People living with disabilities encounter obstacles on a daily basis that make the world less accessible. One billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, have some sort of disability and these individuals must deal with physical barriers, discriminatory attitudes, and other challenges. Whether a disabled person uses the technology for relaxation, job training, gaming, social experiences, virtual travel, or something else, VR makes the world more accessible.
According to an April 2018 report from Research Nester, the virtual reality market is one of the fastest growing global markets. This growth is expected to affect other markets positively as it becomes increasingly obvious how the technology is impacting sectors such as business, automotive, healthcare, etc.
It’s awesome that developers are working diligently to create the most realistic immersive environments possible. The incredible experiences that are being developed literally make you forget about your physical body as you enjoy virtual surroundings that actually seem real. This can have a positive impact on physical and mental health.
Read about some of the ways virtual reality could be a useful tool for people with disabilities.
- In VR, disabled users can have experiences that might be impossible or unsafe for them in real life. They can run, ski, ride bikes, and climb mountains. The possibilities are endless and for some disabled persons, particularly those with severe impediments, VR might be the only place they can actually experience these physically challenging activities.
- Since it tricks the brain into making non-working pathways work again, virtual reality can be a tremendous tool to help a plethora of patients with disabilities, including those who have had a stroke or who have neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease.
- When individuals struggle with life skills, immersive VR enables people to learn in a safe environment. They might even be more encouraged to practice the skills in virtual reality since it’s a less daunting environment in which to learn skills that come easily to others, but with which they struggle.
- Individuals with autism seem more comfortable talking with others in virtual environments, enabling them to establish relationships and have experiences that will encourage independent living. The use of VR for autistic people could be a huge blessing as they learn to navigate the real world.
- There is promising research for the use of VR to treat Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions that affect memory.
- VR technology might help individuals with particular types of vision impairments to see images more clearly.
- Disabled people can use virtual environments to learn how to navigate more safely through traffic or other situations.
- Fitness is important to everyone as it improves stamina, increases muscle tone, improves balance, and releases “happy hormones” (endorphins). Exercise has also been shown to control joint swelling and alleviate pain. Disabled people can benefit in many ways from fitness in virtual environments.
- Like every other user, VR enables individuals with disabilities to go places and do things that would be otherwise inaccessible.
- Many disabled people are cut off from society due to awkward sleep schedules, an inability to travel, debilitating pain, bowel issues, or a host of other challenges. Virtual environments are always accessible!
- Social VR is a great way for disabled individuals to meet others without fearing judgment or prejudice against them. In fact, while some disabilities are more obvious (such as someone using a wheelchair), it’s up to the individual if they even want to disclose this information in virtual environments. If they don’t, other people might never even realize this, giving the disabled user an opportunity to avoid attitudinal barriers. At some point they might choose to share the fact that they’re disabled, hopefully causing others to avoid making assumptions about the capabilities of disabled people in the future.
We do not have to wait for the future to see the world become more accessible through VR. These options exist now and disabled people already can use virtual reality to experience travel, receive job training, learn life skills, explore the world, and have amazing experiences that aren’t available to them (or any of us!) in real life. It is important to consider the needs of individual users when purchasing a VR setup.
For a young disabled child or senior or perhaps for people who are bedridden or mostly immobile, I would recommend the Oculus Go. This headset is fully functional, requires no wires or extra hardware (such as a computer), and it’s incredibly comfortable. Users can watch movies, play simple games, have learning experiences, view pictures, and more. Plus, it’s only $200!
For the disabled user who is interested in doing more – who perhaps wants to experience a greater degree of freedom so that they can do competitive gaming or have access to even more VR apps and programs, I would recommend and Oculus Rift or an HTC Vive.
Fortunately for the millions of people who live with a disability, most content that is being created can be used by anyone. Virtual reality is already demolishing many barriers that disabled people face in real life. This improves the quality of life for disabled individuals and makes the world more accessible.
Some companies are also creating content that specifically targets or benefits disabled users. This is one example:
Developed by wheelchair users for wheelchair users, the goal of this VR platform is to help individuals in wheelchairs successfully navigate public places confidently and safely. This results in increased confidence, decreased anxiety and an improved quality of life.
Room for Improvement
The goal of virtual reality is to create an immersive experience where you feel like you’re actually in the virtual environment. Developers have actually accomplished this feeling of realism with accurate tracking and mimicking of real life movements.
This is awesome for able-bodied users, but not so much for disabled users who can’t move their hands or feet, turn their head, or use their arms and legs. It also becomes challenging for people with visual impairments when games or programs rely mainly on visual cues.
From personal experience as a seated player and someone who talks with developers regularly, I think most actually realize that perhaps there previously has been a disconnect between disabled users and able-bodied creators. They seem to be trying to bridge the gap by taking into consideration adaptations that will allow people with various physical challenges the ability to change settings so that the games and programs are still usable and enjoyable for them.
Developers are beginning to make these adjustments available in games and apps, but meanwhile, at least one creative entrepreneur has taken it upon himself to make virtual reality user-friendly for disabled people.
Since controllers are designed to recreate body movements, this is a problem for people who don’t have the ability to move. Grzegorz Bednarski created a driver that allows people with limited mobility to rest their arms comfortably and then the system emulates proper positioning so that it looks on the screen like the arms are being used normally. This is really cool.
As a side note, when I started writing reviews about games in virtual reality, one of the first requests I had was from someone wanting to know if I was aware of games that could be played by someone with one arm. I made a few suggestions, but honestly I wish I had known about Walkin VR back then!
Virtual reality is literally obliterating boundaries in our world. The technology is here. It’s allowing people to do things they would otherwise never be able to do.
The potential is there for even greater accessibility to virtual environments for disabled users, however, but first we need to create tools that enable them to participate without barriers.
I’d like to close with a promotional ad from Oculus. I love this video from Oculus and bear in mind that I’m not paid to promote any particular company or product. I just truly believe in this technology. I especially like this video because – despite the fact that it shows a bunch of healthy young Millennials – basically it shows exactly the way I feel when I put on my headset. I play all virtual reality games seated since I can’t stand for long periods of time so just be aware that users come in all shapes and sizes. They don’t all look like these gorgeous folks. The awesome thing is that VR levels the playing field so anyone can be a superhero, despite disabilities or other challenges (age, inexperience, etc.). I hope you found the article helpful. I hope you’ll enjoy the video and please feel free to message me about your own virtual experiences. I’d love to join you in VR and play some games!