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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Virtual Ability, Inc. – an Interview with Gentle Heron- Stareyes Galaxy Reporting...

Virtual Ability, Inc. is a non-profit organization helping disabled people in Second Life ©. Gentle Heron is the Chairman of the Board of Virtual Ability, running things both on the real Life (RL) and Second Life (SL) side. 
As Virtual Ability is about to launch one of their two main annual conferences, Stareyes Galaxy had an opportunity to have a chat with Gentle, about Virtual Ability and the life of people with disabilities on SL.

I met Gentle at the Welcome Center of Virtual Ability Island, which is the main property of Virtual Ability. They also have the Health Info Island, which is a resource for health information in general, as well as two residential islands that help finance the SL operations. Gentle Heron: “Virtual Ability, Inc. is what we call in the US a 501(c)3 meaning it's a federally recognized charitable corporation. We accept donations, but the main sources of our funding are research projects, grants, and other projects we take on.”

SLE: Hello Gentle, and thank you so much for doing this. I know it is an ungodly early time for you. Can you describe your role in all this?

Gentle: I am the founder of Virtual Ability, Inc. and I have the honor and pleasure of leading the SL Virtual Ability community as well.

SLE: We all have seen some of the decline in businesses getting on SL. Is the support or the willingness of disabled people also declining?

Gentle: Actually we are seeing growth in our sector! Virtual Ability and the projects we work with are increasing. Our mission is inside Second Life, but our funding and professional contacts are outside Second Life.

SLE: You also have a volunteer network in-world. How large is it?

Gentle: Our Virtual Ability group numbers over 800, of which I'd say 1/10 are active at some level. That is a normal percentage for communities. As to the number of PWD [people with disabilities] in SL, it is unknown. Linden Lab does not collect that information. However, a survey was done of "casual online gamers" (I know, not the same) and in their population 1 out of 5 people had some form of disability. And the population of those with a disability tended toward the more severe disabilities, more so than in the general population.

SLE: Do you have an estimate of how many people use your services and facilities?

Gentle: We do not ask, when people use our facilities, if they are disabled or not. In fact, many college profs use the New Resident Orientation Center on Virtual Ability island to bring in their students, instead of bringing them in through because it's safer and more functional training.

SLE: I have seen people on SL riding wheelchairs and such, to accentuate their condition, but I would guess most avatars with disabilities still want to portray a "normal" avatar.

Gentle: Actually that's interesting. I use a power wheelchair now, but most of my life I was a walker. I don't think of myself as being in a wheelchair. So my avatar enjoys walking in SL. We see that more of our folks who've been in wheelchairs all their lives, whose body image includes that chair, as using them in SL. The thing that is cool about SL Is that you can CHOOSE how you appear. You can change gender, species, even become an inanimate object if you choose. There are several research projects going on about identity, self-portrayal, and body image among people with disabilities in SL. Those will be fascinating to follow.

SLE: Disability is not a common subject of discussion in SL. Do you feel it gets glossed over too easily?

Gentle: You do not need the qualifier "in SL" on that first sentence. Disability is a fact of life, Stareyes. It is the only minority status you can join just by stepping wrong off the curb. There are temporary disabilities, such as breaking a leg, as well as permanent ones, and most of us will become more disabled as we age. So we NEED to do a better job of discussing it.

SLE: Of course, that is the case, but - in real life when you see a person in a wheelchair, or with a cane, you cannot ignore it. With the freedom of avatar portrayal on SL, people don't think someone might have a condition like this.

Gentle: That is one of the purposes of Virtual Ability, outreach to the currently non-disabled populations.

SLE: About SL and how it helps people - I ran across a network volunteer who helped people with visual condition to use text-based viewers. People with hearing disability have an easier time interacting with the SL viewer. What do you think Linden Lab ought to improve, to better enable access to SL for PWD?

Gentle: Actually, we've found that Linden viewer to be reasonably accessible! Often when people say it's not, they do not know all its features, or they are struggling to understand how to interface their assistive technology with it.

We moved on to the Sojourner Auditorium on the island to discuss Virtual Ability’s upcoming event, the third annual International Disability Rights Affirmation Conference which will be held on the Virtual Ability Island in Second Life on Friday 27th and Saturday 28th September. The theme of the conference is “Let Me In,” and it focuses on accessibility of buildings and other spaces as well as services for people with disabilities. There will be presentations and panels with delegates from all over the world. Our first presenter on Saturday at the conference is from Ghana, and will be on at 6am SLT!” The Sojourner Auditorium design and the conference logistics reflect the theme of accessibility. “It was designed to be totally accessible, and a model for accessible facilities in RL as well. We always have greeters standing in the aisles to assist people – for instance, each seat cushion is individually numbered, as our blind members can ‘see’ the cushions, but can't tell if someone is already sitting on them, so a greeter can tell them in IM, ‘seat 1C is open’ and they can sit on that one. Greeters also help our folks with behavior issues to maintain proper meeting decorum.”

The tour I was given included parts of the Health Info Island as well as the two residential sims, Cape Able and Cape Serenity. Health Info Island is a resource to help avatars find information on health and wellness issues and related resources. The information is arranged in an array of interactive posters. Cape Able hosts two art galleries displaying the works of disabled SL artists, currently one has an exhibition of the works of Ronin1 Shippe. The other is the SL branch of the RL Fenimore Gallery in New York. “So here we have 2 public galleries for the enjoyment of the general public... and also to show that people with Disabilities also have ABILITIES that we choose to focus on.” On Cape Serenity, there is a library with classic works of literature as well as those of disabled SL authors. These work as note card or link givers, and some of the links also work as audio books.

I enjoyed the tour and my appreciation to Gentle Heron and the whole of Virtual Ability, Inc. intensified as we continued discussing the way people with disabilities can be helped by becoming active in virtual worlds, such as SL. Research evidence shows that well-being indicators rose with the time avatars spent time on SL. With all the quirks and frivolities sometimes taking the main attention on SL, it is good to see that there are caring avatars such as Gentle Heron who strive to help and make SL a better place for all, disabled or not.

Health Info Island:

Virtual Ability, Inc. home page:

IDRAC 2013 Conference (September 27th to 28th):


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