Virtual Reality For Disabled People - Some Tips and Hints

Wednesday 14 October, 2020 Written by  Sienna Fisher
Virtual Reality For Disabled People - Some Tips and Hints

DISABILITY - We have had this wonderful article sent in by Sienna Fisher. It explains how Virtual Reality can assist disabled people use VR to improve their lives. Take it away Sienna......

I’m Sienna Fisher, a 25 years old girl from Chichester (England). I was born with a type of muscular dystrophy due to which I was never able to walk on my own. Despite my disability, I had quite an enjoyable life until I got to face my life's choices in my senior year in high school. My mental health got extremely bad to the point I had to reach out for help from medical professionals.

Fortunately, my therapy turned out to be a great success although I still have issues to this day. A few years ago I decided to do something for the community because I believed it would be a booster to my mental health.

I’ve taken advantage of the latest Virtual Reality technology for my own disability-related needs and now I want to help others too. I even attended VR nation-wide workshops, seminars, and also a six-month course on VR. For that, I write time to time online articles hoping to reach other individuals who find themselves in my situation and help them overcome their disability-related barriers.

I came across your website and I thought you would be a perfect fit for my GOAL. You would help me a lot to achieve the mission of connecting with other disabled people and help them improve the quality of their life. 

The Article

Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths.”

This is the opening line of the book “The less travelled road” from Scott Peck. When I first read this back in my senior year in high school I felt a great relief in my heart. Sometimes we forget that everyone out is having their own battle.

At that point of my life it was essential for me to embrace and remember to myself this fact. A few months apart from that day my highschool friends would each find their professional and personal way in life. I, on the other hand, was on the brink of depression because I assumed my disability-related barriers are impossible to overcome.

When I was a little baby, my parents were told that I won’t be able to walk on my own. I was born with a type of muscular dystrophy which meant I wouldn’t be able to stand up and walk on my own. In my life I’ve gone from one doctor to the other and I know a lot about this disease but this is not the point here, therefore I won’t go in detail.  I had a relatively happy childhood and for this I owe a lot to my dear parents. But as I grew older I felt different from the rest and that caused depression. At the end of the high school, I had a big mental downgrade to the point I was assigned for a six-month long anti-depression therapy.

In 2016 quite occasionally I came across these fancy Virtual Reality videos. I was impressed and moved. The technology was officially introduced a few years ago (in 2010 I think) but for me it was the first time to watch it. This first strong impression led me to a few weeks of persistent online research about this technology. My interest in it got intensified especially when I read about its potential application in helping disabled people like me. I knew that if I could help myself, it would do a world of good to my mental health, the quality of my life and then I could give a hand to other disabled people facing the same struggles. Then I finally decided to attend a kind of pre-university course on this field to gain a little professional expertise and be able to help afterwards.

My goal is to provide other disabled people with relevant information which would help them live to a high extent a barrier-free professional and personal life. I want to encourage them to learn about Virtual Reality technology and discover ways how it can help them.

How Can Virtual Reality Help Disabled Students?

Equality is something education must stand for. In our schools it’s made great progress in this aspect. Anyway there’s more to be done. Disabled students face still a lot of different problems apart from a customized infrastructure or similar. I know this from my very own experience in school.

 So the question is: Can Virtual Reality Technology play a role in tackling this problem? YES, it CAN.

On a major scale and terms Virtual Reality can provide disabled students with:

  • Customization
  • Inclusion
  • Participation

These are three branches of the same tree so to say and they complement each other in this structure.

Customization

Disabled students may have specific needs due to their physical impairments. Let say a student has a partial eyesight loss and in a normal class setting a clear vision of the student is essential for him to understand the material. There are VR goggles and additional gears that enable these students to see clearly. This brings us then to the second point.

Participation

When the student knows what is being talked in the class from our last example and he/she can engage all his/her senses on the learning process therefore he/she can participate in discussions taking place.  This is an essential element for everyone to excel in school.

Inclusion

It is of great importance for a disabled student to feel part of the learning process. When his/her needs are met and he/she can participate equally then of course this is easily achieved.

In many classes, especially those held in laboratories, require certain body movements for an experiment to be performed. I had this problem as a high school student. I would never be able to conduct an experiment on my own because sometimes I was supposed to be standing on my own feet or move in a certain way which I couldn’t. So I was only learning about it from what I saw other students were doing. I knew what was going on but I didn’t feel part of it. I didn’t feel any sense of achievement, which is a massive turn off for disabled students in career decisions.

VR Technology For Students With Sight Impairments

Globally the number of people suffering from any sort of sight impairment is growing at a worrying pace. According to the WHO stats there are more than 250 million people around the world with sight problems. Innovations in VR technology are being used in helping many of them, including them who follow their education dreams.

For example a London-based startup company developed a few years ago a VR headset that helps people with sight impairments restore their sight almost to normal levels. Essentially what their brilliant innovative device does is that it takes a real-time high quality image of the reality and then it projects its augmented form to the part of your retina that is still working.  SightPlus is designed in that way so you can adjust it to the level of sight improvement you need through a remote control system.

Even the big company Samsung has built a new VR headset for people with sight issues. Their product is called Relumino. This too, is based on the same principles to assist people with sight impairments by making blurry images clearer and by adjusting the contrast of colours accordingly

VR Technology For People Using a Wheelchair

Mobility is a main problem for wheelchair users. I personally used a wheelchair my whole life so I learned navigating around way earlier. But there are people who start using a wheelchair from a certain age because they had an accident or their initial neurovascular or orthopedic disease progressed in time. They find it extremely difficult to move around and I can understand that. Even worse, in most cases they have to deal with this problem all alone without any help coming through.

A way VR technology is already helping these people is by simulating a virtual situation where they have to cross a road or navigate in the building of a school. In such a way, the person can learn to move as freely as possible and what’s more important INDEPENDENTLY.

VR simulations can too help people undergoing therapies to walk again. What doctors nowadays do is not asking their patients to push themselves make a few days in each session but they simulate a walking experience with a help of a VR headset. VR experts claim that this has a strong base in medicine, more specifically neuroscience. They say that a simulated walking experience can trigger patient’s brain to adapt faster new motoric skills.

Further on, VR technology can help wheelchair users experience something they could experience otherwise. There are already lots of VR sets created to simulate a tennis game, go hiking, to tour around cities and museums and so on. And to all these activities wheelchair users can also have access to thanks to Virtual Reality technology.

Entertainment and VR

Disabled people deal with a lot of mental stress. It’s important for them to entertain and feel no barrier in engaging in exciting activities. Here’s where VR technology comes into play.

I, for example, loved always to hike but I couldn’t because of my wheelchair. In a workshop in London I tried a VR set which simulated walking on stones at the top of a mountain. It felt so real and I was happy I could experience hiking.

VR is also a perfect opportunity to have fun for people who aren’t disabled. For example Google offers an outstanding immersive app called Google Expeditions. As you can guess from the name it can take on a dreamlike expedition for example in Mars.

VR Accessibility for Disabled Students

VR technology is nothing new, but it is still not the norm so to say. The main problem related to it is certainly its cost. Although they’ve been around for quite a while their price tag is high and for many just another luxurious item they cannot afford. For example, a Virtual reality headset may have a price of up to 1,400 euros which is surely high for most of us.

There are actually lots of free-to-use VR apps and softwares but they’re bound to a narrow spectrum of disability-related needs. For example people who have a relatively low level of vision loss may use ChromeCast to project something on a TV display so they can read and see clearly from a certain distance instead of holding a device inches apart from the eye. 

Anyway the day when VR will be accessible for almost all is not too far. Until then what can disabled people do?

Speak up: First and foremost I encourage them to speak up for their specific needs. In school I wasn't comfortable asking school officials to adjust something in the regular class setting only because I wanted to avoid attracting attention and feeling anxious afterwards.  That was wrong and I don’t want others to make this mistake.

Reach out for VR agencies: When I first got to know what potential this technology has to change my life I checked out for technology groups in my area that had VR gears on disposal and I reached for them. In this way I had the opportunity to experience VR from close and feeling for real how it could affect the quality of my life. Eventually I decided to seek a career path in this area, but I don’t necessarily suggest others like me do the same. I want you to take advantage of this technology and use it for your benefit in every walk you take in this life.

Future Prospects

Nobody knows for sure what this technology it’s going to provide us with in the future. However there are strong reasons to be excited for it. Big role players in this industry seem to be firmly determined to widen the application of this technology, especially in medicine. In years to come we may see doctors who prescribe VR headsets and this just unbelievable to think about it. The idea of placing yourself in a future situation that feels profoundly immersive has a massive potential to reveal a lot about our reaction mechanisms which then can help us prepare better for them.

Virtual Reality

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