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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Enabling the Disabled

One of the communities within Second Life is the disabled. Our virtual world provides people who can’t get out of the house easily with a way to have a social life. I’m not the best person, maybe, to comment on this segment of our world. My friend Zippy, among others, has made a formal, scholarly study of SL and the disabled. Another friend, Treasure Ballinger, is involved with the Virtual Ability group and newcomer help area. Either of them, or any of our residents who are disabled in Real Life, could probably handle this better than I. Such people are welcome to comment on this post, or contact me to do a guest entry. In the meantime, I’m going to give it a shot.

Here are my personal observations.

First, the disabled come to Second Life for the same reasons as everyone else. They come because Second Life offers them the opportunity to change something, or escape something, that they don’t like about their Real Life. Ask yourself: What do an obese 20 year old, a paraplegic, a deaf person, a 79 year old with arthritis, and a high school dropout stuck behind the counter at Burger King have in common? Answer: They all have something about their lives that they aren’t happy about. I don’t think there is anything special about disabled people, at least in this sense.

Second, the disabled exhibit the same three approaches to Second Life as everyone else. Go back and re-read my entry about Immersionists, Roleplayers, and FaceBookers. The disabled person who’s an Immersionist or a Roleplayer will most likely have an avatar that is not disabled. They may completely omit any reference to their RL disability in their profile. In Second Life, they become “normal”, and they want everyone else to see them as normal and treat them as normal. This is a very rational approach. They’re using SL to escape their disability, to forget about it, and to eliminate it from the way other people see and react to them.

The FaceBookers are the ones you see on crutches, or in a wheelchair. (I saw one disabled person once whose avatar had a white cane and an assistant. I wondered if he was really blind…and if so, how SL was any different for him than a hundred other text based web sites and chat rooms.) In any case, these people aren’t at all shy about telling others about their disability. Their attitude is “hey, this is a part of who I am. You don’t like it, that’s your problem.” This too is a rational approach. One might even argue that it’s a healthier approach than denial or escape, but I disagree. Either approach to SL serves a useful purpose for the person who follows it.

Mental and emotional disabilities are rather a different matter, because they are harder to hide than physical shortcomings. People who are intensely shy, clinically depressed, or have other problems that interfere with person-to-person interactions can find themselves just as alone and friendless in Second Life as in Real Life. One disorder that SL seems to help is Asperger’s Syndrome. The behaviors that make Asperger’s sufferers hard to get along with socially don’t seem to come through in text. In general, I would encourage people with mental or emotional problems not to “self medicate” with Second Life. It can, however, be a useful tool when used under the supervision of a mental health professional.

In any case, Second Life offers some real benefits to just about anyone who can operate a computer. In that sense, SL is at the same time a filter (keeping out people who can’t operate a computer, or don’t have access to one) and an equalizer (if you meet that basic requirement of computer literacy and access, you’re every bit as good as the next person).

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