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Second Life Frees Disabled from Restrictions of Everyday Life


Second Life is an internet-based simulation of reality -- a virtual world with trees, buildings, animals and people. The people are animated characters who participate in this digital world, each guided by a real-world person who can make his or her "avatar" look and act however they want. For someone with physical or emotional disabilities, this chance to dream by way of a computer and high-speed internet connection can be a healing and empowering experience. That's why many experts are working to make the simulation environment more accessible to them. From inside the virtual world of Second Life, Shelley Schlender reports.

Palm trees sway and the evening sky turns pink, as a woman with golden curls dances in a green party dress. Her name is Gentle Heron. A handsome man lifts her for a pirouette. They make their way over to a woman named Unmasked Shepherd, who's playing dance music on her electric piano. Nearby, a man in a red T-shirt jumps into the air, and flies away. Another man turns into a dragon. Gentle Heron watches it all serenely.

Watching the scene unfold on her computer screen is Alice Krueger, the woman behind Gentle Heron. "I've got lots of friends in there. From all over the world. Different kinds of people. [Being in Second Life is] really fun." Krueger, who has multiple sclerosis, says that living through her avatar, Gentle Heron, is a refreshing change from her everyday life. "Here in this life I'm pretty much confined to my home and this room," she points out. "I don't see adults. It's difficult to go out and talk with people. It's really nice to be able to go out and dance. I love to dance."

An intimate connection with an avatar

In real life, the flying man in the red T-shirt is Ron Sidell. Two years ago, a rare illness paralyzed him so completely, he had to breathe through a tube. "I was put on a ventilator, and I was [surgically fitted with a tracheal breathing tube], and it was horrible." Even now, it's hard for him to talk about because it's such a painful memory for him.

While Sidell has regained some ability to move, he spends most of his time in a wheelchair. In Second Life, though, he gets to go everywhere, and dance. "When I see my avatar dancing, the parts of my brain think movement. They sometimes feel what their avatar is doing."

That makes sense to Mark Dubin, a neuroscientist and former University of Colorado professor, who now designs virtual reality tools. He explains that the "real life" feel of Second Life occurs because this virtual world is different -- and much more -- than a video game.

"A fundamental difference is that you have an avatar. You have a representative that is you and responds to you. You move, it moves. You feel like you're there. Literally your brain will show activity typical of what the avatar is doing."

Using the virtual world to teach real-life skills

This makes Second Life a great place for learning virtually anything, even dog training. Vitolo Rossini, who has a brain injury due to a traffic accident, now teaches people - and their avatars - to work with virtual dogs in Second Life. He puts special priority into training people with disabilities. Thanks to these Second Life experiences, some people gain the confidence to own a real dog.

Alice Krueger, whose Gentle Heron avatar often plays with computer-generated animals, says that some virtual dogs behave, but her favorite did not. "It would sometimes obey you and sometimes go off on its own, and it would wander away, and you'd be calling it and calling it, and then it would squat and poop," she says with a laugh. "It's very realistic."

There are a variety of skills that people learn, and that Krueger teaches, through Virtual Ability. The organization, based in Colorado - as well as in Second Life - highlights the benefits of virtual worlds for people with disabilities. Virtual Ability helps them learn how to get around in Second Life, which often makes a positive difference in their real life.

Krueger recalls one woman who had difficulty with ordinary social relationships and was reluctant to have her avatar encounter other avatars. "So we had her working with plants because it was non-threatening to her. She became a landscaper, and our neighbors [in Second Life] saw that and hired her to do their [virtual] property." Through these jobs in Second Life, the woman learned to make a budget, create a timeline and interact with people. With these skills, Krueger says, she got a real world job offer. "We were so excited," Krueger says. "She was really excited too, because this was her first job. Ever."

Growing world of support in Second Life

Mark Dubin, the University of Colorado neuroscientist, says that people with disabilities often become isolated. He says Second Life can change that ... and be fun. "Depression lifts, people become more excited and interested. It's not that they learn to overcome [their disabilities]," he stresses. "To use the proper phrase, they are differently abled, and Second Life enables those differences to be functional."

Because Second Life can offer people so many friendships and teachable moments, Alice Krueger says that more than 70 English-speaking groups assist people with disabilities or health issues through Second Life, and there are many support groups in other languages, as well.

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