth place in a 5K, despite being the only disabled runner in my age group — and nobody was surprised. Able-bodied people are now aware that we are just as able-bodied as them, and that we’re not necessarily handicapped. More and more quote-unquote “disabled” people are really just kicking ass, and people are picking up on it. The idea used to be that amputees and handicapped people were elderly and frail. Now people see that we do everything that everyone else does, we just do it with one arm or one leg, or no arms or no legs. It’s becoming much more routine.

This July will be 10 years since I lost my leg. That’s such a short period of time, just one decade. But in one decade there have been massive shifts and changes. People are starting to get very comfortable and familiar around amputees. We’re no longer perceived as weak, frail or handicapped per se. People are definitely much more aware of us, and I think social media has a lot to do with it. People are able to see us living our lives. So the perception of who we are has shifted a lot. That’s a very good thing.