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Rosemary Musachio

By Rosemary Musachio

Believe in the old adage that nothing compares to the real thing?  How about the virtual real thing?  That’s virtual reality (VR), the technological phenomenon of the 21st century.  VR allows users to perceive real-life experiences through simulated events and objects.  The simulations are controlled by body movements, switches, and levers.  By wearing a helmet with a screen inside and glove with sensors, a person can jump into another 3-dimensional world using his own projected image, or avatar.

For persons with disabilities, VR has opened doors to scenarios that they otherwise couldn’t experience.  They can do anything from walking in the park to climbing a mountain with real-time sensory feedback.  For example, when you climb a virtual mountain, you can sense the height or feel the chill as you climb further up.  The only thing that’s removed from the experience is the danger of actually falling.

Since VR is heavily based on visual stimuli, people with hearing loss benefit greatly.  According to a study done by Bar-Ilan University in Israel entitled Enhancing Children with Hearing Impairments with Virtual Reality , students with hearing impairments improved on spatial, temporal, narrative, and other cognitive skills.  In a VR environment, they could match and assemble items correctly.  Purdue University also has developed VR programs that allow colorful, animated characters to teach sign language and math to deaf students who can interact with them. 

Yet, many VR environments still don’t have options for sign language or captions.  A solution is Sign Aloud gloves that allow persons with hearing impairments to sign in a virtual environment.  The sensors in the gloves translate finger and hand movements done for sign language into text and speech.  Therefore, someone who’s deaf can communicate with another person who can hear in virtual situations.

Another barrier in VR environments is audio cues.  For instance, a VR tour of the zoo might sound off buzzers when users approach danger zones.  If the user is deaf, he would not hear it.  A possible solution is vibration feedback.  So if you start feeding peanuts to apes in the virtual zoo, you’d get a vibrating warning from the VR glove. 

These same advantages and disadvantages that persons with hearing impairments have are exactly the opposite for individuals with vision disabilities.  Since VR is saturated with images, persons with vision impairments face major obstacles.  Most VR environments are not compatible with screen readers or have audio descriptions to describe the action.  However, IBM’s Human Ability and Accessibility Center developed a web-based interface that acts as a screen reader for a VR platform called Second Life, which is a virtual world.  Still, 40% of Second City’s objects aren’t labeled correctly for the screen reader to access them.  Second Life also provides a virtual guide dog that helps the avatar navigate the environment and make queries.

VR even can make partially blind individuals see clearer.  By wearing HTC Vive headsets, they can see images with well-defined outlines and crystal-clear colors.  Having every image appear in both lenses centimeters from the person’s eyes allows this technological phenomenon to occur.  It lets people with degenerating sight regain their livelihoods.  For instance, an architect with maculate degeneration could design again donning the Vive headsets and gloves on a VR desktop.

VR also is opening doors for persons with mobility impairments.  By being in VR environments, they can access places and participate in activities that they are otherwise unable to in real life, as mentioned earlier in this article.  VR also can help them improve their ability to walk and use their hands without any danger.  For instance, a person who had a spinal cord injury can learn how to walk without sidebars in a virtual shopping mall while actually being in a physical therapy office.  Consequently, the patient doesn’t have the risk of falling. 

Just as in real life, VR environments can present obstacles for persons with mobility impairments.  Because most VR headsets gauge head heights, persons in wheelchairs may be unable to interact in a VR environment.  Some accommodating headsets exist, however.  HTC Vive, for example, has sensors in the headset to determine the head height of the person.  While HTC Vive can be ideal for gaming settings, it can’t work for scaled environments in VR.  Persons in wheelchairs may view everything like a five-year-old kid looking from a high window and, consequently, can’t interact with virtual objects.  For example, suppose the VR environment is a kitchen and the cupboards are too high for people in wheelchairs to reach.  Like an actual kitchen, a virtual one also has to be accessible by lowering the cupboards.

Persons with mobility impairments also may have difficulty maneuvering VR inputs like joysticks, knobs, and fine motor control that is required for gestures in VR gloves.  If the person can speak, then voice control to interact with the VR environment is the solution.  Google Glass introduced the concept with voice control capabilities   Referring back to the virtual kitchen example, an individual who can’t move her hands still can cook virtually by issuing such commands as “Put the red pan on the second burner of the stove, and turn the knob to 3.”  If the person with dexterity difficulties cannot speak, then eye gaze technology could be utilized.  Users could maneuver virtual objects using stares or blinks.  For instance, picking up a virtual pan could involve staring at the pan to grab a hold of it, blinking to lift it, moving your head to transport, and blinking again to place it on the stove burner.

VR also can help persons with cognitive disabilities.  Specifically, it can prevent individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) from distractions since their senses are contained in the VR environments.  It is ideal for studying or taking tests since they can’t see birds flying outside or hear other people talking, for example.  Additionally, VR can help persons with Asperger’s Syndrome improve their socialization skills.  Interacting with other avatars eliminates stress and intimidation that they encounter with real people.  Over time their brains become “re-wired” by the VR interactions that they start acting the same in the real world.

Virtual reality continues to open doors in every aspect of life, from education and training to employment and socialization.  As it becomes more prevalent in society, it will help persons with diverse abilities become further integrated or feel more able to do things that they never thought they could do.  

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