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Disability and Virtual Worlds: Universal Life

By Kel Smith

Many of us use and enjoy virtual worlds such as Second Life for work and play, and there is a vital demographic of virtual world participants with a wide range of disabilities: visual impairments, motor skill disorders, degenerative illness, limited mobility, and cognitive difficulties.

Many of these people use virtual technology to great social and therapeutic benefit. For these users, avatar-driven 3D environments serve as more than a game. Virtual worlds operate as a form of augmented reality, one where it’s possible to transcend a user’s physiological or cognitive challenges into something extraordinary.

August 2008 marked the launch of Virtual Ability Island, an environment in Second Life created by the Alliance Library System (ALS) and Virtual Ability, Inc. (VAI) to help residents with disabilities become acquainted with the platform. Funded by a grant from the National Library of Medicine, the island provides a place for residents to find fellowship, training and education on topics related to physical disability, cognitive impairments or other chronic health concerns.

The island was designed visually and experientially to offer the best benefit to users with disabilities, fully available to adaptive services and developed in accordance with Universal Design principles. The island contains the following features: wide ramps scalable for avatars in wheelchairs; bright high-contrast signage more easily trackable by users with visual impairments; smoothly landscaped walkways to accommodate many types of users; and training offered in small sets to decrease fatigue.

Testing was performed in stages, with the first challenge being how to best present signage. Signs needed to be readable by the default camera view, which is angled downward at roughly 15 degrees from eye level, so all signs in the island’s Orientation Centre were compensated for the height of avatars using wheelchairs. The standard view in Second life includes the avatar in the frame, so signs were placed high off the ground. Paths and walkways were designed with as few stairways as possible, with no bumps that would make an avatar trip while walking. The surrounding land was modelled to meet the paths as closely as possible.

The question could be asked: why is it necessary to implement such strict accessibility features in a virtual world? After all, no avatar in Second Life is actually physically disabled – why depict an avatar with a wheelchair or guide dog? Why emphasise such physical attributes in an environment as ramps and wide paths?

From a development standpoint, creating specification guidelines with universal design principles in mind has several benefits. It ensures a baseline modality for such tasks as listening to audio playback, viewing visual material, comprehending written information or interpreting the context of an event. One might argue that immersive environments should be governed by the same principles as other web-based media as governed by the W3C (The World Wide Web Consortium) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0); they need to be perceivable, intuitive, flexible, robust and extensible in use. If media is designed to accommodate users with challenges, the overall experience will be holistically improved for all users.

It is also important to realise that all digital applications, including virtual world environments, should be built to consider best practices in interface usability. Many first-time avatars have difficulty navigating virtual worlds with a mouse and keyboard, even with relatively minor hand and arm issues.

Anything that can make the screen easier to read or the cursor easier to move can benefit the user experience. For those who rely on voice recognition software or alternative input devices, a larger or brighter avatar on the screen can be more precisely controlled. Game interfaces are frequently designed to accommodate customisation; interface malleability is often programmed into the console to remap functions at the player’s whim, and this personalisation is often extended to the presentation layer itself.

We must also consider the ways in which users of virtual worlds approach their disability. For some, it is largely a matter of respect. The appearance of accessibility is very important to many disabled users, who view their disability as an integral part of their identity. Simon Stevens, owner of a well-known disability consultancy in Coventry, UK, and a Second Life avatar named Simon Walsh, chooses to present himself in-world with a wheelchair.

“I don’t know how to be non-disabled and I’ve never wanted to be,” he told the Times Online in March 2008. “It’s important that people know; it’s part of who I am, plus I’m a disability consultant in Second Life, too, so I’ve got to look the part.”

Depicting oneself with a disability can also be an issue of comfort resolved through personal customisation. People who have had an impairment since birth consider it a part of how they perceive themselves, and some prefer to have their avatar appear that way.

Creating a virtual world with universal design principles in mind serves as a visual reminder to help users better understand the needs of the disabled. The appearance of accessibility in a physical space, either in a virtual world or in real life, will make a person more likely to use the service. For someone with a physical disability, extra space on a path provides a means of easy navigation from which all users may benefit.

Furthermore, inclusive behaviours leverage the uniqueness of different viewpoints and experiences to provide a form of awareness on behalf of learners of all abilities. As an educational platform, virtual environments offer a synchronous, engaging vehicle to cultivate empathy, thus depreciating the concept that people with disabilities are societal outsiders.

NOTE: Kel Smith is Principal at Anikto LLC ( ), a consultancy, research and training company supporting the creation of barrier-free digital experiences spanning multiple disciplines, markets and contexts.


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