The first post in this series focused on the White House’s #ADA25 celebration and how high tech can sometimes lead to high touch, improvement of quality of life and connections. In the second post, the focus shifted from the national to the hyper-local, with the new Amtrak technology innovation in Ann Arbor that we hope will impact on rail accessibility nationwide. In this third post, I’d like to introduce you to Virtual Ability, a virtual world space that is home to a global community of persons with all kinds of disabilities
VIRTUAL ABILITY IN SECOND LIFE
Virtual Ability, Inc. (VAI) has, throughout their existence, facilitated access to resources and training for persons with disabilities around the world. This includes personal one-on-one support as well as informational, educational, advocacy and awareness events for their audience. These events engage an international community around disability advocacy. Naturally, the 25th anniversary of the signing of the United States’ Americans with Disabilities Act was not overlooked, with related activities planned for the weeks before and after the actual date. Because of the international nature of their community, events are often scheduled twice, to enable access from different hemispheres.
Because of the complex range of disabilities supported within their community, information and presentations for their events are offered in text and audio, to support those with or without hearing as well as those with or without sight. This is standard practice for them, and a model that clearly should be adopted for webinars and livestreams and other multimedia online events. What can I say? VAI is ahead of the curve, and committed to doing it right if at all possible. FYI, they used to offer a consulting and testing service to advise organizations providing online content, and providing access to a group of engaged testers with a wide range of access challenges. Very, very valuable.
The VAI events and conversations were hosted and moderated by Gentle Heron, who also provided the voiceover for presentations provided in text.
For the actual day of the anniversary, VAI offered four events. Two were showings of videos about the ADA then(1) and now(2), with community conversations about them; the other two were formal presentations, one about strategies and resources for personal disaster and crisis preparations (which I hope to blog about as a separate post), and another about the bare bones basics of what persons with disabilities can and should expect (and REQUEST) for accessibility for online content from organizations in the United States, how this varies globally, and why there aren’t any such guidelines for virtual world online content. This last was basically a user’s guide to WCAG, the first presentation I’ve seen like this. Most WCAG presentations are for web developers, instructing them on what to do. It is rare to see a presentation for persons with disabilities explicitly on what WCAG means for them.
The question that came up over and over through the day’s events was, “Are we done yet? What’s left?” It’s been 25 years, we’ve come a long ways, but there is still a lot left that needs to happen for true equality and access. Me, in real life, I was listening to these conversations sitting on my couch wearing a t-shirt that said, “Disability Rights ARE Civil Rights.”
The conversation was urgent, engaged, informed, and educational. People talked about the need for more accessible modes of transit; new technologies that may help the homebound get out into public life (especially exoskeletons and the Rewalk System, examples of persons with disabilities in leadership roles that influence policy for others; how the United States leadership in disability rights has influenced access and expectations in other countries; the looming cuts to social security income (SSDI) for persons with disability, and the potential impacts (“Many of us are foregoing meds already”). Ironically, the topic of foregoing meds appeared the next day in one of my Twitter chats.
This post focused on #ADA25 in virtual worlds in part because this powerful way of using technology to build community remains drastically undervalued and overlooked. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways in which online social spaces are being used to create community, support, and opportunity around these issues. Just take a look at #spoonies, #SpoonieChat, #a11y, #AXSchat, and the #ADA25 hashtag itself. Many of the same issues and concepts brought up in the VAI conversations and events were echoed in the Easter Seals #ADA25 Twitter chat, #ADAtoday.
If any of this intrigues you about the potential for how virtual worlds, online environments, and related technologies can support individuals and communities with disabilities, you might want to also take a look at this recent video describing the VAI community.