Friday, May 16, 2008

Abilities in Virtuality

Recently I became reacquainted with a friend from my days on Help Island, a gentleman cowboy named Pecos Kidd. Pecos and I knew each other through hellos, but we hadn't really talked about much except the day I asked him to tell me where to get a good cowboy hat. We had very close rez dates, so we were ostensibly from the same Orientation Island graduation class, and later we both became Mentors.

I was delighted to get to know Pecos better in a chance encounter recently. I found out that while I was learning how to adjust my hair and earrings, taking photos, and stuffing my inventory, Pecos was off exploring Second Life and finding something that would have a positive impact on his real life.

One day, a lady came to Help Island seeking help, and Pecos stepped up to the task. It turned out the lady had recently been in an accident and she was unable to use her hands, so she relied on Dragon Talk to do her bidding while she was on the computer and in Second Life. Her Dragon Talk was not working for her.

Pecos persisted in finding an answer for her, and his persistence brought him to the Heron Sanctuary, where Gentle Heron and her group were working on helping people with disabilities. Pecos arrived and he never really left.

Today, Pecos addressed the membership of the group, and he will do so again tomorrow at 11 slt. Below is a slightly shortened version of his speech, which talks about the laudable efforts of this organization better than I could:

Good evening. Thank you for coming! My name is Pecos Kidd, and I am Vice President of Virtual Ability, Inc. Gentle Heron, President and one of the cofounders of our organization, is here this evening as well.

I'd like to start with a modification of the presentation I recently gave at the "Dreams Fair." It will look at how we got started, describe what we do, and then discuss our current projects and future plans.

The presentation should last about 20 minutes, following which Gentle and I will be happy to answer any questions you might have about Virtual Ability (VAI), the Heron Sanctuary, and our groups' work and future plans.

Many people know VAI best by the name of our initial SL project, "The Heron Sanctuary." "Virtual Ability, Inc." is the RL non-profit company that oversees, funds, and grows "The Heron Sanctuary" and other projects.

Virtual Ability, Inc.’s vision is: “To be the leading provider of services for and information about people with disabilities in electronic virtual worlds.” Our mission is to enable people with a wide range of disabilities to enter into electronic virtual worlds, and provide them with a supporting environment once there.

The co-founders of the Heron Sanctuary began from the important concept of community for those who face barriers to participating in their physical communities. They collected medical research about the benefits of operating in virtual reality that accrue to people with different kinds of disabilities. They visited the websites of a half dozen different virtual worlds, and chose Second Life as the one to colonize first, since it seemed to be the richest cultural environment and the most fully developed.

The three co-founders of the organization came into Second Life in early June of 2007. Adopting the name “Heron” from the list of names available at the time, Sodapop, Superquiet and Gentle Heron began to explore, and met many kind and generous people who shared their understanding about how Second Life operated. Eventually they met Lorelei Junot at the Accessibility Center on HealthInfo Island. Lori allowed them to temporarily use a plot of land on EduIsland 4, and "The Heron Sanctuary" project began.

Today, less than a year after starting, The Heron Sanctuary has helped numerous people get “up and running” in Second Life. We have created a community of almost 200 individuals. And we have developed a growing reputation within SL as the leading organization dealing with the support of people with real world disabilities.

As we grew, we reached the point where we needed to create the Real Life structures that are required for us to have legal protections, conduct fundraising, and exhibit the credibility required to talk seriously with advocacy groups, doctors, researchers, the media, and other SL and RL organizations. So, a few months ago we created the RL corporation “Virtual Ability, Inc.” to perform that role. We are a non-profit corporation based in Colorado. We’ve applied for, but have not yet received, 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status.

So – how does Virtual Ability help people here in Second Life?

First, we have a specialized intake process, individualized for the person's needs and capabilities. There are a number of unique challenges a person with disabilities can encounter while learning and using Second Life. Some of our members are not able to use both hands, which not only slows down typing text chat, but creates difficulty for inputs requiring multiple simultaneous keystrokes. Other users are unable to sustain depressing a single key, such as the arrow keys used for walking and flying, due perhaps to tremor or weakness.

Many Second Life functions, including managing inventory, dressing your avatar, and sharing objects and notecards, rely on mouse drag-and-drop function. Users who cannot depress and hold mouse buttons can not perform these basic activities unless they have adaptive equipment such as a tracker ball with single-click locking and unlocking functions. By identifying the need for, and helping with the use of, this type of assistive hardware or software, many of these issues can be alleviated or overcome.

Second, we train people to become regular Second Life citizens, as much as they are able, so that they can have all the benefits of being in a virtual world. We have volunteers who help new group members with makeovers, and who love to go shopping. While almost anyone new to a virtual world like SL would enjoy a little early guidance, we are finding that individualized attention is often critical for the success of those with disabilities.

Finally, we provide a supportive community for people once they are here and trained. We provide an environment where people with disabilities can make friends both with other people with disabilities who "get" what their lives are really like and with non-disabled people who will learn from them, and from whom they will learn also.

We measure the success of Virtual Ability, Inc. not by how many people stay in our group but by how many people use our services to grow into Second Life and other virtual worlds, and become productive members of society once here.

The bottom line is that many people with many different types of disabilities, who are isolated within the real world, find that the social interactions within a virtual world rapidly become crucial to their emotional well-being.

Now, I’d like to turn to our current projects, and then finish up with look at our future plans:

• New Resident Training. We continue to provide assistance to new residents with disabilities as they enter Second Life. Currently, this is done on a one-on-one basis. We have volunteers who are RL experts in assistive technology, and can refer new residents to other services as required to get started.

• Open Gates. Virtual Ability sponsors the Open Gates Peer Support group, run by Namav Abramovic and Kat Klata. Open Gates is a 24x7 peer support service for anyone who is feeling the need to talk, get a comforting word, or get a virtual hug. Open Gates provides peer support and discussion, and makes referrals to other SL or RL services if appropriate.

• Community Housing. One of our volunteers, Stepinwolf Darkstone, has created an experiment in community housing, based on research published as "A Pattern Language." He has built a housing complex on our temporarily donated property on Wolpertinger. The apartment complex focuses on shared public space and interaction of its residents. This project is going very well. There are currently 12 residents in this community, and additional units are being planned.

• Research Group. One of VAI’s goals is to develop our capability to act as a conduit to professional and academic researchers who are studying the impacts of virtual worlds on people with disabilities. To that end, volunteer social work researcher Gabrielli Rossini recently formed a SL group with a charter to establish, promote and support disabilities-related research in SL.

This group is creating guidelines by which we will verify that research requests are legitimate, and a protocol and standards of conduct for any such research projects. This is a very exciting area – please contact Gabrielli Rossini if you would like to find out more or get involved.

• Educational Disabilities Advocacy Group. This new group, run by Lyday Latte, assists college students who have disabilities to better understand the resources available to them, and how to access them.

• Community of Support. Through “The Heron Sanctuary”, we continue to provide an open, broad supportive community for people with disabilities within Second Life. We provide information about SL events to our members, hold dances and parties, and just hang out at the pool and chat.

Turning finally to our future plans. As many of you know, we recently announced our partnership with the Alliance Library System (ALS). This partnership will develop a new island with an orientation, training, and consumer health information center for people with disabilities and chronic illness. The new facilities will dramatically expand our new-resident orientation and training capabilities, allowing us to bring in many more people to the benefits of Second Life.

Funding for the partnership is provided in part by ALS based on its receipt of a grant from the National Library of Medicine called, "Share the Health: Training People with Disabilities and Chronic Medical Conditions on how to Locate Quality Health Information." This project is well under way.

We have purchased an island for this purpose.... in fact, it is the island you are now standing on :) Together with ALS, we developed a Building Requirements document, and sent it out to a dozen builders. Eme Capalini from our group and Carolina Keats from ALS head up this work. A team from VAI and ALS reviewed a half dozen responses, and are now in final negotiations to select the winning builder. We expect construction to begin next week, and our facilities to open in July.

This will include the delivery of health information, and a directory of health- and disability-related services and products, providing links and contact information. Integral to our new Island and its facilities will be the collaboration and partnerships with other organizations - SL and RL - that assist people who have various disabilities and health conditions.

In addition to this expansion of our "public facing" services, we also will be continuing to provide ongoing support and community for SL residents as they become integrated into the virtual world. To this end, we have now acquired a second island, "VAI Sanctuary", that will befocused on this purpose. This second island, and its planned future expansion, will allow us to grow beyond our current borrowed spaces on EduIsland 4 and Wolpertinger. These will eventually provide a permanent home for residential housing, entertainment venues, and a vibrant community center.

VAI will also be sponsoring multiple other projects over the coming months, in whole or with partners. These tentatively include the following:

• Space Destiny, which is a group geared toward enabling all (including people with disabilities) to participate in Space and Scientific Exploration.

• Providing vocational training for in-world jobs, for those who want it.

• Demonstrations of Universal Design principles as they relate to a virtual world.

• Expansion of the provision of Virtual Ability, Inc.’s services to other virtual worlds besides Second Life.

• Working with the Ophoenix Foundation to distribute donated computers and computer equipment to people with disabilities.

• Supporting the formation of a group of medical professionals who would be willing to provide information to our members and support of peer supporters.

In addition, we plan to significantly increase our activities in the “real world”, including:

• Conducting outreach and awareness activities to inform the disabled, their doctors, and their caregivers of the benefits virtual worlds can provide.

• Publishing articles in journals and attending and/or presenting at conferences related to disability issues and on-line virtual worlds.

In summary – Virtual Ability / The Heron Sanctuary has been on a remarkable ride over the past ten months. We have been blessed to have made many new friends in this strange and wonderful new virtual world. And we are so excited to realize how much potential lies directly ahead of us.

For many people with disabilities, Second Life is not a game. It provides a whole new world where they can be free of many of the limitations of their bodies. We at Virtual Ability, Inc. look forward to helping as many people as possible realize the dream of this new world.

For more information about Virtual Ability, Inc., or to make a donation - please visit our website at

Please feel free to contact Pecos Kidd with any questions about his organization. I am so glad we have made friends again, Pecos. You remind me why Second Life is so magical.

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