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The virtual world Second Life has had a lot of bad press recently in Australia that has focused on the narcissistic and unprincipled behaviour of some of its inhabitants. Nearly six million people have joined Linden Lab’s Second Life since it went public in 2003 and there are currently 1.75 million ‘active’ members who have logged on in the last two months.

As a 3D virtual world, everything that exists in this virtual world — objects, buildings, clothes, land — has been created by the residents. Amid all the bad press, it is sometimes overlooked that Second Life also offers a very positive experience to people, especially with regard to understanding disabilities and offering opportunities to those with disabilities.

As a student Niels Schuddeboom travelled to Australia and was a reporter in Sydney for the 2000 Paralympic Games. Based in the university city of Utrecht in the Netherlands, he is confined to a wheelchair and was forced to drop out of his media course due to an uncompromising academic regime that was unable to work around his physical disabilities.

Known as Niles Sopor in Second Life, Niels has found an opportunity to forget his disability and experience walking life through his avatar. ‘Perhaps the most profound difference I have experienced is that people have treated me differently’ he said. ‘In real life, due to my wheelchair and lack of physical coordination, people often regard me as intellectually as well as physically disabled.’

In the Netherlands it is unusual for people with physical disabilities to have jobs and there is a culture of protecting them from many aspects of life. Second Life has offered Niels the opportunity to break the mould. He runs his own company as a consultant on communications and new media.

Some companies are now using Second Life to experiment with alternative marketing campaigns. As well as offering commercial opportunities, Second Life has also provided Niels with the tools to express himself in artistic ways denied him in real life. He has, for example, been able to hold a camera in Second Life and take photos and make short movies.

Australian David Wallace, a quadriplegic who works as an IT coordinator at the South Australian Disability Information and Resource Centre in Adelaide has also found an outlet for his artistic side in Second Life. He recently held an exhibition of his Second Life art at the building that Illinois-based Bradley University have established on Information Island. Unlike Niels, David wanted to buy a wheelchair when he first entered Second Life and couldn’t find one! He has tried to build one in Second Life but has only had limited success.

David has found people to be very inclusive in Second Life, commenting on his blog, ‘You’ve got all sorts of weird looking people in there, but everyone I’ve met seems to get along and be accepting.’ British Second Lifer and cerebral palsy sufferer Simon Stevens (aka Simon Walsh in SL) has also kept his wheelchair, carrying it when he dances in Wheelies, the nightclub he operates in Second Life.

Able-bodied FEZ Rutherford has created the blog 2ndisability to record his work on developing applications for use in Second Life that replicate for the user the sensory experience of a first life physical disability. For example, he has developed applications that replicate various symptoms of different forms of blindness and cerebral palsy.

Not all visitors to his blog or people who meet him in Second Life understand that Fez is trying to comprehend how it might feel to be disabled. He has described this need to find out firsthand how others experience the world.

‘Where I come from students sometimes do social projects at school. One kind of project is that they go to town in wheelchairs (although not disabled) and try to realise what kind of problems persons bound to a wheelchair face every day.’ Now other visitors to Second Life have been able to share these experiences.

Rowella James was the first visitor to try out the blindness application and she found, ‘The blindness was very disorientating to say the least. The weird thing was that for me the speech bubbles were gone too, so I could only see what was being said when I had the history window open. Of course moving around in that state is not advisable as there is no way of guiding yourself by audio or touch. The stuttering caused a bit of confusion at first for the person I was talking to, but once they understood what was going on they didn’t have any problems with it.’

Others imagine that virtual reality will begin to play an important role in banishing the loneliness, isolation and depression that is all too often part of ageing as well as playing a big role for people either living with diseases that make them housebound or with permanent disabilities.

Annunci