There’s all sorts of talk about accessibility, particularly around making computers, the Internet, and online services like Second Life accessible to those who are differently abled. From the chaps in Japan, with their innovative solutions that allow folks with very minimal physical capabilities to use Second Life, to the Imprudence team and Jacek Antonelli – just one of a number of groups looking to improve the accessibility of Second Life clients. Then there’s accessibility specialists who look at Second Life from a legal view (current US law, Section 508 of the Disabilities Act), and thus investigate the content of Second Life. There’s so much focus on how it might be accomplished.
Then someone goes and, distressingly, asks, why? Why should should we put all this effort, money and man-hours into these projects? Surely it’s not worth all the expense?
Let’s examine some of the whys behind the accessibility push.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, around 17% of the U.S. population, aged 16 and over, lives with some form of disability.
If the US is representative of much of the world with regards to its Census results, close to 1/5th of the world’s population lives with some form of disability. This equates roughly to a staggering 1.36 billion people across the globe. That’s a huge number of people, all of whom are already at some disadvantage due to their disabilities. They would be disadvantaged further if accommodations are not made for them. Every one of these people has likely experienced some form of discrimination, or one or all aspects of the terrible trio: loneliness, isolation and depression. Because of their disability, these are perhaps the people who stand to benefit the most from the social revolution occurring online, and yet as it stands, they are the ones with the least access to it.
A wheelchair gives someone with limited mobility to walk, but otherwise functional in the real world, the ability to go out and do things and be a functional member of the community. Because of the nature of my disabilities, a wheelchair is insufficient. However, SL permits me to do things without leaving the protected environment of my home where I have an ergonomic setup that allows for my disabilities.
From my computer chair, I can teach, run a business, have an active social life, and be a functioning member of a community. Second Life is my wheelchair.
- Seshat Czeret, 18/09/2008
Seshat Czeret runs a successful clothing and furniture business in Second Life. She runs classes for the NCI, and is a respected member of their staff. She has several friends whom she is routinely in contact with, and many more people she communicates with regularly. She is an avid roleplayer. All these things would not be possible without access to her high-end computer and broadband connection which enable her to access Second Life.
In the physical world, Seshat suffers from a painful disability which leaves her mostly housebound. She is unable to work away from home, to leave the house for social visits, or to participate in her local community.
For Seshat, a virtual environment is a tool. It’s an extra accessory than allows her new, sometimes unexpected but often welcome, freedoms. It opens up her world. It’s a place where she can be an asset, not a liability.
In another sense, virtual environments are also a good pain management tool. Seshat is able to focus strongly on what she is doing, thereby putting some of her pain aside. If she can be said to “escape” into Second Life, it is not in the sense of “escape into fantasy”, but rather in the sense of “escape from persecution.” It is just the same as focusing on walking, or reading, or gardening, thereby creating a meditative state through focus on an activity.
THE WILDE COLLECTIVE ON CRIMES AND INJUSTICES– MORE THAN OUR SHARE
[“Written by all the members of wilde, but namelessly for their protection and greater transparency”]
most of us, if not all of us, have had things stolen from us, because we were disabled
many of us, if not all of us, have been slapped or abused physically, and several times
all of us have been verbally abused– a lot! which hurts by the way!!
we’ve had our money taken from us
perhaps the greatest pain when our dignity has been taken, stolen.
our humanity, feelings, kicked around and abused
control. people take control. they take control of our things, our decisions. they force their will and preferences upon us. no we cant buy that. no we cant eat that. no we have to watch this. no i dont have time now. no you cant go anywhere. no you will be unable to move for awhile. no…
“The nine souls of wilde Cunningham”, a group of nine adults with cerebral palsy, wrote the piece above in 2004.
The take-away lesson from this piece is that people with disabilities often have control, in every facet of life, taken away from them. Accessibility options are just a small way in which the world can return that control. The option to have new experiences, travel outside your room or residence, socialize with people you wouldn’t usually get to meet, have a job or run a business – suddenly more of these become available to people to whom it matters most poignantly.
In Second Life they are on a equal setting and we don’t see the handicaps.
Virtual environments which do not show the user’s face nor use voice put more people on an equal footing. What harm is there in ignoring, in failing to display one’s disabilities, when common reactions are those of pity or of prejudice – both of which have a tendency to lead to a lack of control and shame for the disabled individual?
Being in Second Life is how I imagine an innocent man who had been locked up wrongly feels when he is finally set free. In Second Life I get to call the shots.
- John S.
Additional thanks go to Shelley Schlender, for her thought-provoking article.