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Persons With Disabilities Get a Second Life

It’s not every day that you get invited to go sailing on a yacht so when Evie Wolf, an avid sailor from Utah invited me out, I couldn’t resist.

“Oh look! A pirate frigate!”

“I saw that, is that common?”

“They mostly stay moored. Though there is a region were battles take place. OMG! I wandered into one once!”

“Really? What did you do?”

“Yep, sailed away in the midst of cannon fire!

“That must have been intense.”  

“It was funny, and I missed the cordon. So, ready to sail?”

Wolf is an avid sailor who competes and hangs out with professional sailors and racing champions. Her story has an interesting twist, she belongs to a community that empowers people with disabilities to do things (virtually) that they otherwise may not have been able to do.

The organization she and others are apart of is Virtual Ability. It's based out of Colorado and operates within Second Life, an online virtual world. 

And that sailing trip with Wolf – it all took place within that virtual world.

Wolf lives in Utah and has a brain injury, limited use of one hand and a mild verbal apraxia. Because of her disabilities and issues with anxiety, she asked her real name not be used and opted for a voice transcriber as the stress of speaking for radio worsens her condition. So I enlisted UPR’s Dani Hayes to voice Wolf’s typed responses to my questions. 

Because of her experience in Second Life, Wolf says she has turned to taking sailing lessons on waters that aren’t virtual.

“When I took my first RL (real-life) sailing lesson, I told my instructor I was basically one handed. He said that was no problem, one-handed sailors existed, and that he'd taught a man who'd lost the use of his whole left side after a stroke. But in SL (Second Life), I can sail pretty much just with my right index finger!”

“Some of our members have assistive technology to use on their computers. So maybe they’re typing with their toes or maybe they’re typing with a stylus wand that is attached to a headband and they bend over the keyboard and type like that.”

That’s Alice Krueger, also known as Gentle Heron in Second Life. She’s the president of Virtual Ability, Inc. and says they serve a community that is diverse and accessible to everyone.

“Some of us type by talking – the voice to text – some of us type by having a keyboard appear on the screen and as we gaze at the letters a laser detects our eyes-stopped movement and it types that letter for us so there’s all different ways we access Second Life. So what it means is, no matter what our disability is, we can interact like everyone else."

Virtual Ability currently has three major projects. They’re working with the Army to look at using virtual worlds to diagnose and treat traumatic brain injuries.  The Veteran’s Administration is also looking at using Second Life to teach amputees to use their prosthetics. Their big project is with the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. They’re documenting health care disparities for people with disabilities.

“For us as a community, the really cool thing is, in the results that this research will provide. The opportunity to be part of a research team allows us to train and hire people with disabilities to do the research work. For instance, for the University of Pennsylvania, we have trained and hired people to run focus groups, people to de-identify the qualitative data that we collect from the focus group transcripts because all of the HIPPA stuff has be taken out of it before they analyze it. It’s a really cool model and all of it is done in second life.” 

The Virtual Ability services provided within second life are free to everyone. They recently had classes on how to winterize your automobile in real life and how to be a photographer in Second Life. They have professionals from all over the world speak  and teach their members on a regular basis.

After taking a personal journey sailing the virtual seas it becomes more clear why participants who sign on for research purposes or to write stories, often end up staying online. The experiences are truly as real as first life.