Disability and MUVEs – VLENZ Update, No 175, August 10, 2010

“Forget what you can’t do … virtual worlds are about what you can do.”

Disabled can have a new  ‘ real

life’ in  a virtual world …

The entrance to Virtual Ability Island - a new "reality" for the disabled

The ability of virtual worlds such as Second Life to  provide new experiences as well as  “a real life” to those  with disabilities  has to my knowledge not  really been explored in New Zealand  although well publicised overseas. It  also has not been used to make the lives of  the aged, infirm and shut-ins more meaningful, something  that it has almost miraculous possibilities for doing.

But overseas,  particularly in the United States,  the ability to create a cyber version of oneself has been embraced by people with disabilities stemming from arthritis, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, mental illness, autism, wartime injuries and other debilitating conditions,  and their carers. According to a recent issue of the Philadelpia Enquirer the disabled can log on to virtual worlds  to do things they cannot, or are afraid to, do in real life.

Carolyn Davis, an Inquirer Staff Writer, points out that already the disabled can in some ways emulate the feats of  the lead character Jake Sully, the paralysed military veteran in the New Zealand-created, James Cameron-directed movie, Avatar, who uses a virtual body to “live”  in  and infiltrate another “real” world, Pandora.

“Can’t go places without a wheelchair?, “Davis asks, before noting, “In Second Life, you not only can walk, you can fly.

“Is your speech slurred? In Second Life, text chats can let out your inner Shakespeare. “Forget for a minute what you can’t do. In virtual worlds, it’s all about what you can, ” she says. And she is correct. World Second Life can be a boon for those  with physical and even mental limitations.

“I’m building a house on Second Life right now,” she quotes  James Parcher, 85, of West Philadelphia (SL: Huber Grantly), as saying. “For an old guy like me, I can’t get around very well with the arthritis problems I have. On Second Life, you’re young again.”

“People identify in a very intense way with their avatars,”  according to  Sherry Turkle, professor of social studies of science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of the Initiative on Technology and Self..

Inglis House computer lab coordinator Dawn Waller sets up equipment to let Stu Sanderson, 55, an Inglis House resident, work and play Second Life. Picture: Clem Murray/Philadelphia Enquirer

Noting that disabled players, however, often need adaptive equipment to use a computer and to interact with virtual worlds such as  Second Life, Davis  visited West Philadelphia’s Inglis House, which offers services and housing to people with severe disabilities, and which has a computer lab stocked with such gadgets and is filled with residents using computers for writing, playing games, and sending e-mails.

Her article is worth reading  just to see the possibilities in this area although  a pilot project to see if residents and day-program participants could benefit from Second Life, especially by taking continuing education classes from schools with a presence in the virtual world, has wound down with the participants finding it too hard for too little return.

Davis also details Virtual Ability, a nonprofit group based in Colorado, which  was founded by Alice Krueger, 60, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 10 years ago. Her group’s mission is to help the disabled use Second Life, and its Virtual Ability Island is tailored to welcome disabled players, with tutorials and areas to practice manipulating their avatars.

On the island virtual sandwich boards advertise the ALS Association, the Arthritis Foundation, and the Autism Society (Autism Awareness Centre).

Boon for the aged?

For me the Davis article, along with other articles I have read over the years, points to the boon of virtual worlds  for not only the disabled  but for those who are shut-in (and shut-out of society)  through age or other infirmities but still have all their faculties.

Although  Linden Labs may not see the aged as a lucrative  part of their target market  – the aged not being so hip – I feel that is  one direction in which virtual worlds are going to move with extraordinary vigor once the interface becomes more transparent.

I have met numerous avatars whose creators are over 70 in real life   who appear to be repeating and enjoying  the mistakes of their 20s  without a lot of the anguish and angst associated with  that in their real life. There already is a Silver Fox organisation within  Second Life, whose members, despite the real life age of the membership, still appear to have the fun of youth… doing the things they  possibly can no longer do in real life.

Age is not a barrier in virtual world. In fact it is one place that it is often an asset where life experience can be helpful.

Finally, I see a time when, rather than just sitting staring to space those who inhabit our old people’s homes  or live alone and lonely  will be able to move, interact and socialise in virtual worlds just as easily as they once could in the real world.

I, for one, would rather spend my old age, if I live that long, interacting in a virtual world, than slowly devolving into a vegetative state.

Perhaps a MUVE membership and Broadband access might even become part of a pension cheque.

A better option ...spending old age in a virtual world?

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One Response

  1. Disability and MUVEs ? VLENZ Update, No 175, August 10, 2010…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

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