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Friday, November 9, 2012

‘Virtual Ability’ and disabilities within Second Life – Jaded Exonar Reporting......

For many of us, Second Life is a virtual playground of possibilities, a light-hearted virtual holiday from reality - But for some, it’s a lifeline.

In the United States alone, according to the Congressional Committee findings for the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), 43 million citizens out of the total population of about 250 million are disabled. That’s 17%, (one in five) who have some type of disability. This makes disabled people the largest minority group in the U.S.  In the same way that real life poses challenges to anyone with disabilities, Second Life does too.  How would your first day in SL have been if you had control of only one finger to type, or were using voice recognition software to control your computer? 

I asked myself this very question last year, when a close friend of mine wanted to begin her own 'Second Life’.... She lost the use of her hands several years ago in a car accident.  Could she really join the rest of us in SL, and regain some freedom through the virtual world?  I was determined to find the answer.  In the hope that others might discover more inclusion, understanding and support than I ever could have hoped for, I'm keen to take this opportunity to share two of my favourite places in SL.  Thanks to them, my friend can now meet anyone around the world from her wheelchair, talk about her experiences, create her own sims - Her smile is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen, and since she has been welcomed into SL, it's a smile of confidence I can see more and more of.  If you find this even a little interesting, they're really worth a visit and definitely worth passing on to others. 

 Virtual Ability Inc. developed a partnership with The Alliance Library System to create ‘Virtual Ability Island’, using an initial grant from The National Library of Medicine.   

Upon arrival you are surrounded by useful information, support, conference and meeting dates, not to mention beautiful scenery, all helping to provide an immediate sense of community. From the welcome area there’s a clear view of the comprehensive training area, sharing everything needed to begin learning essential SL skills, with clear information boards and practical demonstration apparatus available.

Two colourful training/meeting centres linger on the horizon, with the larger ‘Sojourner Auditorium’ dominating the field of sight – It’s beautifully built, and hosts a plaque created in dedication to Karen Gans (known in SL as, ‘The Sojourner’).  Karen founded the ‘Dreams Community’, supporting education for stroke survivors and people on the autistic spectrum, and was also on the Building Advisory Committee for Virtual Ability Island.  She died in May 2008, her name lent to the grand Auditorium to honour her tremendous contribution.

‘Cape Able’, also owned by Virtual Ability, is managed by RL Virtual Ability board member Treasure Ballinger.  It’s one of 5 award winning sims developed to make SL easier to navigate, and to provide home points for its disabled citizens. 

It is the only sim in Second Life geared towards the needs of deaf and hard of hearing SL residents, as well as all other disabilities. With a Resource Centre using clickable information on the ADA laws, the history of Deaf in America, references to disability related websites, Cape Able also hosts the only authorized virtual world Deaf Chat Coffeehouse which is sponsored by Starbuck's in RL.  In addition, their Gallery exhibits work by deaf and disabled artists across SL and RL, and is based on residential land, allowing them to offer reasonably priced parcels and tier rates.

The Island’s residents, support staff and members make no distinction between those with disabilities and those without – Some choose to share knowledge of their disability, while others do not, deciding to appear completely non-disabled in second life.  But one thing is always clear; without the continuing hard work and dedication shown by everyone involved here, Second Life would be a much colder and far less accessible place to be.  And we would all be poorer for it.


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