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Universal Life: Multi-User Virtual Environments for People with Disabilities

For many people, the first mention of the virtual world’s online community Second Life ( usually brings to mind game players living vicariously through their avatars, operating more in tune with a futuristic cartoon landscape than their real lives. Mainstream attention over the past few years has heightened public scrutiny and awareness. What are we to make of these bizarre environments in which people interact through digital humanoid proxies?

Multi-user virtual environments (also called virtual worlds) are considered an extrapolation from serious games—software applications intended for use beyond pure entertainment. The main difference between a game and a virtual world is in the objective: game players expect to be confronted with obstacles intentionally built into the software, while users of virtual worlds seek to achieve self-directed goals through engagement and collaboration. Second Life, a virtual world developed by Linden Lab, is the platform that has attracted the most name recognition, although other platforms do exist.

It would appear that virtual worlds have little to offer people with disabilities. The interfaces can be complex, with three-dimensional graphics and functionality requiring strong hand-eye coordination. However, a surprisingly vital demographic exists for whom avatar-driven 3D environments serve as more than just a game. People with a wide range of disabilities, including visual impairments, motor skill disorders, and cognitive difficulties, have turned to virtual worlds to find entertainment, education, commerce, and fellowship.

Hardware and Software

Since virtual worlds operate as self-designed interactions, the user experience is tied to the extensibility of users’ actions through technology. Gaming hardware has, unfortunately, not kept pace with the need to accommodate accessibility, even with surveys indicating that one-fifth of casual players self-identify as having some form of disability. Thankfully, recent prototypes brought to market indicate an increasing shift toward accessibility.

Haptic interface systems provide input by utilizing a user’s sense of touch. Through a network of embedded sensors, devices such as the Novint Falcon allow contact with in-world objects via three motorized arms on hinges. Players have the ability to “hold” or “pick up” objects with enough realism to simulate weight and texture. Haptic devices have been investigated as a possible alternative to the keyboard and mouse.

Virtual world users with hearing impairments may one day benefit from an IBM platform called SiSi (Say It Sign It), which translates spoken or written words into British Sign Language. SiSi uses speech recognition technology to animate an avatar in real-time during chats, speeches, and digital broadcasts. The Royal National Institute for Deaf People has endorsed the use of SiSi with plans to integrate translation features into future iterations.

For people who rely on screen reading software, there are a number of interesting developments currently in execution. An application called TextSL provides the ability to interact with Second Life using the JAWS screen reader. IBM’s alphaWorks division introduced a web-based accessible rich internet application (ARIA) called Virtual Worlds User Interface for the Blind, which interprets semantic data contributed by sighted users to be read back as text. In the summer of 2009, a coalition of four groups called Virtual Helping Hands (VHH) announced the release of Max, a virtual guide dog for users of Second Life. Max helps visually impaired users translate information via text-to-speech technology by “reading” signs, describing immediate surroundings, and locating a player’s proximity to items of interest.

Universal Design in Virtual Environments

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). Funded by a grant from the National Library of Medicine, the island provides a place for residents to explore topics related to disability and general wellness.

Virtual Ability Island was designed visually and experientially in accordance with universal design principles. Widely scaled ramps make movement easier for avatars in wheelchairs, bright, high-contrast signs are angled to be more easily read by users with visual impairments, and smoothly landscaped walkways ease motor skill fatigue. This makes it easier for first-time users who may have difficulty navigating virtual worlds with a mouse and keyboard. For people who rely on voice recognition software or alternative input devices, objects on the screen can be more precisely controlled.

Creating specification guidelines with universal design principles in mind has several benefits. It ensures a baseline modality for tasks such as listening to audio playback, viewing visual material, comprehending written information, or interpreting the context of an event. Anything that can make the screen easier to read or the cursor easier to move improves the overall user experience. Game interfaces are frequently designed to accommodate a high level of customization, and accessibility is a component of that architecture.

It’s also important to consider the various ways in which users of virtual worlds approach their respective disabilities. People who have had an impairment since birth often consider it a part of how they perceive themselves, and some prefer to have their avatar appear that way. The appearance of accessibility—such as an avatar depicted with a wheelchair or guide dog—can be very important to 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.” In such cases, the appearance of accessibility is simply a matter of self-respect.

With greater interoperability between avatars and platforms, one could argue that virtual environments should be governed by the same design principles as other media. There may come a day when virtual worlds follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) of the W3C, just like text-based websites and other online properties.

Examples of Community in Virtual Worlds

Virtual communities offer meaningful involvement to people with disabilities who may otherwise live in isolation. Although a disabled person may be highly functional and appreciative within a respective peer group, some feel that they are a source of aggravation to their families or caregivers. With the degree of activity and autonomy afforded by virtual worlds, users have the opportunity to overcome self-perception that limits their capability.

Through the sponsorship of a Boston daycare program called Evergreen, nine adults with cerebral palsy share ownership of a Second Life avatar named Wilde Cunningham. The group members, ranging from thirty to seventy years of age, take turns controlling Wilde as they navigate their in-world lives in parallel. Observers have reported an improvement in the group’s confidence after six months of participation, and some studies indicate that similar efforts help individuals reclaim their lives.

Wheelies is a virtual nightclub frequented by people with many forms of disability. Sign language displays and wheelchair-friendly dances provide a sense of inclusion. Avatars can visit the Accessible Builds demonstration site and preview such items as handicap-friendly avatar housing and lifesize board games. GimpGirl provides a valuable resource for women with disabilities as a forum for advocacy and companionship. Among the activities at GimpGirl’s Second Life environment are social events, art happenings, and outreach sessions.

Virtual worlds have found an audience among people affected by autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Through their virtual personae, people who have difficulty interacting with others in real life are able to overcome social awkwardness in a comparatively safe environment. The Autism Society of America Island in Second Life provides people on spectrum, as well as their parents and caregivers, with an opportunity to share their experiences with others who understand what ASD is like.


While technological innovations are exciting and certainly important, it’s necessary to keep in mind the benefit that barrier-free virtual environments provide. There is therapeutic value in distraction and the role it plays as a form of pain management. People with disabilities have the opportunity to escape their bodies, if they so choose, or to celebrate their unique gifts among peers.

Fantasy is, in and of itself, a universally designed entity because it applies to disabled and non-disabled people alike. Everyone dreams about what they cannot do, whether it is the ability to fly in space, wake up in the morning free of pain, or have a conversation with someone other than a homecare nurse.

Yet virtual worlds operate in symbiosis with real life, bringing to mind a statement once made by Nicholas Negroponte: “Computing is not about computers any more. It is about living.”